After the 13-hour flight from Hong Kong, Lau Kok-wa wanted only to clear Canada Customs and make his connection to Calgary, where he I planned to visit friends. In slacks and casual shirt, Lau looked the part: a slightly sedentary television journalist in his late 40s. And initially, the Canada Customs agent who examined Lau’s passport in the cavernous Vancouver International Airport immigration hall appeared to accept his word that he was visiting Canada on vacation. But then, Lau made a mistake: he offered to help a handicapped fellow-traveller, making her first trip to Canada, with her luggage. Customs pounced. Insisting that Lau and the woman were conspirators in a smuggling ring, officers tore apart Lau’s luggage and subjected him to a personal body search. It took nearly two hours for the agents to grudgingly accept Lau’s innocence. “I was very upset,” said the veteran newsman. “I felt they had something against people from Hong Kong.”
Lau is far from the only traveller arriving from Asia to complain that Canada Customs officers in Vancouver have put them through the third degree. More disturbingly, he is also far from alone in suggesting that Canada in recent months has sent one negative signal after another to both potential vacationers and would-be immigrants from the Far East. Other frequently cited irritants include stiff new tax requirements on Canadian residents to report foreign assets, a slow economy compared with many in Asia and a vague but widely asserted perception of increased racism. Canada’s image in Asia has slipped so sharply, in fact, that Hong Kong publisher and talk-show host Albert Cheng, who holds Canadian citizenship, recently joked: “In Vancouver, they’re afraid one day they’ll wake up and see all the Hong Kong yacht people have come. Tell them not to worry about it. In fact, they’re going to get up on July 1 and find all the Chinamen have gone.”
The outspoken Cheng overstates the case, but only in a matter of degree. Although neither Canada nor Hong Kong keeps records of how many Canadian citizens with origins in Hong Kong have returned to the territory, unofficial estimates run to the tens of thousands. Meanwhile, Canadian diplomats and trade officials
Canada has been sending negative signals to the Far East
acknowledge the growing extent of complaints levelled at Canada. “Hassles by Customs officials in Vancouver are a real nuisance,” admits Garrett Lambert, Canada’s senior diplomat in Hong Kong. “I end up issuing a lot of apologies.”
Similarly, rules expected to take effect later this year requiring Canadian residents to disclose foreign investment assets valued at more than $100,000—the price of a parking space in Hong Kong—are “a problem here in terms of people’s perception,” Lambert says. For one thing, the new rules add to a Canadian tax regime that already appears both complex and punitive in contrast to Hong Kong’s essentially flat income tax of under 16 per cent, with no sales or capital gains levies.
Moreover, Lambert notes, many Asians “have had a lot of experience with governments who want to know things—not always for benign reasons.”
Harder to come to grips with are assertions that racism against Asians is on the increase in Canada—especially in Vancouver. “It’s subtle, but they’re not comfortable,” insists Cheng. Chinese-Canadians and Hong Kong residents with Canadiïï an ties both report that comf1 plaints of racism are on the z rise—although often withI out reference to specific examples. As one indicator of a chill in race relations, Cheng points to reductions in government support for multiculturalism. But any new coolness may have less to do with race than with money, especially at a time of both government and personal cutbacks. The taste for ostentation that passes unnoticed in Hong Kong’s highly material society grates on some Canadian sensibilities. “If people want to spend money, they want to spend it freely and happily,” Cheng observes. “But in Vancouver when you spend money, you have a guilty feeling. I tell you, I won’t drive a fancy car in Vancouver: when you stop at a red light, people swear at you.” Canadian officials have been sufficiently stung by the criticisms to respond. Lambert, for one, spent time during a home visit late last year checking out racial tensions in Markham, an affluent community north of Toronto with a growing Chinese population. He dismisses accusations that racism is on the rise in Canada as “a canard.” Canada Customs “does not target Hong Kong residents—period,” says Vancouver-based spokeswoman Suzanne Amos-Kinsella. “But we are an enforcement agency.”
And so far, complaints about Canada have not much affected its attraction for potential immigrants. The number of residents seeking another citizenship as a so-called insurance policy has declined, authorities say, amid greater confidence in Hong Kong’s economic future. But the number of applications for entry made in 1996 to Canada’s Hong Kong commission—29,000—was only marginally below the 1995 figure of 31,000. Whatever blemishes the country’s image may have suffered, Canada for many Asians is still plainly a place worth coming to—at least once they get past Customs.
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