Canadian Hong Kongers
By the time the Union Jack fell at midnight in Hong Kong’s Statue Square on June 30, 1997, hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents had already left the territory that Britain ruled for 155 years – many right after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing convinced them that a grim post-colonial future awaited them if they stayed.
Ten years later, as the fireworks explode in Hong Kong’s harbor this week to celebrate reunification with the motherland, the city is economically buoyant. Having shaken off the Asian financial crisis and the deep doldrums of the 2003 SARS epidemic, it remains relatively untouched by the communists.
For many of those who ended up in Canada, the July 1 anniversary will be just another day.
Along with Australia, Canada was one of the most welcoming countries for Hong Kong immigrants, particularly through its skilled worker or business-class visa program, which allows wealthy or skilled migrants to become permanent residents without the need for an employer or sponsor. As a result, the country harvested more skilled Hong Kong residents than perhaps any other. By 2017, Statistics Canada’s Daily Report forecasts, 1.8 million Chinese will be living in Canada, the bulk of them concentrated in Toronto and Vancouver.
According to a Statistics Canada report, “Return and Onward Migration Among Working Age Men,” however, about 35 percent of working-age migrants leave within 20 years. In Hong Kong this group became known as “astronauts” because they splashed down in foreign countries just long enough to collect a permanent visa or passport and leave to seek employment elsewhere, often back in Hong Kong. The Daily Report indicates that as many as 6,000 to 9,000 Canadians travel monthly between Canada and Hong Kong. Some 250,000 Canadians call Hong Kong home.
Many, however, have stayed in Canada for good. Each household that made such a life-changing decision had unique reasons - fear of communists ruling Hong Kong, a search for economic opportunity, a better education for their children or a more stable future. For some it might have been simply peer pressure in the years leading up to the handover.
Unique as those reasons may be, there is a common underlying sentiment: the choice was foisted on them by the change in sovereignty. Tony, Daisy, Maggie and Michelle, identified only by their first names to protect their identities, were among those who packed up for Canada in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. They settled in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“For Hong Kong people in general, life has gotten harder. The gap between rich and poor has widened further,” said Michelle. “But one thing that Hong Kong should be proud of now is that her people strongly believe in their own identity as ‘Hong Kong people’. They now realize that Hong Kong belongs to them and they must exert their rights in effecting changes that could improve their own lives and welfare. So they take to the streets to voice their concerns. Demonstrations are proof of their awareness of and belief in their political rights.”
Daisy said she agrees with liberal novelist/scriptwriter Ni Kuang’s (Ngai Hong in Cantonese) saying that Hong Kong is dead – it is no more than one of the many cities within communist China, having lost its own identity."
As if to prove that Ni Kuang has a point, Beijing leader Wu Bangguo recently warned the SAR sternly that it can only have as much autonomy as Beijing allows, raising doubts again about the validity of the “one country, two systems” promise and dashing Hong Kong people’s hopes for true democracy any time soon.
Maggie, who travels regularly to Hong Kong to visit her siblings, said that “The biggest change that I’ve observed is that people in Hong Kong have become more fatalistic, more submissive to the lessening of freedoms once enjoyed before 1997, only minding their own livelihoods and less enthusiastic about ideals and values. Maybe it’s because they realize it’s beyond their power to change anything. The mood is just depressing.”
A decision to emigrate is never easy, for it encompasses both the painful severing of many ties on the home turf, and the anxieties of facing unknown challenges ahead.
Tony is among those who thought the choice was a tough one. Before he moved to Vancouver with his wife and two daughters in 1996, he had a job that he liked, working as a paralegal at a reputable Hong Kong law firm. Since he landed here, he has been self-employed in the transport industry and is financially secure.
“If it weren’t for the welfare of the next generation, I don’t think it would be worthwhile to emigrate. The gains and losses that have resulted from our move are about equal. Since I am not a businessman, there is no great economic loss for me,” he explained. His main gain is that his family members have been leading a healthy and happy life here and his main loss is that he had to give up his career and cut ties with his friends and colleagues in Hong Kong.
It is probably for some common reasons that so many Hong Kong immigrants choose Vancouver as their new home, not least that Vancouver, with its spectacular mountains and harbor, has a landscape similar to Hong Kong. The city now has North America’s second largest Chinese community.
In recent years, due to global demand for Canada’s natural resources and an economic boom, immigrants from have been flocking to the city, which have helped push the average population density to 5,039 persons per square kilometer, a level that rivals Hong Kong’s 6,500 persons per square kilometer.
Vancouver has morphed into a Hong Kong-like city in many other ways. Cantonese language, culture and food have quietly infiltrated the community. Vancouver’s current city mayor, Sam Sullivan is a fluent Cantonese speaker and the city is famous for its Cantonese restaurants. Chinese New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival are two festivities devoutly celebrated in Greater Vancouver.
For people who visited Vancouver ten years ago but haven’t been here since, they would be awestruck by mushrooming new high-rise apartment towers and construction cranes poking at the skyline. Ten years back, traffic congestion was unheard of in this part of the world. Now most residents are used to battling with the rush-hour traffic day in day out. Housing prices have skyrocketed. As in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia people queue up at sales offices to sign up for pricey apartment units that have yet to be built.
In spite of this phenomenon, Mercer Human Resource Consulting’s Worldwide Quality of Living Survey 2007 says that Vancouver is still the best Canadian city and the 3rd best in the world to live in.
A Statistics Canada April 2007 study found that 84 percent of new immigrants are positive about their choice after four years of living in Canada. 32 percent cited the quality of life as the single most important reason for settling permanently.
Perhaps there is some truth in those figures. Daisy and Maggie have no regrets about making the trans-Pacific move four and twenty years ago respectively.
Daisy had a successful career as a company executive with a leading corporate group in Hong Kong. Before her relocation, she bought a small apartment in downtown Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, and has been living there since she moved here permanently in 2003.
“I cannot be happier and consider myself lucky to have left Hong Kong and settled in Vancouver, a city with clean air, beautiful environment, a friendly community with a correct sense of values and outlook on life, and an open and democratic government,” she said.
Maggie was one of those who decided to emigrate soon after Margaret Thatcher’s Beijing visit in 1982, when it became known that Hong Kong lease on colonial life would expire in 1997. She admitted that a total lack of trust in the communist mainland was the key reason for her decision. That lack of trust has persisted.
Not long after Maggie and her family landed in Vancouver, her husband had to return to Hong Kong to take up a new job with his former employer. But even the prospect of having an often absent partner and having to raise her two kids practically on her own was not too much a price to pay for a stable life in a free society with a green environment. Today, her two daughters are grown adults and one is a civil engineer and the other a graphic designer.
Like Tony, Daisy and Maggie still have family ties in Hong Kong. While Tony misses the speed and efficiency of Hong Kong, Daisy, for one, shows disdain for what many call “Hong Kong’s dynamism”
“In fact I detest the so-called Hong Kong values,” she said. Would she ever consider moving back? The answer is a resounding “No”.
For Kathy, a single mother who came to Vancouver in 1995 and now works as a social worker in Richmond, Hong Kong’s dynamism is something she misses.
“Hong Kong now is as chaotic as ever, and this makes its name ‘paradise for adventurers’ so true. The more chaotic a place is, the more opportunities there are for people to carve out their niche. For social workers, crises are times for meeting challenges,” Kathy said.
If given a choice (or if she only had herself to think about), Kathy would consider moving back. Her decision to immigrate was made mainly due to influence from her friends and family. Still, she says, she has no regrets.
“I do not think I have lost anything. Living and working in Canada is a valuable experience,” she added.