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.



Ken Lawson

Jan 23, 2011 at 4:11pm

Could you also please tell us what country we are living in, you know the old confucious saying "When in Rome do what ___________ do"


Jan 23, 2011 at 5:07pm

The "english media" as you put it (represented by at least 5 none white and english speaking nationalities last time I checked) didnt sensationalize or make any comments or judgements. They put the camera in front of the Chinese people and let them speak. It was there disrespect for our country, culture and elderly which has sparked the outrage. I got news for you its not just "english speaking" people who took great offense to this. I speak 3 languages (english is not my first) and I take offense to it. I have a south asian friend who also thinks the reaction is disgusting, selfish and disrespectful.

Ernie Seedhouse

Jan 23, 2011 at 5:10pm

Well written article, thanks. Misunderstandings between cultures is common and this article helps us understand each other. Old superstitions are common in all cultures and they, like talk show hosts, should not be taken seriously.


Jan 23, 2011 at 5:19pm

"... I was told that an English radio broadcaster even referred to Chinese culture as "garbage culture"..."

We can also say that the majority of pedophiles (if not all), are white males.... now this is garbage ...

Archie Bunker

Jan 23, 2011 at 6:34pm

Can you imagine a Canadian going to China and complaining about how things are done there? They'd probably disappear. Without breaking out into some terrible tirade I'll limit myself by saying something simple. If you don't like how things are done in Canada then get the hell out!!!

Steve Y

Jan 23, 2011 at 7:05pm

I think there is an overreaction to this issue, howeverI think there is a simmering of racism in Canada being brought to a boil by people on the left that continue to bring too many immigrants into the country and bending over too far to their wishes (the kirpan issue being a prime example). To have a harmonious society, it must be wealthy enough to tolerate new comers and changes must occur slowly enough to not be noticed. Otherwise there will be backlash.


Jan 23, 2011 at 8:27pm

Thank Mr. Yui for taking the time to write the article and also for being part of the aforementioned press conference. A good part of racism and stereotyping is reacting without thinking very deeply about an issue. Some may be critical of your efforts, but those who do what they can to foster greater understanding between people of different backgrounds and cultures are making a valuable social contribution.

Yiu Supporter

Jan 23, 2011 at 8:36pm

Here is what Romans do:

Residents against Eagleridge Bluffs highway expansion
Residents against Delta power line project
Residents against Burnaby prison
False Creek North residents against homeless shelters
Residents against Canada Line
Residents against Olympic Game
Residents against gateway expansion
Residents against Golden Ear bridge
Residents against needle exchange clinic

Michael Castanaveras

Jan 23, 2011 at 9:56pm

So it turns out that the anti-hospice mentality has nothing to do with Chinese culture at all. Those residents are just concerned for the long term value of their condos. This is plain old NIMBY-ism shielded behind ethnic culture.

It's no different than when Pamela Sauder spoke up at a city hall meeting to voice her opposition to the proposed Arbutus rail line running through her neighbourhood. She said, "We are dentists, doctors, lawyers, professionals, CEOs of companies. We are the creme de la creme in Vancouver."

It's just ugly entitlement. Nothing more.


Jan 23, 2011 at 10:05pm

Mr. Yiu, please help me understand this. Your argument is that the actions of these property owners do not represent mainstream Chinese culture / beliefs.

Yet 200 people (a high proportion of residents in the area) signed the petition saying that it represented their beliefs.

How would you respond?

Are you arguing that these 200 people of Chinese origin are confused about their own culture?