From Hong Kong to Canada and back: the migrants who came home from home

For Hongkongers who migrated to the North American country and returned upwardly mobile, a sense of place is a thing of the past

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 11:43am

Gilbert Li is as Canadian as maple syrup, poutine and his beloved Vancouver Canucks.

The 36-year-old IT specialist for a major bank even worked from home to watch the Canucks recent ill-fated run in the National Hockey League playoffs for the Stanley Cup. "Horrible," he says of the team's clean-sweep elimination by the San Jose Sharks this month.

He loves Vancouver's clean air and open spaces, and its food scene. His mother, relatives and some of his best friends live in the west coast Canadian city.

But for the past eight years, Li has called Hong Kong home. "I was always thinking it would be just a year or two," Li says of his 2004 return to his birthplace.

Li migrated to Canada with his family in 1983, but recrossed the Pacific to carve out a life in the SAR, drawn by a complex blend of opportunity, economics, personal ties and love.

It is no exaggeration to consider Hong Kong an extension of Canada in Asia. It is equally true for residents of Hong Kong to consider Canada their natural home in North America

He has plenty of company; an analysis by the South China Morning Post last week found that more than 65,000 Hong Kong-born immigrants to Canada had probably returned to the SAR between 1996 and 2011. Go back another 15 years, and the number of participants in this unprecedented wave of return migration swells to more than 153,000.

They represent a large component of Hong Kong's middle and moneyed classes - many having migrated to Canada under wealth-attraction schemes. Many returned with educations and English skills acquired in Canada's best schools and universities.

But the Hong Kong government has failed to acknowledge this vast community because it does not officially recognise their Canadian identity out of deference to China's nationality laws, which preclude dual citizenship. Ottawa, however, is well aware of their presence and impact.

"With 295,000 Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, this is truly Canada's city in Asia," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the Asia Society in Hong Kong in March, citing an estimate based on a 2011 telephone poll. He continued: "It is no exaggeration to consider Hong Kong an extension of Canada in Asia. It is equally true for residents of Hong Kong to consider Canada their natural home in North America."

When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Hong Kong last November to sign a tax treaty with the territory, his government's media unit underlined its importance by citing the "estimated 300,000 Canadians" in the SAR. In contrast, the Hong Kong government told journalists there were only 16,554.

Such sensitivities matter little to those like Li, who readily embrace their Canadian nationality while living thousands of kilometres away, swapping the maple leaf for the bauhinia.

Li recalls little about Hong Kong before he migrated. He remembers going to kindergarten - "it was on a hill; I think it was on Garden Road" - and looking back he realises his family was "pretty well off". "It's not like I had to go take the school bus … We had a driver who would take me to kindergarten, so I remember that," he said. "We lived in a two-storey apartment in Pok Fu Lam." When the family moved to Canada "it was kind of a trend" for middle-class and wealthy Hongkongers, Li said, spurred by business reasons in his family's case. The choice came down to San Francisco or Vancouver, but an easier immigration process in Canada won out. Li's mother was also concerned her two young sons might be drafted into the US military. Uncles and cousins - and more than 300,000 other Hongkongers in the 1980s and 90s - eventually joined them.

Li grew up, went to school and the Simon Fraser University and became thoroughly Canadian in the process. But when he graduated from business and computer science studies, hiring froze in North America in the wake of the September 11 attacks. So he struck out for Hong Kong, where he had last lived when he was five.

It's a typical story, according to University of British Columbia geographer Daniel Hiebert. He said his numerous Hong Kong students (UBC has been jokingly dubbed the University of a Billion Chinese) "have a very fluid imagination" about their futures, with some saying they might continue to study in Canada, look for opportunities in Hong Kong or end up working in both places.

"They are living their lives in accordance with all of these considerations: Where do I go to school? Where do I work? Where is my family?" said Hiebert, who has studied reverse migration and advised the Canadian government on the phenomenon. "All of our previous models have tended to treat people as staying in one place at one time, but that may be changing. Now, you can see these people really living in different places at any one time."

