It takes only 20 stops on the SkyTrain for the look of Vancouver to morph into that of Surrey. Heading east into the Fraser Valley, Vancouver’s preened and primped metrosexual face – think Pierce Brosnan crossed with Nelly Furtado – loses the chiselled jaw and phosphorescent pink it gets from all that excess skiing and spa luxuriating. By the time the train crosses over the Fraser River, the face of the commuter, exhausted from a day’s work and anxious to arrive home in one of the nation’s largest suburbs, has grown slack and winter grey.
Yet even as the world’s attention is locked on Vancouver and the unfolding of the Winter Olympics, there’s a new glow spreading across the raw face of its eastern neighbour. The Olympics may deepen the divide between the rich, resort-like feel of Vancouver and the blossoming edge city, but Surrey is now officially Metro Vancouver’s second downtown core. And what was once pegged as a sleeping monster of sprawl is being transformed, slowly but surely, into an urban shire.
Surrey is the fastest-growing suburb in Canada, with a population of 466,000 that is increasing by 1,000 people every month. It’s young – one-third of its population is under the age of 19. The Vancouver airport is only 35 kilometres away, so it makes geographic sense to locate offices such as the RCMP’s Canadian headquarters or Passport Canada here. It sits across from Blaine, Wash., making it the second-largest border crossing in Canada. On that half-hour SkyTrain ride from Vancouver, the wild real-estate prices drift away, which makes Surrey an attractive place to settle for new immigrants from China, the Philippines and, particularly, South Asia (including Surrey’s many Sikhs).