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Illustration: Sarene Chan

Children of rich Chinese home alone in Canada face challenges

Despite lives of privilege, home-alone children of Chinese 'astronaut' migrants in Canada face emotional challenges and frustrations


When Danny Kuo was 18 years old, he was living alone in a large home in the exclusive Vancouver neighbourhood of Dunbar. He was a pre-medical student at the University of British Columbia.

A new SUV, a high school graduation gift, sat outside. If he was bored with that, there was always the Lexus. That belonged to his mother, who had just returned to Taiwan to be with Danny's father, a doctor who still practised there.

Life was good for this self-described "perfect, straight-A kid", and the future looked bright.

Within three years, though, he was failing his studies and on the brink of expulsion. Worse still, he had been convicted of assault. "Yeah, that was kind of a bad year," Kuo, now 34, recalled with a mix of understatement and wonder at his behaviour.

Kuo was part of an "astronaut family" - families whose children live and study in western countries while one or both parents shuttle back and forth to Taiwan, Hong Kong or the mainland to work. Such children are often affluent, bilingual and attend top schools. They have a choice of passports, and the opportunity for a transnational lifestyle spanning the globe. With their own cars and their own homes, many are the envy of their young peers.

But the children of astronaut families also grapple with premature independence, the pain of separation from loved ones, and alienation from their places of birth. Resentful of the arrangement, some reject the work-driven choices of their parents.

Justin Tse
Such are the findings of a new study into the "astronaut" phenomenon, published in last month's edition of the peer-reviewed journal. Authors Justin Tse and Dr Johanna Waters explored the frustrations of children left behind by parents who "simultaneously isolate them in Canada and function as occasional drop-in parental supervisors".

Tse and Waters focused on Hong Kong immigrants in Vancouver, although the astronaut experience is common among well-off Chinese families around the world. And, as mainland affluence increases, it looks set to continue.

Vancouver has been shaped by waves of Chinese migration. Mainlanders now dominate, but in the 1980s and 1990s it was Hongkongers, many fearful of the handover, who transformed the city. The vast majority of the 300,000 Hong Kong residents who moved to Canada in those decades settled in greater Vancouver or Toronto. But tens of thousands eventually returned to Hong Kong to work, dividing their lives with partners and children back in Canada.

Tse, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia's school of geography, said the situations that he encountered in his research reflected the experiences of those in his social circle.

"I had friends who were in these living arrangements," he said. "They suddenly found that they had a parent who would come home and they didn't know who this parent was, this guy who had this frozen image of them as kids. Suddenly, they were getting free advice from their dad that would have applied to them as a 12 year old, but they were 22, 23, 24 years old."

The study was based on interviews with dozens of children of astronaut parents over a 10-year period in Vancouver and Hong Kong, ending in 2010. "Katie" told the interviewers: "When I first came [to Vancouver], the first two years I cried a lot". "Jason" said he felt little attachment to his father. Hong Kong was described by "Jeremy" as a place where people "attack you mercilessly … and tend to show off". "I can't stand the competitiveness [of Hong Kong] … I would not survive," said "David".

Tse and Waters found that children of astronaut parents "often perceive [their parents] as inconsistent, fragmentary interruptions in their otherwise independent lives". The arrangement "changes the character of intra-family relations", they found.

Danny Kuo, who was not part of the study, said a burden of responsibility fell on his elder brother's shoulders when the family moved from Taiwan to Vancouver in 1992. Danny was 13. His brother, then 15, spoke acceptable English; their mother never learned the language.

"He would do most of the stuff around the house, dealing with the government and that sort of thing, and I think that kind of damaged the relationship at the time, between my brother and my mother," said Kuo. "There was a lot of responsibility."

Kuo said that even as a child he understood why his father spent most of his time in Taipei, visiting the family only once a month despite having officially migrated with them.

"I accepted the fact. Someone has got to make a living, and pay for our lifestyle," Kuo said. He added that his father was a strict disciplinarian; he felt at the time that his life actually improved when they were separated.

"My Dad, he didn't believe in anything less than perfect, so for me, there was no more ass-kicking … I was still getting straight A's in school, so when my father comes home he just sees my marks [and] he doesn't want to be a bad guy," said Kuo.

The extent of the astronaut arrangement is uncertain, but a 2007 study by the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia found that two-thirds of male Hong Kong migrants (aged 25 to 44) actually lived and worked outside Canada.

In 1991, 40 per cent of Hong Kong migrants in Vancouver were at some stage part of transnational families, according to a study by Success, an NGO that helps immigrants.

The CEO of Success, Queenie Choo, agreed that about half of ethnic Chinese immigrant families probably used the astronaut arrangement. "It's nothing new," said Choo, 56, who moved to Britain to study at the age of 18, then to Canada by herself in her early 20s. "I missed my parents a lot, but on the other hand I was glad to have my independence. I adjusted."

But some do not.

Choo said that while the children of Vancouver's astronaut families could seem privileged - "I have seen them, kids in these fast cars, and you know the money is not coming from their own pocket" - she also felt sorry for them. "It's not just about the material ... no one can replace your parents," she said. "These living arrangements, maybe they provide a shelter, a place to stay, but that does not make a home."

Tse said there was a consensus among researchers that few people migrate intending to become astronaut parents, but only choose to do so after economic challenges become clear. "There is this idea that maybe the money will hold the family together, but the reality, the emotional reality, is that money doesn't hold emotions together," Tse said.

Tse said collective memories of traumatic upheavals in Chinese history triggered a desire to migrate - "That was especially pronounced after Tiananmen Square" - but breadwinners struggled to find good jobs or business success.

