Gabriel Yiu: Why we called a news conference on the UBC hospice controversy
On a Cantonese open-line radio show discussing the UBC hospice controversy, a caller ridiculed community leaders who called a news conference responding to the issue. The caller thought that it was an overreaction triggered by the English media's coverage of the news.
Since I’m the convener of the news conference, I would like to share my thoughts with you.
I first learned about the opposition of Chinese residents to the proposed hospice from Chinese newspapers, and I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. But when I saw and heard the reports and commentaries in the English media—in which journalists and talk show hosts and listeners vehemently criticized the Chinese residents and Chinese culture—I thought something had to be done.
I was told that an English radio broadcaster even referred to Chinese culture as "garbage culture".
I talked to David Choi, national chair of the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, about calling a news conference, and he agreed with the idea. We both thought that the controversy had misrepresented Chinese culture to the English-speaking community and it had damaged the image of Chinese culture as well as the Chinese community.
Were we overreacting?
A Chinese reporter told me that a family member of hers was working in a non-Chinese company and because of the UBC hospice situation, her family member had been scolded by her coworkers several times!
Chinese people as a group were being criticized because her coworkers couldn’t stand selfishness, superstition, and the meanspiritedness of the residents near the proposed hospice. When such a sentiment is overwhelming, it spills over to Chinese who have nothing to do with the hospice controversy.
This overgeneralization is of course unfair and smacks of racism. Did the media not overreact? And did they have nothing to do with the agitation caused?
My personal reaction to the event went like this. When I heard the residents say in the English media that the hospice would bring bad luck to them and how ghosts would attack their families, my blood boiled. This hospice will take care of seniors who have worked hard to contribute to our society and they’re reaching the end of their life journey.
And these residents are treating them as if they were ghosts! No wonder people reacted with abhorrence.
Of course, one could lay the blame on the Chinese property owners concerned, while others could condemn some English media for sensationalizing the matter. People holding the latter opinion think the media shouldn’t be so ignorant as to believe Chinese culture is selfish and superstitious.
Many Chinese don’t think the views of the opposing residents are a true reflection of Chinese culture; however, many westerners appear to believe they are.
There were about 24 reporters who attended our news conference; half of those participants were from the English-language media. The question being asked most often by the English-language media journalists was: "If what the property owners said was a misrepresentation of Chinese culture, why would they oppose the facility?"
One reporter pointed out that the property owners were well-educated and spoke fluent English. He simply didn't believe those who opposed didn’t understand Chinese culture.
Although we replied to such questions again and again from different angles, reporters from the English-language media continued to ask similar questions.
When I was interviewed by CKNW’s Bill Good, he asked me this question three times. I answered it from different angles, giving examples such as these:
”¢ Schools in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan don’t teach such superstitions.
”¢ In Hong Kong’s very upscale residential areas like Happy Valley and Pok Fu Lam, there are huge graveyards near high-rise buildings. (You’re talking about $2,500 per sq. foot, i.e. $25M for a thousand-square-foot apartment.)
Nevertheless, the talk show host seemed unable to understand me and continued asking the same question all the way to the last available minute of his show.
That might be because of the limits of my communication skills, but I have to say that we did quite well in our news conference in explaining to others that Chinese culture does not reject hospices or palliative care.
David Choi talked about the issue not only from a community leader’s perspective, but also from that of the CEO of a real estate company and as a resident at UBC. He has donated to Canuck Place, a children's hospice that is located in the upscale Shaughnessy neighbourhood.
Choi stressed that compassion and respect, especially for the elderly, are entrenched in Chinese cultural values and a hospice is certainly compatible with those values. He also stated that the Yin and Yang concept mentioned by the property owners concerned is incorrect.
Ken Tung, former SUCCESS chair and currently chair of the Civic Education Society, talked from the perspective of helping new immigrants to understand hospice service in Canada.
Prof. Jan Walls, the founder of SFU’s David Lam Centre of International Communication and a renowned scholar of Chinese culture, talked about the philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and the high cultures of the Chinese. One of the highest virtues in all three philosophies is to relieve other people’s suffering.
“The relief of suffering is probably one of the noblest goals and one of the noblest activities that a Chinese person can engage in,” Wall said.
Sherman Tai, a renowned feng shui expert, explained that a hospice in the neighborhood is not bad for feng shui.
Ricky Li, an immigrant from Mainland China and the chair of the Association of Chinese Cultural Promotion, provided many daily-life examples of the different customs and habits between Chinese and western cultures. Li said that a hospice is a new concept in China, so a lot of immigrants have little idea what it’s about.
I think the news conference helped not only reporters of the English-language media understand more about Chinese culture, but I found that I also learned a lot from the speakers.
Last but not least, although we disagreed with what the property owners said, we cannot deny it’s a small part of Chinese culture. However, it’s definitely not mainstream and it’s outdated.
My view is that their beliefs come from ancient wisdom in villages. They are obsolete, but some people still adhere to them mindlessly.
Why do I think they're a kind of wisdom? Think about China in the old days, when villagers didn’t have adequate community facilities and knowledge of sanitation. People worried about places where very sick people gathered. A morgue was more of a health hazard than a superstition.
Similarly, many Chinese may know there is an old saying that a woman who has just given birth to a child should not wash her hair for a month. In today’s world, people would say that’s unhygienic and we would probably ridicule the practice as superstition.
Nevertheless, if you look at it from another angle—that of the old days in China, when it was freezing cold in winter, when the house heating and insulation were poor, and when women had very long hair—then think about how long it would take for the women's hair to get dry. (They didn’t have blow dryers either)."
If a new mother left her hair wet for a day in the cold winter, it would be harmful to her health.
I don’t think you find these kinds of beliefs and practices nowadays because these kinds of views from the old days are slowly being washed out.
Gabriel Yiu is a small businessperson and was the B.C. NDP candidate in Vancouver-Fraserview in the 2009 election.