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Reviewed by:
  • Crossing the Neoliberal Line: Pacific Rim Migration and the Metropolis
  • Vic Satzewich
Crossing the Neoliberal Line: Pacific Rim Migration and the Metropolis. Katharyne Mitchell. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Pp. 296, illus., b&w, US$24.95

Immigration to British Columbia has always been politically contentious. Indeed, some of Canada's most notoriously racist immigration polices, such as the head tax on Chinese immigrants and the continuous journey regulation that targeted immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, were originally hatched in the context of developments in BC. Historically, however, white British Columbians have not spoken with one voice in these highly charged debates about immigration; nor have immigrants been silent in debates about the social and economic value, and consequences, of immigration.

Mitchell's 'spatial ethnography' picks up on both of these themes and is a fascinating account of the migration to Vancouver of wealthy Hong Kong immigrants in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and of the complexity of the corresponding debates about how Vancouver was changing as a result of this migration. All the key actors make an appearance in what Mitchell characterizes as a battle over the rights to the city. In addition to using a variety of documentary materials, she conducted extensive interviews with politicians, developers, city planners, grassroots community activists, and immigrants. Mitchell characterizes the conflicts over 'monster houses,' zoning regulations, the cutting of trees in established neighbourhoods, and the meaning of multiculturalism in Vancouver as a war of positioning between socially liberal philosophies of national belonging and neo-liberal philosophies of globalization. The book is an analysis of how these different philosophies of liberalism were mobilized and articulated by different political actors. What is particularly interesting about Mitchell's work is her nuanced analysis of the crosscutting of class and 'racial' alliances that emerged in the course of these battles. Perhaps not surprisingly, wealthy immigrants became allied with developers, neo-liberal politicians, and city planners who used neo-liberalism as a way to challenge dominant socially liberal discourses about landscape, design, citizenship, home, and belonging that were articulated by leftist progressives and grassroots social conservatives. Neo-racist fringe groups also tried to insert themselves into this alliance, albeit with different motives. Mitchell also develops an interesting account of how the 'race' card was played by both sides in these debates; opponents of so-called monster houses played on nationally (i.e., British) oriented symbols and narratives of belonging, whereas developers, and some immigrants, in her view, effectively played the 'race' card to paint their opponents as racist. [End Page 169]

Though already theoretically dense, with extensive discussions of liberalism, neo-liberalism, globalization, and transnationalism, there is surprisingly little theoretical discussion of the meaning of racism, even though this concept turns out to be central to the analysis. The defenders of particular neighbourhood styles, landscapes, and aesthetics are all characterized as defending racist cultural norms associated with Vancouver's social and historical spaces (215). However, in the absence of a theoretical definition of racism, it is not clear why all those community activists who expressed concerns over the transformation of their neighbourhoods should be painted with the same racist brush as skinheads; nor is it clear why their opposition is not, in fact, better characterized as a reflection of nationalism. Furthermore, Mitchell's analysis begins in the 1980s, when urban policy began to shift from an ethic of social liberalism towards neo-liberalism, and it is in the context of this shift that she locates the significance of racism. However, racism directed against Chinese and other Pacific Rim immigrants is not new to the province. Many of the same arguments were rehearsed over a hundred years ago, before social liberalism, neo-liberalism, multiculturalism, globalization, and transnationalism. And there were similarly complex alliances, with immigrants and capitalist interests on one side, and trade unions and social conservatives on the other side. In many ways, their battles were also over the rights to the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, and to the province more generally. Given the centrality of racism to this analysis, it would have been useful for Mitchell to trace some of the continuities and discontinuities of racism. Even though this book comes up...


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