Illustration: Sarene Chan
"People calculated: we have to go somewhere," he said. "But then they got here [Vancouver] and discovered that they couldn't [find] work, or that Canada's business immigration programme was not ideal. They have to pay higher taxes. They can't replicate their business model from Hong Kong here.

"This is where they make this calculation [for the breadwinner to return to Hong Kong]. But the money has to stay within the family … within the Chinese ideology - 'So long as the money stays within the family then our family is together'."

He described the astronaut arrangement as an attempt to maximize a family's "economic prowess", by securing the safety net of a foreign education and nationality for children, while maintaining parental earning power. Co-author Waters, an Oxford University lecturer in human geography and fellow of Kellogg College, said an emphasis on the importance of education was a driving force. "An English-medium education continues to be prized in East Asia," she noted.

However, parents risked underestimating the negative impact of the astronaut arrangement, both emotionally and in terms of academic success. "Research is increasingly suggesting that, in many cases, it is not worth it," Waters said. She went on: "My own research on families from Hong Kong and Taiwan has suggested that households are put under tremendous strain and that, as a result of split family arrangements, children develop strained and negatively impacted relationships with their parents."

Astronaut parents, she said, "clearly want the very best for their children, but children are complex beings with emotional as well as material and educational needs".

Kuo certainly did not lack materially when his mother, after six years in Vancouver, moved back to Taiwan. Kuo's brother was already studying medicine in Montreal. "When I graduated high school, it was like, 'My work here is done'," Kuo said of his mother.

Although his parents visited regularly, Kuo set about making the most of his freedom. His social circle consisted of former school friends unburdened by the demands of pre-med study. His academic results plunged.

In Kuo's words, "one thing led to another". In 1999, he and some friends attacked someone - "We beat that guy pretty bad" - and Kuo was convicted of assault with a weapon. A first-time offender, he pleaded guilty and was put on probation, his record eventually expunged.

"I was this perfect kid," Kuo said as he recounted this life-changing experience. "I had this spotless record, you know? A UBC pre-med student. I had 40 or 50 people giving me these character references."

Kuo said he gave up his old lifestyle and became a committed Christian. He moved to the Philippines to complete his medical studies at the insistence of his father, but later returned to Vancouver. After a long process of study and certification, Kuo is now a medical resident in nearby Victoria. His father passed away in Taiwan in 2007, and his mother, now 64, moved back to Vancouver.

Tse and Waters found that despite a parental expectation that children might want to return to work in their homeland, many forged strong bonds with Vancouver and Canada. Their interviewees cited Vancouver as a leisurely place, in contrast to Hong Kong's "alienating hostility".

Such attitudes could have substantial policy implications, as governments try to anticipate migration patterns, the study said. Tse said that the next question for the adult children of astronaut families was whether there is a place for them in Vancouver's economy.

"In the literature, there is this assumption that, 'Of course the young people will want to go back there [to HK or greater China]', but if you talk to the young people there is no 'of course'," he said.

Tse and Waters urged parents to talk to their children before embarking on the astronaut lifestyle.

"Have your political and economic calculations," Tse said. "But within that, factor in what your kids are saying. When you're talking to an 11 or 12-year-old you're not after a rational opinion, you just want to find out, 'Well, how would you feel if Dad was in Hong Kong'."

"[Parents] must realise that their relationship with their child will inevitably be affected if they leave their child abroad and the child may resent this for a long time," Waters said.

Married for five years, Kuo and his Taiwanese-born wife hope for children of their own. He said he would never impose an astronaut arrangement on them. "Definitely not. I couldn't do it," he said. "I would not want to be separated from them."

But he insisted his father's choices and sacrifices were in the family's best interest. "I don't know how my Dad did it; he was a great man. It was definitely the hardest on him. He's the one who took the responsibility."


Legal Troubles

Impounded sports cars used for illegal street racing. Photo: CBC
The children of well-off astronaut families appear to have everything going for them, but they are sometimes in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

One afternoon in August 2011, 13 young drivers decided to use Vancouver's Highway 99 as a drag strip.

Driving Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other high-end sports cars worth a total of C$2million (HK$14.74 million) the racers blocked other drivers to allow friends to speed alongside each other at up to 200km/h. Most were in their teens and all were under 21, according to media reports.

The drivers were presumed to have astronaut parents: the few names that were released were Chinese, the drivers appeared East Asian, and several were identified as students of elite St George's boarding school. The school released a statement that pointedly did not deny the claims. One Audi R8 boasted a lucky "888" number plate.

Although C$196 fines were the maximum allowed, the lesson proved more expensive for some of the boys (or their parents). Four cars were confiscated under laws allowing seizure of assets used in unlawful activity.

Guo Lianjie and husband Tang Jihui flew to Vancouver in May 2012, for a reunion with their son, Tang Yuanxi, who had been studying at community colleges for six years.

But the day before their return flight to Guangdong, Guo vanished. Two weeks later, the slight bespectacled son appeared distraught alongside his father to beg for information about her whereabouts.

But police say Tang Yuanxi murdered Guo and packed her remains in a suitcase that washed up on a distant island. Tang is also charged with conspiring to kill his father. Police have not commented on a motive. A trial is scheduled for next year.

The most notorious astronaut family in Vancouver is that of Lai Tong Sang. The infamy has nothing to do with the behaviour of his son and two daughters.

Authorities allege Lai headed the Wo On Lok triad when the young family migrated in 1996 amid a gang war with "Broken Tooth" Wan Kuok-koi. Triads hired to assassinate Lai shot up the family's Vancouver home in 1997.

This year, immigration authorities had Lai's residency revoked. His whereabouts remain unknown, but he is not believed to have lived in Canada for many years. He participated in this year's immigration hearing by phone from Macau. His wife and children were allowed to stay in Canada.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Lost in space