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City life: Vancouver

A growing Chinese influence, soon-to-be legal cannabis industry and nascent arts scene are helping transform one of the world’s ‘most liveable’ cities

City life: Vancouver
Granville Street, Downtown. Image: Getty

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Guerrilla logic dictates that it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission, but try telling that to the street artists of Vancouver. When these guys strike, they do it with the full consent of the authorities and all the necessary paperwork. It’s so considerate, so Canadian.

“It might not be as organic as somewhere like Berlin,” admits Andrea Curtis, who helps plan Vancouver’s public art. “But there’s a thriving creative community here and it’s natural for us to come together like this.”

Andrea is taking me on a tour of the city’s many colourful murals, which have splashed some artistic flair onto more than 100 buildings around Mount Pleasant, a hilly, low-rise neighbourhood overlooking the glass and steel of Downtown Vancouver. The paintings are a legacy of Vancouver’s annual Mural Festival (6-11 August), a six-day jamboree that sees artists unleash spray paint onto walls and locals gather for street parties.

“It’s a great way to engage the local community,” explains Andrea, adding that some residents have become fiercely protective over the murals. “People have been really concerned that they’ll be painted over or wear off. We have to explain to them that it’s okay for street art to be ephemeral — that’s what it’s all about.”

Mount Pleasant’s murals explore various themes, from indigenous inequality to environmental degradation, which is poignantly addressed by the giant painting of a polar bear trapped inside a plastic bottle.

Though most of the murals aren’t overtly political (there’s a limit to how political you can be when you’re working with the authorities), the festival itself, like most artistic movements, has political undercurrents. It was founded not only to illustrate the power of public art, but also to highlight the importance of putting people ahead of profit when it comes to urban planning; an ethos that’s been absent in other parts of Vancouver, where homogenous high-rises stand as monuments to the bottom line.

Vancouver’s rapacious development has been fuelled partly by China’s nouveau riche, many of whom took advantage of Canada’s Investor Immigration Program, which essentially allowed wealthy foreigners to buy their way to citizenship. The programme has closed but estimates suggest it drew more than C$2.4bn (£1.6bn) from China and Hong Kong alone, leading some to nickname the city ‘Hongcouver’.

“We’re a city of 2.6 million people and 800,000 of them are Chinese,” explains Bob Sung, whose Wok Around Chinatown tours explore Vancouver’s Chinese heritage.

I meet Bob at Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, an oriental oasis on the edge of Chinatown. He’s just returned from an extended trip to the motherland. “A month was enough,” he declares, earnestly.

It’s raining — it rains a lot in Vancouver — but we stroll defiantly around Chinatown, whose streets are lined with bustling restaurants, traditional herbalists and fragrant grocery stores, which sell anything from skewered geckos to dried shark fin, demand for which is robbing the oceans of its apex predator.

Vancouver’s Chinese history dates back to the late-19th century when Canada was experiencing a gold rush and China was reeling from the Opium Wars with Britain.

“After the Opium Wars there was a great deal of famine in China, so many people emigrated to Canada to work in the gold mines and later on the railroads,” explains Bob. “Companies had to pay C$1.50 a day for white labour, but they could get Chinese workers for just 75 cents.”

There was a catch, though; businesses employing foreigners had to pay a head tax of up to C$500 per worker, a massive sum that was passed onto employees, who couldn’t return home until it was paid.

Consequently, many Chinese workers were forced to stay and service their debts in Vancouver, where they opened restaurants, shops and laundries. Chinatown was born, and today it remains one of the city’s oldest and most vibrant neighbourhoods.

The controversial Exclusion Act of 1923 put the brakes on Chinese immigration until 1947, but the population of Chinatown expanded once again in the 1960s when Mao launched his brutal Cultural Revolution, forcing many to flee China.

Another wave of immigration followed in 1997 when the UK handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese, which spooked the city’s high rollers into relocating their wealth abroad.

