WORLD

THE RIGHT STUFF?

NEW CONFIDENCE IN HONG KONG'S FUTURE IS LEADING TO A REASSESSMENT OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

TOM FENNELL August 24 1992
WORLD

THE RIGHT STUFF?

NEW CONFIDENCE IN HONG KONG'S FUTURE IS LEADING TO A REASSESSMENT OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

TOM FENNELL August 24 1992

THE RIGHT STUFF?

WORLD

NEW CONFIDENCE IN HONG KONG'S FUTURE IS LEADING TO A REASSESSMENT OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

Hong Kong businessman Clement Ng’s Canadian citizenship brought security for his wife and three daughters—and turned him into a

marathon commuter. Ng, who immigrated to Canada in 1985, decided to flee the Britishcontrolled colony on China’s southeast coast when the Chinese announced that they intended to take the capitalist enclave back in 1997, the year that Britain’s 100-year lease on Hong Kong expires. But once in Vancouver, Ng said, they found the pace of life too slow and the opportunities to make money even more sluggish. And just months after he arrived, he left his family behind in Vancouver and returned to the colony, where he launched a chain of pizza restaurants, which he is now expanding into nearby southern China. In fact, many former Hong Kong residents have returned to take advantage of Hong Kong’s and China’s booming economies, earning the nickname “astronauts” because they spend so much time flying across the Pacific. “The growth potential in Asia will be huge in the next few years,” said Ng. “With a population of 1.2 billion people, China is like the untapped potential of Canada’s natural resources.”

Three years ago, that bullish optimism about living under Chinese rule in the future was all but impossible to find in Hong Kong. In fact, on June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army crushed China’s fragile pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong shivered. One million people angrily took to the streets in protest and thousands of others, suddenly desperate to leave, stormed Canada’s immigration offices. Within months, about 200 people were fleeing Hong Kong for British Columbia every week.

But since then, relations between Hong Kong and China have warmed considerably. At the same time, the number of people applying to immigrate to Canada has dropped off sharply. Even so, as 1997 draws closer, some immi-

gration experts say that thousands of Hong Kong residents will once again seek security and freedom in Vancouver. “People realize that even though there are opportunities for some people to make a lot of money in Hong Kong, the future is volatile,” said Hong Kong investment banker Michael Kan. “People know that they are taking tremendous risks by staying in Hong Kong after 1997.”

Meanwhile, the province’s reputation as a safe haven persists in Hong Kong. Vancouver’s profile is so high in the British-run colony of 5.8 million people that it has become known locally as “Hongcouver.” In a community where

wealth is highly valued,

Hong Kong residents have watched some of their richest compatriots leave for British Columbia, and almost 20 per cent of Vancouver’s population is now made up of Chinese immigrants who are primarily from Hong Kong. As well,

B.C. community colleges and universities recruit thousands of students from Hong Kong annually, and returning relatives and friends often rave about Vancouver’s scenery and its moderate climate. Even Vancouver’s Chinese restaurants are legendary in the colony. Said Vincent Lee, who runs an investment firm in Hong Kong:

“Vancouver has the best Chinese food in all of North America. It has surpassed Toronto, New York City and San Francisco.”

Still, some dissatisfied

immigrants to British Columbia have returned to Hong Kong with a litany of complaints about their new homeland. Immigration consultants estimate that 10 to 15 per cent of Hong Kong immigrants return from Canada, and many of the returnees say that they were unable to find work in their chosen careers. Others, like Ng, complain that the coastal province’s laid-back lifestyle and high Canadian taxes hinder their ability to make money quickly—one of their prime objectives for moving in the first place. “Canada has been giving us nothing but bad news for the past three years,” said Lee. “It’s never ending. The constitutional problem, the GST problem. Some of us got burned.”

Making money has been the driving force in

Hong Kong ever since 1898, when the British forced China’s leaders to lease the territory to it following the first of a series of wars with China over the opium trade. After the Second World War, Hong Kong became a haven where refugees fleeing upheaval in China could earn a living in relative freedom, and their British overlords, who operated the colony’s big conglomerates, or so-called Hongs, could turn dazzling profits.

According to the 1984 Anglo-Chinese Accord, China agreed to allow Hong Kong to operate in much the same way for the first 50 years after they took over from the British.

Under a still evolving plan known as “one country, two systems,” the colony is supposed to be allowed to keep its independent judiciary, partly elected legislature and free press. But many Hong Kong residents say that they still have grave doubts about the future. “It won’t be smooth sailing,” said Kan. “One country, two systems has never been tried before.”

