In Vancouver, the tidal wave has wrought a dramatic economic, demographic, and physical transformation. Alberni Street, a formerly dowdy downtown thoroughfare, has in the past decade welcomed a two-level Prada boutique with a black marble facade, one of the largest Rolex showrooms in North America, and a 62-story tower with a five-star Shangri-La hotel. All have Mandarin-speaking staff. In May, Rolls-Royce chose Vancouver to unveil its first sport utility vehicle, which starts at more than $300,000, hosting a Champagne reception at its sleek new local dealership in an upmarket neighborhood about two miles south of Alberni. Six sold on the first day—bound, perhaps, for the “car condo,” a kind of luxe garage with customizable suites that’s being built in a majority-Asian suburb. The units start at more than C$800,000, and the first batch recently sold out.
Change will be difficult and fraught. Vancouver has been closely connected to Asia since the late 19th century, when the first Chinese laborers arrived to help build the trans-Canada railway, and the city is proud of its record of integrating immigrants. Also, beyond real estate, Vancouver’s economic base is shallow. It’s not the business capital of western Canada—that’s Calgary—and it has few major corporate headquarters or large-scale manufacturing operations. “Asian capital has kept this economy alive, end of story,” says Ron Shon, a Chinese-Canadian venture capitalist who arrived as a teenager in the late 1960s. “You can see it in every aspect of our lives.”
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Statistics Canada didn’t release figures on foreign real estate ownership until 2017, when it reported that nonresidents of the country owned more than 7 percent of the city’s dwellings. The federal housing agency says that’s an underestimate, though, because overseas investors can route purchases through Canadian relatives or shell companies. In 2016, Transparency International found that the ownership of almost half of Vancouver’s 100 most expensive properties, representing at least C$1 billion in anonymous wealth, was effectively untraceable.