Hong Kong Chinese power the economy in Vancouver


VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The influx of nearly 100,000 Asians over the last decade, many of them Chinese entrepreneurs from Hong Kong, has transformed the look and character of Canada's third-largest city and helped shield it from cold economic winds blowing across the rest of the country.

As a result of new Canadian immigration policies and worries in Hong Kong about absorption by China in 1997, Vancouver, which now counts 15 percent of its 1.5 million people as ethnic Chinese, has emerged as a bustling Pacific Rim finance and trading center.

It is a harbor city of gleaming towers, silvery hills and crisscrossing ferries and already looks much like Hong Kong.

In recent years, other similarities have increased, with more than 90 percent ethnic Chinese enrollment in some Vancouver schools, the widespread use of bilingual signs, the appearance of Chinese-language newspapers in hotels and shopping centers, the presence of Hong Kong institutions like the Hong Kong Bank of Canada and Cathay Pacific Airways, and the emergence of terms in everyday language like "feng shui," meaning the positioning of a house so that it brings good fortune.

And for the past five years, Vancouver has been the home of a classical Chinese garden. The $5 million Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden, a product chiefly of Hong Kong money, is named after the founder of the Chinese Nationalist republic.

Fearing for the future in Hong Kong under Communist China, many immigrants have bought their right to live here. They have come under new government programs offering "landed immigrant" status, which is almost as good as citizenship, to those who invest at least $250,000 or start a business employing at least three people.

They are building $1 million homes and buying commercial real estate. One estimate says that Asian-Canadians now own 7 percent of the land in the downtown area, including Canada's biggest real estate development, the giant Pacific Place developed by Li Ka-shing, a billionaire and one of Hong Kong's richest men.

Mr. Li bought 204 acres on the Expo 86 site next to Chinatown for $320 million in 1987 and hopes to complete a huge waterfront commercial and residential center in the next 10 to 12 years.

"It's a calculated risk," said Stanley Kwok, a Shanghai-born architect who emigrated here via Hong Kong and is now managing the project for Mr. Li. "But we're extremely optimistic about the future of Vancouver."

Such dramatic economic and demographic changes over a relatively short period have inevitably brought social strains.

With immigration expected to continue rising as the 1997 deadline approaches for Hong Kong being turned over to Beijing, some older Canadians of European extraction talk of an ethnic Chinese takeover of the city.

Resentment is expressed over perceived competition for jobs, real estate and services, over Chinese clannishness, over occasional violence by Asian street gangs, and over the construction of houses out of scale and taste with their neighborhoods.

The magazine Vancouver published an article, "Look What They've Done to My Neighborhood," that laments a pattern of residential building by Hong Kong millionaires in which modest houses surrounded by gardens and trees are replaced by mansions with all sorts of extra bathrooms, hot-tub rooms, rec rooms and exercise rooms.

Tung Chan, a Hong Kong-born banker who is the only ethnic Chinese member of the Vancouver City Council, accuses critics of using a double standard.

"When a European family has a large house," he said, "people call it an estate. When a Chinese family has a large house, it's called a 'monster house.' "

Still, he is urging the new Canadians to be more restrained in their housing tastes to avoid "racist backlash."

He quotes an old Chinese saying, "When you go into a river, you follow the flow of the stream."

In spite of friction, just about everyone agrees that the economic effect of the new immigration wave and the accompanying investment of $2 billion a year for the region have been positive.

"The heavy Chinese immigration is one reason why Vancouver outperforms the rest of the country," said Professor Don J. DeVoretz, an immigration economist at Simon Fraser University here. "It has created jobs."

The employment situation is hardly good, but is not as bad as in Canada's two largest cities, which have taken the brunt of the recession. While unemployment in Vancouver rose from 7 percent to 8 percent in the past year, the rate in Toronto nearly doubled, from 5.8 percent to 10.4 percent, and Montreal's rose from 10 percent to 12 percent.

For years Canada was a resource-based economy. When its resources -- lumber, for instance -- were in demand, business and commerce were brisk.

"Now we're in a situation where we have to get out and hustle," said Sid Fancy, manager of Vancouver's economic development office, "and our friends from Hong Kong are showing us how."

Not all the immigrants are buying factories and building shopping centers. Many Asian newcomers arrive without jobs, struggle to speak English and must adjust to a very different way of life.

To ease their fears and frustrations, the United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society, or Success, offers employment seminars, English-language training and orientation classes.

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