The Hongcouver

Potent symbols of the new Vancouver, served up on a Rolls-Royce’s ‘CHINA’ plate

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 9:22am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:52am

Could there be a more confronting emblem of Vancouver’s new demographic order than a gleaming black Rolls-Royce Phantom, with a personalised “CHINA” number plate?

As the limousine pulled away from us on Cambie Street, I got to thinking about the potency of that symbolism.

Chinese certainly dominate Vancouver’s luxury home market, but this is most easily appreciated via statistical analysis, or if you happen to live in one of the most-affected neighbourhoods. It’s on the city’s roads, however, that Chinese wealth is most evident to plebeian Vancouverites.

Supercars with “N” (new driver) stickers on the back and an Asian driver behind the wheel are common enough a sight to have become a Vancouver meme. For example, the stereotype is employed in Reddit/Vancouver’s masthead montage.

There’s no doubt that the luxury car industry has witnessed rapid expansion in Vancouver, coinciding with the rush of Chinese millionaires to the city. About 37,000 rich migrants moved to British Columbia from 2005 to 2012 under the federal government’s now-defunct Immigrant Investor Programme, of whom 66 per cent were mainland Chinese. If you include Hongkongers and Taiwanese, the proportion rises to 81 per cent. Nearly all of these settled in greater Vancouver.

According to Craig Stowe, president of the Luxury & Supercar Weekend (an annual car show), Vancouver now has the highest rate of luxury car ownership in North America.

The data to support this assertion is not clear, but it doesn’t seem far-fetched judging from the boom in high-end car dealerships in the past few years.

In 2010, Rolls-Royce opened its first dedicated Vancouver dealership at a reported cost of C$12.5 million. In the same year, just around the corner, Ferrari Maserati of Vancouver moved into a glittering three-storey, 35,000-square-foot showroom that looks like a giant glass jewellery box. McClaren opened its Vancouver dealership in July 2013 and just two months later, across the road, Lamborghini unveiled a vast new sales floor, packed with its exotic supercars.

All this in a city with one of the lowest median household incomes in Canada: C$68,970 in 2011, compared to C$72,240 nationwide.

Steven Wu, brand manager and sales associate at Rolls-Royce Vancouver, said that its iconic vehicles presented quite a good deal for rich Chinese immigrants; it costs about twice as much to buy a Rolls in mainland China as it does in Vancouver.

A bargain, however, is all relative. “Our Ghost starts from C$300,000, all the way up to whatever you want. The most expensive? Well, for example we have a nice Phantom drophead coupe for C$640,000. There’s no limit really, depending on how many bespoke options you want for your car,” said Wu.

Wu said the dealership had sold 66 cars since opening, 43 of them to Chinese or ethnically Chinese buyers. Currently, sales are sitting at 20-25 cars per year. Both Wu and the dealership’s other sales associate are Chinese speakers. The dealership’s website  is also bilingual – not in the official Canadian languages of English and French, but in English and Chinese.

“Chinese buyers are drawn to us,” Wu said. “We obviously have some local marketing, but the Rolls-Royce brand is already very popular and well known in China. Some very wealthy immigrants who want to come to Vancouver want to own one, so we are very happy to help them.”

The dealership is still in something of an expansionary phase; Wu said he hoped that the recent introduction of a sportier model, the two-door Wraith, would increase the pool of potential buyers in Vancouver.

Such ambitions might be facing an unexpected roadblock, with the Canadian government’s surprise decision last month to terminate the Immigrant Investor Programme. The 65,000 wealthy visa applicants dumped from the scheme’s backlog included about 50,000 Chinese, 80 per cent of whom were destined for Vancouver.

Still, Wu remains optimistic. “Yes, we are aware of it [the programme’s cessation],” he said. “We will see if there is any impact later on, but so far, so good. After all, we are not chasing volume.”

The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.