“The latest wave of Chinese immigration is happening now and they have — if you’ll excuse my language — a shit-load of money,” explains Bob, as we dine on dim sum and chicken’s feet at a local restaurant. “They’re creating a lot of real estate speculation.”

One such speculator is Scott Menke, a Las Vegas business tycoon who recently opened a C$640m (£376m) ‘urban resort’ in the False Creek area of the city. His sprawling Parq Vancouver complex features a multilevel casino where small fortunes are squandered (and sometimes made) day and night.

The resort is also home to two hotels, a spa and six restaurants, including a lavish Chinese eatery called 1886; a reference to the year Chinatown was founded. And the complex certainly seems to be attracting a special kind of clientele: Chinese-owned supercars are a regular sight outside Parq Vancouver and it’s surely only a matter of time before the resort features on Ultra Rich Asian Girls, a reality show that chronicles the lives of the daughters of Vancouver’s wealthy Chinese Canadians.

Sunrise Market, Powell Street, Downtown Eastside. Image: Alamy

Sunrise Market, Powell Street, Downtown Eastside. Image: Alamy

The ‘Green Rush’
There’s plenty happening in Vancouver  — particularly if you like drinking. It seems almost a cliche nowadays for a city to have a craft beer scene, but Vancouver’s is quite exceptional (some commentators are declaring it the ‘craft beer capital of North America’).

“It’s an amazing time to be drinking craft beer in Vancouver,” coos Rachel Riggs, a guide for Vancouver Brewery Tours, as she leads me on a crawl around the city. “New breweries are opening all the time.”

These upstart brewhouses are breathing new life into neglected neighbourhoods such as East Vancouver, which, in homage to its craft beer credentials, has been nicknamed ‘Yeast Vancouver’.

“This is one of my favourites,” says Rachel, as we pull up outside Storm Brewing, which occupies a small unit on a light industrial estate in East Vancouver; a building that would be decidedly dull were it not for the massive mural plastered across its facade; it appears to depict cartoon rats hard at work brewing beer. Storm is one of Vancouver’s craft beer pioneers and its fairly ramshackle premises — which feels like a cross between a brewery, a metal workshop and a rock bar — encapsulate the DIY ethic of small-scale brewing.

But beer isn’t the only social lubricant in town, as I discover in Downtown Vancouver, whose gridded streets and high-rise buildings are vaguely reminiscent of parts of Manhattan. But this is, unmistakably, not New York; it’s too calm for a start and the people are too polite.

Perhaps this has something to do with the marijuana market, which I stumble upon down Robson Street, where glass jars full of various strains of weed are displayed on tables beneath a gazebo.

“We try to appeal to everyone’s taste,” explains Jesse Slater, who mans one of the stalls. While passing around a spliff the size of a chipolata, Jesse and his colleagues talk customers through the numerous strains, offering free samples to interested parties. Their customers are a pretty diverse bunch; everyone from well-dressed office workers to soap-shy students seem to stop by. “Where were you guys 30 years ago?” shouts one passerby, also sporting a suit, as he strides past the market.

Cannabis isn’t currently legal in Canada, but that’s set to change in July when the country becomes the first G7 nation to legalise marijuana for recreational use. Economists reckon a legal pot industry could be worth up to C$23bn (£13.5bn) a year to the Canadian economy and investors are queuing up to get a slice of the action, leading some to draw comparisons with the 19th-century gold rush.

Tourism is likely to play a key role in the nascent industry. In fact, it already does; the city’s cannabis dispensaries and Dutch-style smoking lounges count holidaymakers as some of their best customers. A worker at the Vancity Bulldog Cafe, where pre-rolled joints sell for C$5 (£2.95), claims cruise passengers provide the bulk of their trade during the summer months.

“[Marijuana] is already a massive draw for tourism,” explains Mitchell Flann, night manager at Farm Dispensary, a cannabis shop on the edge of Gastown. “Pot tourism will only expand further as the government becomes able to openly push it.”

Although smoking lounges, marijuana markets and dispensaries selling recreational cannabis aren’t currently legal, the authorities turn a blind eye to their illicit trade as they have done for years.

