Harper's efforts to engage Chinese Canadian community in Vancouver met with appreciation and confusion

Photo of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney at Chinese New Year dinner in Burnaby. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

Seated upon plush cushions in the lobby of a Burnaby hotel, a Chinese Canadian woman awaits the big event: Chinese New Year dinner with none other than the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

Her eyebrows are scrunched in a look of confusion. It's not because of the dozen Idle No More protesters sitting nearby, alongside Asian Canadian dinner guests dressed to the nines in skyscraper high heels and dark suits. She can't figure out whether to be proud or offended by the event.

"I guess it's of some significance that the Chinese Canadian community is being acknowledged," says the woman in a wry tone. 

"But my question is, why are they doing it here, in a casino? Does he think we're all gamblers?" 

Technically, the hotel is called the Delta Burnaby Hotel and Conference Centre. But as guests in the lobby go up to use the nearest-available washroom on the second floor, they see rows of slot machines and gambling tables through the glass doors of the Grand Villa Casino.

"And if it's going to be a casino, shouldn't it have been in Richmond, not Burnaby?"

She's happy for the recognition given to the Chinese Canadian community, she says, but feels that a much better approach could have been taken. And, she noted, it was unclear who was organizing the special event: was it a Chinese business association? The federal government?

The answer is on the yellow ticket, which lists the China Canada Chamber of Industry and Commerce as the main hosts. They also organized the Canada-China Investment Summit in Vancouver last year. The Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver (and other associations) are listed as "support." 

Photo of tickets by Jenny Uechi

Many of the guests have received their tickets through friends, or prominent people in the Chinese Canadian business community. There are whisperings that tonight is a rare and unprecedented event: the Prime Minister has issued Chinese New Year statements and attended events in Ottawa before, but it seems to be the first time he has flown out to BC to celebrate the event with Chinese Canadians in Metro Vancouver.    

After the event begins, the room stirs at the announcement of a special guest: China-based superstar Dashan (Mark Rowswell), a Canadian comedian and entertainer who speaks fluent Mandarin and appears on major Chinese television shows, including the prestigious CCTV New Year's Gala. Rowswell regals the audience with Chinese New Year jokes in Mandarin. 

Mark Roswell, aka Dashan, with Conservative MP Wai Young (Vancouver South)

In the context of the recent sale of Alberta energy giant Nexen to China's state-owned CNOOC and the controversy over the China-Canada Foreign Investor Promotion and Protection Act (FIPA), the Harper government appears to be making an extra effort to build bridges with the Chinese Canadian community, which makes up roughly 30 per cent of the population in Greater Vancouver.

Last year, Harper also sent Chinese New Year cards featuring a portrait of his family to targeted households, with a message in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and English on the inside.

Twitter photo via Adina Zaiontz

The response on social media was mixed, with some people wondering what the costs were to send them out. 

Calvin Ho tweeted, "Did any other Chinese people get pictures of Stephen Harper and his fam(ily) for Chinese New Year?" with the hashtag #wasteofeverything.

Japanese Canadian author Hiromi Goto wrote, "Deny all you want, Harper! But what about those Happy Chinese New Year cards you sent out? Who paid for that?", and included a link to a CBC story about a campaign worker for a Toronto MP looking for people in "ethnic costumes" during the last federal election. 

As the dinner goes on, Minister Jason Kenney makes an appearance and then the Prime Minister. People listen intently to Canada's leader.  Some look skeptical. Some look pleased. Despite the applause, it's hard to know what the consensus is.

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