Software engineer in Beijing dreams of new life in Montreal, Canada

Software engineer choking in Beijing's smog dreams of a new life in Montreal's clean air

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 9:05am

Living in a standalone house, jogging in the morning, going to work in his own car, weekends camping, travelling around North America during holidays - that's how Alden Pang imagines life in Montreal.

"There will be a similar daily routine, but the quality of life should be much better," said the 32-year-old who lives in Beijing with his wife. After working for a foreign online game developer, he is starting his own company with friends in Beijing.

Despite his promising career prospects, he applied for a Canadian visa last month, a decision he carefully weighed up.

"I could exercise outdoors in the morning, but here, with this dirty air, I dare not do so," he said. "The environment, medical care, education resources … they're all absolutely better than here."

I could exercise outdoors in the morning, but here, with this dirty air, I dare not do so. The environment, medical care, education resources … they're all absolutely better than here

To prepare for his application, Pang took French classes at a language-training centre between September 2011 and last November. About 90 per cent of his classmates were studying for the same purpose. He said classes were so popular that even hallways were crowded with people.

Although the Quebec government has tightened up its immigration criteria since March last year, the Pangs, both software engineers, met the basic requirements of Quebec's immigration programme for skilled workers.

After submitting his application a month ago, he said all he could do now was wait, probably for a year or two, owing to the many cases that immigration officials had to handle, the bulk of them from the mainland.

Pang said what ultimately motivated him was how difficult it was to get Beijing hukou (residency rights). The brown hukou booklet, which lists a person's birthplace, residence, marriage status and education level, ties their social welfare entitlements to their home province.

Pang said that although it did not affect him much now, not having Beijing hukou would mean that his children would not be able to enjoy the same education opportunities as local children in the capital.

In the late 1960s, to follow Mao Zedong's calls to support the development of western areas, Pang's parents, both Beijing locals, went to work in a factory in the mountains of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and became Ningxia hukou holders. Pang, who was born and went to school and university there, also holds Ningxia hukou.

The family moved with the factory to Ningxia's capital, Yinchuan , in the 1980s and although life became much better, they wanted to move back to Beijing because their relatives and friends were all there. In the 1990s, the government issued policies to allow families like the Pangs to retrieve Beijing residency rights, but the family failed to do so because of the complicated bureaucratic procedures.

When Pang was admitted to a graduate programme at a Beijing university in 2005, he tried once again to change his hukou. But because his grandparents, who had lived in Beijing all their lives and could have applied for local hukou for their grandchildren, had all died by then, that effort also bore no fruit.

Pang now has three ways to get Beijing hukou: study overseas and return, obtain a doctor's degree or encourage his wife to obtain a master's degree.

"Knowing that none of these ways would be easy, I told myself, why not try living in another country? Emigration might be a lot easier," he said.

He chose the skilled worker programme. Montreal became the place of his dream because Quebec is more immigrant-friendly than some other places and Montreal has a booming video game industry.

He imagines that life would not be difficult, because living costs in Beijing and Montreal are similar. A 3-1/2-room apartment (comprising a closed bedroom, living room, full kitchen and bathroom) along the subway in downtown Montreal costs C$600 (HK$4,650) to C$800 a month, roughly the same price he could rent out his one-bedroom apartment in Beijing for, Pang said.

"I've read many stories of others about their immigration lives. But this is actually something like a horse crossing a river - he knows how deep the river is only when he tries himself," Pang said. "I'm young. I can at least come back if things turn out bad."