Immigrants flee Canada recession for rosy territory

HONG Kong's wealthiest and brightest are fleeing the Canadian recession for the warm economic climate back home.

In some cases they are even abandoning their plush, waterfront condos in their haste to get back to the business of making money. Recent statistics from Canada show as many as one in six Hong Kong migrants are returning to the territory - some even before obtaining citizenship.

''They can afford just to close the door, lock it and then run,'' said Lucy Roschat of the Hong Kong-Canada Business Association. ''If it's condos, people don't bother liquidating. It is just a drop in the ocean for them.'' Ms Roschat said family homes were less likely to be abandoned because of their higher value. But for 24-year-old Eddy - who did not want to reveal his last name - property was not an issue, it was his inability to find work.

''I spent six months looking for work in Canada,'' says Eddy, who swapped unemployment for engineering when he returned from Toronto last year. He said his situation was typical of Canada's university students.

''Students looking for work in Canada get very discouraged and disappointed,'' he said. Some end up taking jobs as clerks or pizza delivery workers. Others retreat into the education system, preferring to pursue another degree rather than face an empty job market.

More than 10 per cent of Canadians are out of work, but the rate among Chinese immigrants is much higher. A survey conducted by Toronto's Chinese Community Services Agency found that more than 23 per cent of recent immigrants from Hong Kong and mainland China were unemployed.


Pete goes to the University of Toronto's job centre two or three times a week. He received his degree in commerce and East Asian studies a year and a half ago. Although he speaks Cantonese and Putonghua as well as English, he is not optimistic about his chances of finding work.

''There's no way a recent graduate is going to get a job, because we don't have the work experience compared to guys who are laid off, who might have six years' experience. It's really hard here right now. I've heard stories of people who've graduated two years ago and are still out there looking. It's very frightening.'' Catherine Lepard, an employment counsellor in Toronto, said the high unemployment rate among Chinese reflected the obstacles confronting new Chinese immigrants.

''For the ones who have come straight to Canada and don't have any Canadian experience, it's almost impossible for them to get a job,'' Ms Lepard said. ''The people who are doing the hiring are not going to pick up a phone and call Hong Kong to get a character reference so they aren't going to bother to research this individual, so they're less likely to give them a chance.'' She says the language barrier is another major obstacle. In a country where each job advertisement yields about a hundred responses, even strong accents can dissuade potential employers from hiring Chinese immigrants.

Immigrants who decide to return to Hong Kong bring with them overseas experience and improved English skills. Those who opt to stay in Canada paint a bleak picture of the economic landscape.


Alone in the dining room of his Montreal restaurant, Tony Chan surveys his ailing business. Chopsticks and silverware are neatly laid on each of the 40 empty tables. Pots of jasmine tea sit, brewed and ready to serve. Somewhere in the kitchen a cook and a waitress try to stay busy.

Mr Chan came to Canada three decades ago, eager to begin a profitable life in this vast, new country. But he has long since abandoned his dreams of wealth - just staying in business is challenge enough.


''Before, I had six cooks. Now I have three cooks. I cut half. I have no choice,'' Mr Chan said. ''Everything is expensive. Business is so low. I have to support my family. I work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I have no choice! Some people say 'makemoney' but I just want to survive.'' More than 120,000 Canadian enterprises closed down between 1991 and 1993. Of those still afloat, over two thirds describe business in their area as ''bad'', according to a Statistics Canada survey.

Vancouver-based businessman Peter Chan (no relation to Tony Chan) says dreams of making a fortune here are just that - dreams.

''I like it here, but making money? No!'' Mr Chan said. ''I think Canada is a good place to retire, not a good place to work.'' He says the house in Toronto for which he paid C$750,000 (HK$4.4 million) 10 years ago is now worth just $600,000.


Richard Allen, chief economist of the B. C. Central Credit Union, said that one Asian client, a businessman, was so anxious to get back that he sold for $400,000 a condominium he had bought for more than $700,000.

Mr Allen said this was no isolated incident. He had heard similar stories from colleagues in the industry: ''They [Hong Kong immigrants] have no intention of remaining here so they just dump their property in their haste to get back.

''Also, the environment has changed since they bought it. Fear of 1997 seems to have subsided so people who have set up a refuge don't feel they need it as much.'' Ms Roschat said Canada's tax environment helped fuel the exodus. Although Asian investment has cushioned the recession's impact on Vancouver, income tax can siphon away more than half of a high earner's pay cheque.


On top of that is federal and provincial tax, adding more than 15 per cent to the cost of goods and services. ''The tax is killing people,'' said May, a returnee and former Canadian shop owner. ''People say it is worse than in communist countries.'' Hong Kong's higher salaries are also luring many of Vancouver's Asian immigrants home, Ms Roschat said.

''I know two people who had very good jobs over here, making $100,000 a year,'' she said. ''But they were offered $300,000 in Hong Kong, so they left.'' May says: ''If people tell me they are going to Canada, I tell them hold onto your money. Don't buy a house. Don't buy a business'.''