Vancouver and Victoria – The Twin Gems of Western Canada

If you ask most Singaporeans, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese or other Asians to name their favourite holiday or migration destinations in North America, chances are Western Canada’s Vancouver and California’s San Francisco will be in the forefront of their preferences. Their reasons are easy to understand. Both these cities have significant Asian populations and this makes them feel more at home there, coupled with availability of various Asian foods at reasonable prices as well as a variety of other built-in attractions which generally appeal to them. It is therefore not surprising that, according to a recent authoritative international opinion survey, both Vancouver and San Francisco have been rated among the most livable cities in the world. I know San Francisco well because my wife and I go there regularly to visit one of our children and family who live in its pleasant and relatively scenic Bay Area.

With glowing recommendations from relatives and friends who had visited prosperous Vancouver (population 620,000), which is the largest city in British Columbia in West Canada, we decided to sample its delights during our last trip to California. From San Francisco, it was a comfortable two-hour direct flight. On the way to our hotel in the city centre, we passed through a very pleasant suburb called Richmond, and we could almost imagine ourselves being transported back to the Cantonese-speaking community of Hong Kong, often referred to by Westerners as the “Pearl of the Orient”.

Vancouver Skyline (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Vancouver Skyline (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Asian presence in other suburbs in Vancouver is also prominently visible elsewhere too, due to accelerated migrations especially from Hong Kong and, more recently, from Taiwan and Mainland China itself as well as from India and ASEAN countries. The Chinese residents there now form one of the largest ethnic groups. Numerous of the city’s residential apartments and houses, shops, restaurants, supermarkets and other businesses are now Asian-owned. There is even a Buddhist temple and a couple of churches in the vicinity of Richmond catering to the Chinese-speaking devotees. In the downtown districts too, Chinese and other Asians, particularly those from the Indian Sub-Continent and Southeast Asia, are also well represented in the business community. Vancouver has, by far, the largest concentration of Asians among the Canadian cities.

The palpable affluence of an increasing number of Asian immigrants has, to be expected, brought with it some social tensions with some local people who resent their opulent lifestyle as a threat to their more simple way of life or simply out of envy, or both. They single out what they consider to be the flaunting of wealth by some Asians, especially the Chinese, who own flashy cars, live in ostentatious mansions, drive up property prices and patronise upmarket establishments in keeping with their economic status. These critics also question the commitment and loyalty of many Asian newcomers who, on attaining Canadian citizenship as a safety insurance, would immediately return to their countries of origin as expatriates to live and work there for better remuneration, using Vancouver as a second home.

While some Asians no doubt fit the above description and have forfeited the respect of their fellow Canadians, the majority of them are unreservedly committed to their adopted country and have made tremendous contributions to its well-being through the infusion of their boundless energies, professional skills, capital and entrepreneurial flair which have greatly benefitted the community in more ways than one. The British Columbia authorities are keenly aware of the beneficial impact of attracting these value-added immigrants into their society for they constitute the highly educated professional or experienced business manpower, which Asia can ill afford to lose and Canada is definitely getting them on the cheap.

Mr Jack Austin, Senator for British Columbia, once summed up the problem perceptively: “Immigration is okay when someone comes over to work as a domestic or in a laundry because the local people can feel superior. But its pretty hard to feel superior to someone in a Mercedes or BMW and live in big houses.”

The Asians are now more conscious of their political and other rights as Canadian citizens, and not a few have become prominent in both the private and public sectors. The foremost among whom is David Lam, an immigrant from Hong Kong, who became the first Asian Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia, the second most important man in the province. He was a popular and successful office holder and he has helped to enhance the standing of the Asian Canadians in the eyes of their fellow white Canadians and inspired other Asian Canadians to follow in his footsteps.

Historically, the Chinese first came to British Columbia in large numbers more than a century ago as contract labourers in search of greener pastures. They were exploited and paid a mere pittance for performing hard and sometimes dangerous jobs which European workers would shun and avoid at all costs. They became an indispensable source of cheap, skilled and reliable labour, upon which many a Western fortune was built upon.

For example, the Chinese workers played a crucial role in the construction of the mammoth and hazardous Canadian Pacific Railway, which had contributed enormously towards the prosperity of the country. This is not known to many Canadians until more recent times.

Vancouver has all the necessary ingredients that a good holiday destination ought to have. It is a stunningly beautiful island with a perfect setting, surrounded by deep blue sea waters of the Pacific Ocean and sandy beaches and alluring mountain ranges which greatly enhance its scenic charm. The city is clean, relatively safe, cosmopolitan and its people are generally civil and hospitable. It was largely dominated by people of British descent until the recent decades. But large-scale migrations from all over the world have changed all that. It now boasts of one of the highest foreign-born populations of any city in the world.

