Thriving across the Pacific

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2007, 12:00am

It is morning in this most dynamic of Asia-Pacific cities, and the summer sun glints off the glass and steel of one of the most dramatic skylines in the region. On one side, steep green hills form a backdrop in the shape of a dragon's back; on the other, the choppy waters of a superb natural harbour lap at the waterfront.

Old-timers do tai chi exercises in the park, and the neighbourhood news kiosks are enjoying a brisk trade in locally printed editions of Ming Pao and Sing Tao.

Welcome to 'Hongcouver', where the leading English-language daily is not the South China Morning Post but The Vancouver Sun.

Chinatown in Vancouver, British Columbia, is one of the largest Chinatowns in North America and the most distinctly Chinese community in Canada.

Centred around Pender, Main and Keefer streets, this part of Vancouver is never more engaging and life-affirming than when celebrating one of the many Chinese festivals. Lunar New Year is particularly raucous and enjoyable but other events enjoy a high billing, such as dragon boat racing, which has a famous history in Vancouver.

Chinatown is a vibrant district of Canadian-Chinese commerce, culture and family life, and a popular tourist attraction whose authentic Cantonese eateries have broad appeal. As with other Chinatowns, it is still heavily populated by the old guard, but younger arrivals, and not just of Chinese descent, choose to live there because of its convenient location and urban buzz so common to Chinatowns worldwide.

A newer hub for Vancouver's Chinese community lies just out of town: the affluent, leafy suburb of Richmond. More than half of its population is of Asian descent, with most from Hong Kong, Taiwan or the mainland. Richmond is home to the Lingyen Mountain Buddhist Temple, which is not on a mountain. It is a popular attraction for Vancouver Chinese families, especially on Buddha's Birthday.

Vancouver experienced its most sustained boom of Chinese immigration from 1992 to 1997, when nearly 300,000 people left Hong Kong and almost 70 per cent chose Canada as their new home. During this period, Hongkongers accounted for nearly half of all Chinese immigration to Canada.

In 1994, the peak year of this extraordinary migration, one in 130 Hongkongers moved to Canada. In that year more than 44,000 people - mostly professionals and businesspeople - crossed the Pacific to start new lives in Canada.

The now apparently unfounded 'handover anxiety' has subsided and Hong Kong is heaving with returnees holding Canadian passports and a new generation of world citizens in possession of a transpacific confidence and flair that is evident across the demographic.

On the other side of the Pacific, Chinese Canadians have added considerably to the cosmopolitan character and local colour of what is judged to be one of the most livable cities in the world, most recently by Mercer Human Resource Consulting's quality of life index, which put Vancouver in second place out of 215 cities across the globe.

Toronto occupied 12th place in this index and is home to an even bigger Chinese community, estimated to number more than 350,000. Chinese Canadians constitute the largest visible minority group in Canada, comprising more than 5 per cent of the population and enjoying a reputation for being well integrated and upwardly mobile.

Toronto also has an old-school Chinatown, but the Chinese community's centre of gravity has shifted to Spadina Avenue's modern shopping mall, Dragon City, which 'feels just like Taikoo Shing's Cityplaza', a Chinese-Canadian colleague informed me. What could be more authentically Hong Kong?

But the story of Chinese settlement in the Great White North has quite a history. The first Chinese settlers in Canada made new lives on Vancouver Island more than 200 years ago. Records are sketchy, but we do know that they hailed from Macau.

During the 19th century, many emigres from Fujian and Guangdong went there to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. These workers were subjected to exploitation and undisguised racism that was atrocious even by robber-baron capitalism standards of the time, but it is to the present Canadian government's credit that Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year extended an official government apology to, and met with, senior members of the Chinese community over this dark chapter of Canadian history.

The 20th century, as calamitous as it was, was a happier epoch for the close relationships between the Chinese and Canadian nations. Several educated Chinese who escaped Japanese occupation of China during the second world war went to Canada as refugees.

This wave of arrivals provided the bedrock of the post-war Chinese community, which grew steadily in the second half of the century.

Canada provided a safe haven and ancestral promised land for many ethnic Chinese families seeking new lives in a more secure part of the world.

During anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia and Malaysia, thousands of Chinese refugees made their way to Canada, and thousands went to the Great White North in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and the Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia.

Not all of Canada's Chinese hail from Asia. Many Chinese fled war-torn Nicaragua in the 1980s, and other members of the Chinese community hail from Peru, Brazil and elsewhere in South America.