But Chinese state-owned companies have already gambled heavily that the two-system policy will succeed. According to a study by the University of Hong Kong, well over 3,000 mainland Chinese firms have already invested over $12 billion in Hong Kong in transportation, manufacturing and retailing. As well, confidence in Hong Kong has been strengthened by the determination

of China’s 87-year-old leader, Deng Xiaoping, to speed up liberalization of the Chinese economy. Earlier this year, Deng travelled to southern China where he called on political leaders to build several “Hong Kongs” on China’s coast. According to Hong Kong-based immigration consultant Richard Alanthwaite, Deng’s statements and Hong Kong’s booming economy have reduced fears about the colony’s future and that has led to a drop in emigration. “We see very few people emigrating out of a sense of urgency,” said Alanthwaite. “That may increase as we get closer to 1997, but at the moment, there is much confidence in Hong Kong, I don’t see any sense of anxiety.” Largely as a result of the surging mainland

Chinese investment and the Communist nation’s commitment to liberal economic reforms, the colony’s economy is booming. According to Hong Kong government estimates, its real gross domestic product is expected to grow by five per cent in 1992, up from four per cent in 1991. And the combined value of all equities trading on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange has almost doubled since the beginning of 1992. Businessman Ng reflects that burgeoning confidence. In a joint venture with Boston Pizza International, a restaurant chain based in suburban Vancouver, he plans to expand into southern China, although he is quick to promote his Canadian connections. “I am trying to build a bridge between Canada and Asia,” declared Ng. “All our advertising carries the Canadian flag and we take the Canadian angle in all our promotions.”

Even if China does ultimately take control of Hong Kong without seriously disrupting its economy and driving thousands of its citizens abroad, some business analysts say that British Columbia will continue to see a surge in investment and immigrants. Kan predicted that Hong Kong’s position as the gateway to China will become even more pronounced after the 1997 transfer. And because Hong Kong residents already have so many commercial and family contacts in British Columbia, Canada’s West Coast will prosper as well. “British Columbia is linked into Hong Kong, which is linked into China and southeast Asia,” said Kan. “The people link has already been established; Brit-

ish Columbia is part of the chain now.”

For the time being, however, interest in leaving Hong Kong appears to be waning. In 1990, a total of 47,860 Hong Kong residents applied for Canadian visas. But applications dropped to 45,970 in 1991, and only 9,381 people applied in the first she months of this year. And nearly one in three people said that they intended to live in Vancouver. Despite the slowdown in applications, Hong Kong is still Canada’s busiest immigration post. Said Robert Puddester, a senior immigration counsellor at the Commission for Canada in Hong Kong: “Following Tiananmen Square, we just couldn’t cope.”

Although Hong Kong investment has expanded along with the population shift, the colony’s freewheeling economy has attracted many Chinese Canadians back from Canada. Said Lee: “I can make more money in a month [in Hong Kong] than you can make in a year in Canada. And I can do it almost tax-free.” He added: “Investing in Canada right now is like hitting yourself against a wall. It’s going nowhere.” And Ng said that while he is happy to build a bright and secure future for his family in British Columbia, he continues to prosper financially in Hong Kong. Said Ng: “Vancouver is a nice place to visit and raise kids, but as far as business is concerned, it is very difficult.”

While astronauts like Ng say that they have returned to the colony because they want to take advantage of its economy before 1997,

others point to Canada’s weak economy as the reason for their decision to return. Said Kan: “A lot of young people are coming back, not because they don’t like Canada, but because they can’t earn enough money to sustain themselves.”

The slow pace of life in Vancouver compared with the hustle and bustle of the colony troubles many new arrivals from Hong Kong. Alanthwaite added that while most of his clients chose Vancouver as their Canadian destination, they often find that the province’s people lack a sense of urgency. “There’s not that rush,” said Alanthwaite. “They feel that they are going more to retirement community rather than a business community.”

The ties established in the late 1980s still likely to bind into the next century. Close to 3,500 Hong Kong students are now studying at schools in British Columbia—almost half them at the university level. Said Dr. Anthony Cheng, 52, president of the 300-member Hong Kong alumni association of the University British Columbia: “A lot of my patients’ sons and daughters express their wishes to go overseas to study and I recommend that they think about UBC.” But it is Canada’s ability to match the economic opportunities of Asia that will furthest in determining if the tide of Hong Kong immigration again becomes a flood.

TOM FENNELL

FRANCES KELLY