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Vancouver Forever Changed by Expo ’86

How the last World’s Fair to be held in North America transformed a city

July 29, 2016

Vancouver’s Expo ’86 was the last World’s Fair to be held in North America, and like the previous fairs in the region (Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair and Spokane’s Expo ’74), it was a transformational event for the city. The fair’s theme was transportation and communications, and it also commemorated Vancouver’s centennial. 

Expo ’86 knocked it out of the park at the turnstile, with over 22 million visitors. Even though it turned in a CDN $300 million deficit to pull off, the development attending the event has been valued in residual billions of dollars. And the benefits to Vancouver?  Enormous, if somewhat complicated.

For Expo planners, the stated purpose of the fair was to transform Vancouver’s image from that of a sleepy harbor town to an international destination. In other words, to put the city on the map.

Former B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant says Expo ’86 signaled to people everywhere — particularly to people in Asia — that “Hey, look, we’re here, and this is actually a cool place.” 

A cool place that afforded convenient and easy entry to fellow British subjects. Coincidentally, the fair coincided with a time when hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongese were considering their emigration options in advance of the then-pending handover of the British territory to the Republic of China. The well-to-do in particular were worried that China would strip them of their freedoms and their wealth, and would devastate the economy of Hong Kong. They were desperate to find a safe harbor. 

Many came to Vancouver to purchase a home that would allow them to immigrate to Canada. In practice, many completed the immigration process and then returned to Hong Kong, leaving their children to stay and secure their haven while they went back to make more money.

After Expo ’86 closed in October, much of the False Creek site — the former railyard and industrial wasteland where the fair was staged — was sold to Hong Kong-based business magnate Li Ka-shing, setting in motion a wave of property investment and growth that resulted in the development of hip Yaletown neighborhoods. 

As the century drew to a close and China kept its promise to leave Hong Kong alone, immigration to Vancouver slowed. But at the same, people in Taiwan began to fear they might be the next object of Chinese repossession. In an effort to hedge their bets, a wave of wealthy Taiwanese moved into Vancouver, along with increasing numbers of people from the Philippines and other Asian countries.

Vancouver was rapidly becoming the largest Asian city outside of Asia. By 2011, more than 30 percent of the population were people of Asian origin and that proportion, along with the number of people living in the region, was rising rapidly.

According to urban planner Andy Yan, the City of Vancouver grew by 40 percent between 1986 and 2011, but the region grew by 95 percent. 

Since 2012, the number of people arriving from China has steadily increased, many of whom are looking to safeguard their newfound wealth in stable Canadian assets. Their investment vehicle of choice? Vancouver real estate.

From luxury and high-end properties to modest condos, properties in Vancouver started selling for many thousands of dollars over their asking price. The effect on the market has been dramatic — Vancouver housing prices are in line with New York, San Francisco and London. This in turn has pushed up prices throughout the region.  

In 1986, the average price of a home in Vancouver was $120,000.  Ten years later, it had risen to $288,000. And in 2016, the average price is over $1 million. 

Paul Kershaw, a professor of human population studies at the University of British Columbia explains, “Our coming onto the stage internationally wouldn’t be a bad thing if wages were keeping pace, but the problem for younger Canadians in this region is [that] they’re making thousands and thousands less for full-time work, while prices have gone up hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the combination of those two things is pushing home ownership increasingly out of reach in the metro Vancouver region.” 

He coined the term “Generation Squeeze” to describe this situation millennials are facing. The city is now confronted with the consequences of success, and many are pointing their fingers at Expo ’86. 

In 1986, the average price of a home in Vancouver was $120,000.  Ten years later, it had risen to $288,000. And in 2016, the average price is over $1 million. 

“We sometimes have a public conversation that is characterized by fear, laced with a little tinge of xenophobia, and I hear echoes of regret that we opened the door to the world,” says Geoff Plant. He regards this as a self-defeating perspective, and he chooses to look to the future and the expanding range of opportunities that are manifesting in the city.

Over at HQ Vancouver, Pau Woo is capitalizing on those opportunities. He celebrates the Asian connections across the Pacific and into North America as selling points, as he reaches out to attract companies looking to set up head offices on this side of the Pacific. He points out the themes of Expo ’86 are alive and well in Vancouver, a city that boasts exceptional transportation systems. Shippers from China to the mid-western United States save time and money moving cargo through the Port of Vancouver. Couple that with the region’s thriving high-tech and communication sectors, and Woo believes the potential for growth is limitless.

His efforts are paying off to date — he’s succeeded in attracting seven Asian corporations to the Vancouver region, with more in the pipeline. Woo has vastly exceeded the company’s goal of attracting two head offices by the end of 2017. 

“We’re only just at the beginning of the transformation that started with Expo and which I think has many more decades to run,” he says.  

Vancouver invited the world; they came, they’re still coming — and they’re staying.


Made possible in part by

Stuart McNish

Stu McNish is a trainer, speaker, video producer and award-winning television reporter. Over the course of his career Stu has taught countless professionals how to prepare for media interviews and to speak in public. As a television reporter with Global TV, Stu won numerous awards for his work, ended the careers of politicians, spoke out on behalf of those who didn't have a voice and made a difference.

In 1998, Stu left reporting and created Oh Boy Productions, a production company producing truly compelling videos for TV, corporate clients, government agencies and not-for-profits.

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