Easy Come, Easy Go

September 2, 2007

Vancouver doesn't keep a diary, but if it did the entry for December 31, 1997, would have gone like this: "Crazy year! Busy, busy, busy-then not, not, not." Illustrating its command of the lingo beginning to show up on the new-fangled internet, the perplexed city might well have concluded: "WTF?"

WTF indeed. The first signs that 1997 wouldn't unfurl precisely as envisioned were already in evidence one year earlier, on December 31, 1996. That was the evening Vancouver was to have enjoyed its global coming-out party, when opera singers Placido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavorotti-the Three Tenors!-were to have pulled in some 56,000 people to BC Place at an average price exceeding a hundred dollars each. Alas, even without knowing that the performance would be kitschy and half-hearted, Vancouverites failed to exhibit the appropriate wallet-opening enthusiasm, causing a last-minute ducat dump that particularly irked those who had paid $650 "while the skateboarder in the next seat got two free tickets with his jumbo Slurpee," as Steve Burgess noted in this magazine, which I edited at the time.

Still, the fiasco had all the earmarks of a one-off. Oh sure, the city was proving to be not quite the Broadway Northwest some had foreseen, as another columnist, John Masters, noted in the magazine's December 1996 edition. Show Boat closed a month early, Tommy cut its run from five weeks to 10 days and Man of La Mancha didn't even open-but this was hardly surprising in a city where the dailies regularly featured page after page of advertising for mega-musicals courtesy of super-promoter Garth Drabinsky and press lords David Radler and Conrad Black. Maybe the local market was not quite the 10-million people-arrived at by including residents of Seattle, Calgary and Edmonton, among others-that promoters like Drabinsky and the Tenors' Tina VanderHeyden had identified. Realistically, did anyone not think some venues would suffer when the just-launched NBA Grizzlies were packing sparkling GM Place and the PGA tour had added an annual stop at Arnold Palmer-designed Northview? Would there not be a few losers in a town where a splashy new Planet Hollywood vied with fun-filled upstarts like Lola's and the Century Grill for discretionary, if not always discreet, dollars?

Of course there would be losers! In a way that was the beauty of it. Long left to do its own funky thing on the continent's edge, Vancouver was enjoying a moment in the sun. And if sunshine wasn't entirely good for the existing eco-system, so be it. Although the odd big musical may have stiffed-hey, that's showbiz!-the going was far tougher for old-fashioned arts groups and cultural institutions, for stolid local retailers who suddenly found themselves up against competitors like the Virgin Megastore. Having evolved in a quiet, cloudy place, the locals simply weren't equipped to chase the elusive new dollars flooding into the city.

And where exactly were these new dollars coming from? Canada was recovering from a nagging recession, after all, and a gathering tech boom was still confined to Silicon Valley. How had Vancouver chugged through the downturn and positioned itself to explode as the national economy finally improved?

Well, please. The answer was so obvious it barely needed to be stated: Asia, of course! It was one thing that virtually every country there was booming on the strength of trade with North America and a big proportion of the goods both moved through Vancouver and were brokered out of it. It was quite another that so many of the new plutocrats in places like Korea, Taiwan and Thailand apprarently harboured a secret desire to move here.

The most dramatic case was Hong Kong, where the urge to emigrate was artifically heightened by the impending handover to Mainland China. Realtors trace the great Vancouver real estate boom of the early and mid 1990s to the days after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Hong Kong woke up to what might be in store. Some 60,000 people a year "bought insurance" by acquiring a foreign passport, with Canada, and specifically Vancouver, the most popular destination.

And the July 1 handover wasn't the only reason 1997 promised to be our year of living Asia-ly. On November 23, heads of state from 18 nations would be arriving for a summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC. The event would surely crown Vancouver as North America's gateway to the most important economic zone in the new world order.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a global capital of global capitalism. Or two funny things. One was an unexpectedly smooth transition in Hong Kong, which resulted in an influx of migrants returning from places like Vancouver. The other was the unexpectedly rough transition in the rest of Asia. Also in July, countries like South Korea and Thailand were beset by a financial crisis that plunged them into recession and dramatically cut into North American trade.

And so it was that the APEC summit is better remembered for pepper spray than triumphant agreements. So too that many of the icons of 1997 would meet bad ends. Drabinsky, Black and Radler have all been disgraced. Tina VanderHeyden shrunk away weeks after the Tenors did likewise. Virgin is gone, as are the NBA Grizzlies, the PGA's Greater Vancouver Open, Planet Hollywood and most of the hot restaurants of 1997. One might even wonder if the city's 1997 plunge from grace threatens similar prospects for 2007, another era of prosperity and optimism. Is there a lesson to be learned from Vancouver's year of hubris, the day in the sun that turned out to be too close to the sun? Probably only this: No matter how strong and steadfast our current indicators, the future can't be predicted. At the end of this year, the civic diary may well be capped with a single time-tested line: "WTF?"

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