Hiebert said that accurately understanding the scale of reverse migration was crucial across the gamut of social policy. "It has an impact, say, on your education policy," he said. "How do you predict how many kids are in the education system when they might spend one year in Hong Kong and then be in Canada the next, then in Hong Kong after that?"

Also among the ramifications of this cross-Pacific lifestyle are gyrations of the property market, particularly in a relatively smaller city like Vancouver. The post-handover rush back to Hong Kong, coupled with the Asian financial crisis, coincided with significant price falls in Vancouver. "It was evident that not only was an exodus occurring, but also that offshore investors were liquidating their Vancouver holdings to offset financial losses in Asia," wrote David Ley in Millionaire Migrants, which addresses the impact of East Asian migration on Vancouver.

Researcher Nuowen Deng of Simon Fraser University found in a 2007 study of returnees that the safety net of "Canada's political stability and Canadian citizenship" was a key motivation for many Hongkongers when they decided to migrate. This is reflected by immigration numbers, which exploded after the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong, then plummeted after the smooth handover in 1997. In 1994, more than 44,000 Hongkongers arrived in Canada; now, the few hundred Hongkongers arriving in Canada each year are far outstripped by the thousands returning.

A Canadian passport and education endows returnees with "greater human capital" in the eyes of employers, Deng said. Canadian citizenship can be acquired after only three years of residency, helping explain the short tenure of many Hong Kong immigrants. Unlike the US, Canada does not tax citizens overseas. Dual Canadian citizenship has clear benefits for recipients, but carries potential downside from a wider perspective.

Andy Yan, an adjunct professor of planning at UBC, said a city like Vancouver risked becoming "a global suburb of Hong Kong - a wonderful place to live and have a vacation home, but you don't do business or make a living there". "Are we at the situation where you have people living here [in Vancouver] but doing a 3,500km commute? For Hong Kong, is it a benefit or a net loss to have these people splitting their time in Vancouver?"

Other potential risks were highlighted in 2006 when Canadian authorities were inundated by thousands of Lebanese-Canadian dual citizens seeking evacuation on Ottawa-funded flights during an outbreak of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel. "Many of these people had never set foot in Canada" before the Canadian government was asked to rescue them from a warzone, Hiebert said.

Such a dramatic scenario might seem unlikely in Hong Kong, but the incident raises the uncomfortable question of how much responsibility a country should take for non-resident citizens, and whether immigrants who don't intend to stay even deserve passports. "But measuring future intentions is difficult," Hiebert noted.

Li seeks no free ride from the Canadian government. Initially he was working for his father's banking software firm in Hong Kong, flying back and forth to manage the company's Vancouver office. "I was kind of thinking just short term [in Hong Kong], then see how it goes," Li said. Almost a decade later, he's still there, no longer working for his father, but for a major local bank.

Along the way, he reconnected with South Korean Kelly Lee; the couple had dated in Vancouver as students, but Lee moved back to South Korea and was also dividing her time in Hong Kong, where she was working in fashion. They married in 2007 and live in Taikoo Shing.

Although Li said he fits in perfectly in Hong Kong, he does not regard himself as totally local and his Cantonese has a Canadian twang. "When I came back, the first four or five years, all my friends were CBCs [Canadian-born Chinese] or ABCs [American-born Chinese], they were all from overseas. I didn't really have many local friends," he said. "Now it's a mixture. But I used to just hang out with the expats in Lan Kwai Fong. Everyone was pretty Westernised, so it wasn't that big of a difference for me."

He misses the comfortable environment in Vancouver - "Hong Kong is so congested" - and sometimes thinks about moving back, but higher pay and lower taxes, coupled with proximity to his in-laws in South Korea, keep him in Hong Kong.

Socially, he says Vancouver can be dull, a common complaint among young returnees. "One thing good about Hong Kong is it's an international city, a fast-paced city, which I definitely enjoy more than the lifestyle in Vancouver. Whenever I go back I find it can get pretty boring."

