The Hongcouver

Home is where the glowing heart is: Why you feel more Canadian when you live in Hong Kong

For thousands of young returnees, Canadian identity and jobs are easier to find in the SAR

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 6:25am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:52am

Is it possible to feel perfectly Canadian while living and working in Hong Kong? Indeed, is it possible to feel even more Canadian in Hong Kong, than back “home” in Vancouver or Toronto?

The questions are raised by a recent study of the children of Hong Kong immigrants to Canada, who reversed the journeys undertaken by their parents and now live in the SAR.

Contrary to expectations, the study by academics from the University of British Columbia and the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that the study participants, aged 23-32, embraced their Canadian identity. Their research was published in last month’s Journal of International Migration and Integration.

Returnees (not a strictly accurate term in this case, since the study also included young people born in Canada) are often caricatured as “citizens of convenience” with no particular loyalty to Canada. But UBC social work professor Miu Chung Yan said in an interview that his study found this to be untrue; participants used “Canadian cultural values and practices to distinguish themselves from local Chinese”, and felt strongly Canadian.

As study participant “Tim” put it: “If Hong Kong versus Canada was in a certain sport match, I would definitely be cheering for Canada.”

Yan said in an interview: “When you are put in an alien situation you start trying to find yourself. Canadian culture becomes what they use to define themselves.”

Yan, who migrated from Hong Kong to Vancouver in 1993, used his personal experiences to describe the phenomenon: “When I come to Hong Kong, people see me as Canadian. But when I am in Canada, people see me as a Chinese…I’m not saying that in Canada they are not Canadian, but the problem is that they do not sense it. It’s only when they are away from Canada that they define it.”

The phenomenon of return migration to Hong Kong is massive, but hard to quantify. Yan and his fellow researchers cite a previous estimate of 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong, a figure Yan believes conservative. The South China Morning Post has done its own calculations, identifying returneeship since 1981 of at least 150,000, based on comparisons between census data , immigration data and death rates. This excludes Canadian-born “returnees”. Whatever the true figure, the exodus of Hongkongers and their children from Canada has been enormous.

Yan said most of the study’s 18 participants (10 from Vancouver, eight from Toronto) explained their presence in Hong Kong by citing a relative lack of opportunities in Canada. “It’s not that the economy in Canada is no good, it’s just that the nature of the economy is not what these young people want. Many want to go into international business, or something like that, and the Canadian economy cannot offer them something like this.”

While the study debunks some assumptions made by critics of “citizens of convenience”, it may make uncomfortable reading for those who believe economic integration improves with successive generations. Yan said “systemic racism” remained a problem for career advancement in Canada, exacerbating the “limited social capital” of young people raised in Hong Kong-style households in Canada, who lacked connections needed to thrive in the wider community.

Yan said the issue was not that authorities should inhibit the movement of young people seeking better opportunities, but that Canada should “be making better use of the human resources that we have”. “If we have this group of young people who are so educated and we have trained them so well, but we are not using them, that is something we have to consider. Is it an education system problem? Is our economy a problem?”

As for the current wave of mainland Chinese migration to Canada, Yan said his study’s findings were not perfectly applicable. But if parents retained the Chinese hukou household registration (residency) rights, their children “would be like the young people I studied in Hong Kong”.

With Canada having officially shut down the Immigrant Investor Programme (IIP) last week, changes to economic immigration policies could also influence Chinese rates of returneeship.

“For mainland Chinese, I can put a bet on the table,” said Yan. “They are cancelling this [IIP], but I’ve heard they will put a more expensive [immigration scheme] in its place. So what will happen … [if it attracts just] rich people who just want to use their money to buy their identity and put some time here? At the end of the day, all the young, all the second generation, will move back to China to take up their business, by default.”

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 [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70