It remains to be seen how British Columbia will interpret legalisation (questions remain regarding points of sale, points of consumption and pricing, for example), but some insiders believe Vancouver could become the next Amsterdam.

Others fear commercialisation could take the craft out of what’s currently a cottage industry; the monopoly men, they reason, will put profit before pride. The stallholders at the market, meanwhile, which was founded as a protest movement, are worried the authorities will impose limits on the amount of cannabis individuals can legally possess and strictly enforce those limits; hence their location outside the Provincial Court of British Columbia.

Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, seaplane terminal, Downtown. Image: Alamy

Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, seaplane terminal, Downtown. Image: Alamy

Enduring appeal
Still, you don’t have to indulge in the local herb to find yourself in a daze in Vancouver; when you least expect it, the city blows you away with a vista so spellbinding it stops you in your tracks.

It happens to me at the end of an eventful walk between the chalk-and-cheese neighbourhoods of Gastown and Downtown Eastside: the former an upmarket district packed with boutique shops and trendy restaurants, where yoga mats are the must-have accessory; the latter one of Canada’s most deprived postcodes, where hundreds of homeless people live in tents and the authorities face an uphill battle with Fentanyl, a devastatingly addictive opioid.

I see the stuff being dealt in broad daylight down East Hastings Street, where addicts walk around with thousand-yard stares that are haunting but rarely threatening.

Not all the drama is real, though, and I watch as a film crew shoots a movie nearby. Generous tax breaks lure many US film companies to Vancouver, particularly to older neighbourhoods like Gastown and Downtown Eastside which closely resemble cities south of the border.

An eye-opening walk, then, and one that ends with the most staggering spectacle of all: the view from Vancouver Harbour, which looks out over pellucid waters to the snow-capped peaks of the North Shore Mountains.

An hour later and I’m climbing one of those peaks with Seb, an old school friend who recently migrated to Vancouver from the West Midlands; he’d had enough of Blighty and thought he could have a better quality of life over here.

And he’s come to the right place; according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Global Liveability Ranking, Vancouver is the third-most ‘liveable’ city in the world after Melbourne and Vienna. Its proximity to snowy mountains and sandy shores contributes to this status, and is one of the reasons Seb chose to move here.

“The great thing about Vancouver is that within an hour of finishing work, I can be doing things like this,” he says, as we tackle the BCMC Trail, a popular hiking route that wends its way up the vertiginous flanks of Grouse Mountain.

It’s a challenging climb of nearly 3,000ft which takes us through pine forests where rain slowly turns to snow; before long we’re walking in several feet of the white stuff.

At the trail’s end we go ice skating, sink a couple of beers in a bar and watch skiers push off down floodlit slopes, before piling into a cable car that takes us back to the bottom. The steamy gondola is packed with skiers and snowboarders for whom hitting the slopes on a Tuesday night is no big deal.

I feel a pang of envy.

We drive back through Stanley Park, a 1,001-acre urban oasis where towering fir trees face off against the shimmering skyscrapers of neighbouring Downtown Vancouver; nature and her quiet beauty, man and his lofty ambitions. The latter often finds itself at odds with the former, but as we cross the threshold between these two very different jungles, there seems to be something resembling harmony.


Getting there & around
Air Canada and British Airways fly direct to Vancouver from Heathrow; WestJet offers a non-stop service from Gatwick. Prices start from around £367 return.

Vancouver is a cycle-friendly city with a well-established community bike-sharing programme called Mobi, which is easy to use. Longer distances can be tackled on the SkyTrain, a metropolitan rail system that crisscrosses Vancouver. Walking is also a good option.

When to go
It rains a lot in Vancouver during the winter months, but rain in the city usually means snow on the mountains, so if you want to hit the slopes for a bit of skiing then come in the winter. Otherwise, the best time to visit is during the summer when Vancouver’s beaches come into play.

More info

How to do it
Virgin Holidays offers seven nights in Vancouver from £858 per person based on two sharing. It includes return flights, car hire and accommodation in a centrally located hotel. 

Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)