Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 November, 2010, 12:00am

For the first 10 years of his life, Ben Ho knew nothing except Hong Kong and no one who wasn't Chinese. That changed in 1974, when he moved with his parents to the 1,000-strong community of Chase in British Columbia, Canada.

'We were the only Chinese family there, so it was 180 degrees different from Hong Kong,' says Ho, who was born and raised in Kowloon. 'But we quickly adapted.'

Ho, now 48, remembers how Canada seemed very cold. The family arrived in early autumn and by Halloween it was snowing.

'Everyone was playing pond hockey and that's where I learned to play,' he says. 'I still play recreational hockey.'

Ho's father had been a piano tuner at Tom Lee Music in Hong Kong and was offered a job at the chain's store in Vancouver. Once in Canada, however, his father had a change of heart and the family joined Ho's uncle in Chase, 400 kilometres away, where they worked at his restaurant.

The family experienced culture shock at first but they quickly acclimatised, by doing the same things their new neighbours did - and the hockey came easily.

'[Many] of my memories growing up in Hong Kong were enjoying outdoor activities in the summer, like swimming, soccer, hiking in the mountains, catching dragonflies and eating ice cream,' Ho says. 'Lunar New Year was like Christmas in Canada - only two weeks long and five times the fun.'

Ho quickly became immersed in his new surroundings and rarely thought about his place of birth.

'[The family moved] for better education and health care, and better career opportunities for my father and for me,' he says.

Ho attended one of Canada's most prestigious institutions, the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. There, he studied engineering and met Ray Kwan, a business student who would become his best friend and, years later, business partner.

After graduating, Ho and Kwan met each week to discuss business opportunities. They recognised an appetite in Vancouver, often touted as the greenest city in Canada, for affordable and environmentally friendly modes of transport.

They were aware that both Vancouver, with its Asia-Pacific business links, and their families provided useful ties to China.

Ho first returned to Hong Kong in 1997.

'I couldn't recognise it at all,' he recalls. 'But our old home was still there, so I walked around, just to relive childhood memories. I'm glad I did because the building was demolished shortly afterwards.'

In 2007, the two friends formed RayBen Motors and opened for business in February last year on one of Vancouver's choicest retail thoroughfares: West 4th Avenue. The company specialises in scooters and conversion kits that turn bicycles into electric-powered vehicles.

Ho and Kwan now travel frequently to Hong Kong and the mainland.

'The labour rate in Canada is more than 10 times what it is in China, so it makes sense to produce goods in China and then export the products to Canada,' Ho says. 'We love what we're doing and we're offering something that customers really want.'