Richmond? Watch Your Language … … because very little English is spoken in this charming 2010 Olympic site


It's early morning, and as motorists speed to work on the highway just a few meters away, I am gazing at a 20-foot-high statue of a kneeling Buddha surrounded by offerings of flowers, fruit and rice. The air simmers with the scent of incense, and Buddhist chanting in an unidentifiable language fills this ornate temple.

Were I in Asia, there would be nothing incongruous about this scene, but I'm in Richmond, British Columbia, my hometown, just minutes away from four synagogues and the Richmond Jewish Day School, where my kids are in class at this moment. The city I call home is one of the most Asian-populated cities outside of Asia, with Caucasians constituting only 35 percent of the residents.

And, yes, this is one of the official sites for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

Japanese and Chinese helped establish Richmond in the 1850s, seeking work in what was then the busiest fishing port in the world. While the Asian influence has helped shape the city's development and culture, it's far from the melting pot syndrome of the United States, where blending is the operative word.

Canada likes to describe its multicultural population mix as a tapestry, but in a tapestry everything is stitched together. In Richmond, for the most part, there is nothing remotely homogenous about the various ethnicities and cultures.

Ange Chew, Tourism Richmond's director of marketing and my tour guide this wet morning, is trying to convince me otherwise.

"Ten years ago, you would have seen no English translations anywhere in the three major malls built for the Asian community, but nowadays, you're seeing more English," she explains earnestly.

We take an amble through Aberdeen Centre, the newest of the three major Asian shopping malls, and stop in to chat — in translation — with the Chinese herbalist at Ton On Enterprises. Glass jars filled with unusual looking dried products line the walls, some containing astronomically priced seahorses.

The seahorses, I learn, are great for solving kidney problems and increasing men's virility. There are sea cucumbers for high blood pressure and diabetes, and no signs in English anywhere.

Change hangs in the air in this city, which won second place in the international most livable communities awards out of London two years ago. As the 2010 Winter Olympics draw closer, the final touches of paint are being added to the Speed Skating Oval in Richmond, a massive landmark — opened last year — that will become the new (and permanently built) epicenter of this culturally diverse place.

I take a walk into Steveston, the historic heart of Richmond where, in the early 1900s, 14 fishing canneries packed 192,000 cases of salmon each year. They all but depleted the salmon stock, and the remaining canneries are empty ghost houses and museums now.

What, precisely, that is, I'm still trying to figure out, but it's comforting to know that Jews daven Shacharit just down the road from where Buddhists light fresh incense and kneel before gold statues.

Somehow, it speaks of a calm acceptance of variety, a live-and-let-live philosophy that peacefully and sweetly embraces this West Coast outpost in a world that seems increasingly to rage and protest against difference.


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