Vancouver and San Francisco share many similarities. Both are compact enough so that you can cover most of the downtown areas on foot leisurely. They also offer gourmet cuisines of considerable variety and ethnicity at prices that would not burn a hole in your pockets, compared to the larger Canadian and American cities across the border. On the other hand, Vancouver strikes me as somewhat sedate and seemingly sterile and lacks the flamboyance and buzz of San Francisco. On the other hand, there is less visible poverty in Vancouver, if the relative absence of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks and beggars is a barometer to go by. It has a lower incidence of crimes and is therefore a safer city for tourists than San Francisco.

One excellent and inexpensive way to tour the principal sights of Vancouver is to board a special tourist bus which would enable you to see some twenty attractions on your own over two days at your own pace and convenience. These include the revamped historic Gastown, which goes back to the city’s founding in 1867; Chinatown and Dr Sun Yat Sen Garden and the well laid out and sprawling Stanley Park with its varied attractions and jogging tracks. Granville Island, which is a smaller version of Singapore’s Clarke Quay, and the most delightful promenade at Canada Place, where you can view the city’s attractive skyline and the seaborne activities from different vantage points. For the more culture-oriented tourists, they should not miss going to the fabulous British Columbia Museum and Anthropology Museum, which have the best and most comprehensive collections of the native Canadian works of art in the world. At least half a day should be set aside to view and savour the extensive exhibits there.

In its outskirts, two of the must-see sights are the Grouse Mountain which offers a breathtakingly panoramic view of Vancouver and the offshore islands; and the pulsating exciting swinging Capilano Suspension Bridge, which straddles 80-meter across the river, and is definitely not for those suffering from a phobia for heights. Its Chinatown, however, pales compared with the more vibrant and booming counterparts in San Francisco and New York. With newly acquired prosperity, many of the residents there have moved to more fashionable residences and business premises elsewhere, leaving the more sentimental old folks and newcomers to tend the shops, restaurants and other business establishments there.

English Bay (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

English Bay (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Vancouver is a leading North American cruise centre and the gateway for luxury voyages to Alaska and other parts of the Americas. These cruises, which cater to differing tastes and income levels, have become increasingly popular with Singaporean travellers and those from other parts of the globe. Many of these cruise ships berth at the Canada Place port for their passenger arrivals and departures for the various destinations.

While my wife and I had enjoyed my four-day stay in this fair city, I found it somewhat lacking in visible significant historical and traditional landmarks which would certainly have added more stature and soften its modernity.

For those who prefer a greater dose of history and tradition, a side trip to the much smaller neighbouring island of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and the oldest town in Western Canada, will be a rewarding one and I strongly recommend a visit there to complete one’s adventure in British Columbia. A couple of hours by a comfortable ferry boat from Vancouver, it exudes an abundance of old world charms with its many authentic and well-preserved Victorian era buildings and houses which are evocative of a more gracious bygone age. There are several miniature English theme projects to remind the Victorians of their proud British heritage. A garden city and relatively unspoiled by the relentless onslaught of tourism, there is a touch of class and elegance about the place. Even the old-fashioned hanging street lamps exhibit an air of timeless charm which help to enliven the atmosphere and its carefully nurtured graceful image, especially when seen in the evening. Victoria’s waterfront compares favourably with the best anywhere and one can easily spend hours there strolling and gazing at the sea, watch people go by or just relax and do nothing which is an acquired art not many of us busy city dwellings seem to have mastered. Victoria is the springboard for day excursion trips to its many offshore islands, much noted for game fishing, scuba diving and whale watching.

Another top attraction, which has attracted visitors from all over the world to come specially to Victoria, is the century-old Butchart Gardens. It was originally the family estate of the Butchart family and is still owned by its descendants but who no longer live there. it is opened to the public for an admission fee. Don’t ever miss seeing it if you are a gardens lover or you will live to regret it! This well manicured sprawling garden complex must rank as one of the best gardens in the world. Among the highlights there are the Italian Garden, Japanese Garden, Rose Garden and the fabulous Sunken Garden, the fascinating pond, dazzling fountains and a great array of specially selected and cultivated plants and shrubs from various parts of Canada and other parts of the world. They number more than one million. The allure and beauty of the gardens are best seen during the summer and early autumn when they are in full bloom. In the evening the gardens are lighted up artistically especially around the flower gardens and shrubs so as to enhance their loveliness. There is musical entertainment and fireworks display in the evening to enliven one’s enjoyment of this magnificent garden complex. After a great deal of strolling in the gardens, one can comfortably dine in the restaurant or cafe or just have coffee or other beverages in the more economical kiosks.

Butchart Gardens (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Butchart Gardens (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This small island city has so much to offer and one can easily spend two or three days there without feeling bored. It also has a world-class museum, an internationally known botanical garden and a famous 19th century hotel famed for its afternoon English cream tea with scones and cucumber sandwiches for the more tradition-minded visitors.

The best time to visit Vancouver and Victoria is late spring, summer and early autumn when the weather is more pleasant and comfortable and the daylight hours are longer.

Lam Pin Foo

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