Ironically, Vancouver's sky-high property prices, fuelled by waves of Hong Kong then mainland Chinese migration, also help keep Li in Taikoo Shing. Li owned a flat in Hong Kong, but sold it ahead of the most-recent property boom there too. "I missed the boom in both places," he adds with a sigh.


The list of those who have crossed the Pacific twice reads like a who's who of the city's elite

Businessmen Li Ka-shing, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi and Richard Li Tzar-kai

Li Ka-shing is widely credited with inspiring Hong Kong's moneyed classes to move to Vancouver, having purchased a home in the suburb of Oakridge in the 1970s. Both his sons hold Canadian citizenship. The family's links to Canada remain strong, with Li Ka-shing transforming Vancouver's skyline with his purchase of the 1986 Expo site. His Canadian investments also include Husky Energy, of which Victor Li is co-chairman. Victor Li famously tried to bail out the then-bankrupt Air Canada in 2003, though the deal fell through. Richard Li has also touted his Canadian citizenship in bidding for Canadian firms.

Other business figures: Cheng Yu-tung, Pansy and Lawrence Ho, Michael Chan Yue-kwong, David Ting Kwok-ho

Entertainer Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing

The late Canto-pop star and actor was part of the pre-handover rush to Canada. He moved to the city in 1990 and bought a home in Vancouver's elite British Properties neighbourhood which overlooks the ocean. He kept a low profile for five years, secured Canadian citizenship, then re-emerged triumphantly on to the Hong Kong showbiz scene in 1995. After his suicide in 2003, his Canadian fans sponsored a bench in Vancouver's Stanley Park, facing the ocean and the British Properties neighbourhood in the distance.

Other entertainers: Anita Mui Yim-fong, Nicholas Tse Ting-fung, Carina Lau Kar-ling, Charlene Choi, Edison Chen Koon-hei

Sportsman Marco Fu Ka-chun

The snooker star moved to Canada with his family, winning titles in Canada as a teenager before returning to Hong Kong to compete. He won the world amateur championship in 1997 before turning professional, shooting to wider fame in 1998 by beating superstar Ronnie O'Sullivan on his way to the final of the Grand Prix. He lost the final, but eventually won the 2007 Grand Prix, again beating O'Sullivan.

Other sports stars: Ho Man-lok

Beauty queen Carat Cheung

The reigning Miss Hong Kong continues a long tradition of Canadian winners of the pageant, which has outreach shows in Toronto and Vancouver. She was runner up in the 2009 Miss Chinese Vancouver pageant, and hosted a Cantonese-language television show in the city.

Other pageant winners: Kayi Cheung (Miss HK 2007), Aimee Chan (Miss HK 2006), Sonija Kwok (Miss HK 1999), Anne Heung (Miss HK 1998)

Government and UN official Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun

The director-general of the World Health Organisation, Chan received her medical degrees from the University of Western Ontario in the 1970s, before returning to Hong Kong in 1978 to practise. She went on to serve as Hong Kong's director of health during the 1997 bird flu and 2003 Sars outbreaks. Upon her elevation to the WHO, her identity as the first Chinese national to hold such a prominent position on a UN body was widely cited internationally, although her Canadian citizenship was not. She has defended her right to dual citizenship, but is also believed to hold an SAR passport.

Other officials: Frederick Ma Si-hang, Greg So Kam-leung, Gabriel Leung Cheuk-wai

Legislator Albert Cheng King-hon

The legislative councillor, broadcaster and businessman known as Taipan migrated to Canada as a young man in the 1960s, working as an aircraft engineer, but returned in the 1980s. He was forced to give up his Canadian passport upon seeking election in 2004, but has said he hopes one day to reapply for citizenship, return to Canada and retire. The former legislator has argued that attacking the loyalty of dual nationality holders represents an erosion of the principle of "one country, two systems".

Other lawmakers: Chan Wai-yip, Cyd Ho Sau-lan