Go East, rich man

International | Hong Kong emigres to Canada remain under the crown

Issue: "Hong Kong," June 28, 1997

Richmond, B.C.--The Gateway Theatre near Vancouver used to present its entire season in English. Not anymore. Today, more than half its productions are in Chinese, including five-hour-long classic operas and Canto-pop music concerts. Backstage, a room houses a Buddhist shrine where ceremonies are held to rid the theater of demons before each performance. Meanwhile, the food concession is mostly idle. Even though it now offers green tea and Chinese cookies, it does little business. A Chinese audience traditionally brings food from home.

That Richmond, British Columbia, boasts a Chinese theater is proof, some say, that Hong Kong will not die. If its relationship with China becomes untenable, its wealthiest and brightest citizens will carry on in Canada. Located south of Vancouver on a giant sandbar at the mouth of the Fraser River, Richmond's population of 150,000 is already 45 percent Chinese, most of whom have moved to Canada in the last five years. Fully 75 percent of Richmond's new Chinese residents are from Hong Kong, intent on establishing a permanent residence, a refuge should one become necessary.

Canadian immigration laws are specially designed to throw the country's doors wide open to wealthy Asians. Anyone with $250,000 to invest in Canada's economy is a "business class" immigrant with a guaranteed entrance. The law also recognizes an "entrepreneur class," welcoming people who promise to set up a business and hire Canadian workers.

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Hong Kong's cash-rich capitalists take advantage of both classes. But they come to Richmond in particular because its island setting, with the sea in front and majestic mountains on three sides, reminds them of home. They even profess a preference for the city's name, pronouncing it to sound like "rich man." No one knows how much money has entered the city, but signs of opulence are everywhere. On the No. 3 road, Richmond's main street, Hong Kong banks are building multi-storied Canadian branch offices. And every business displays signs that give at least equal space to Chinese advertising. Help-wanted ads specify that applicants must speak Chinese.

On the north end of town six Chinese shopping malls, with a seventh under construction, cater exclusively to Chinese shoppers from all over B.C.'s lower mainland. The malls carry names like Aberdeen and Parker Place, but on the inside stores and products are identified only by Chinese characters. Any English is relegated to small print. The malls are so attractive that Chinese world travelers often schedule special stops at the nearby Vancouver International Airport in order to shop in Richmond.

Needless to say, Richmond struggles with communication problems. For first-generation immigrants, brochures explaining city services have had to be translated into Chinese. The second generation is being encouraged to learn English. Mike Kirk, manager of social planning for the city, reports that as late as 1991, only 16 percent of public-school students required classes in English as a second language (ESL). But today, 44 percent are taking ESL. Even extracurricular activities have changed dramatically. One high school, long known for its football program, saw only six boys come out for the team last fall. On the other hand, 200 youths signed up for badminton.

City planning has taken an unexpected turn. Previously, Richmond was known as a city of single-family dwellings. Planning was horizontal. But Hong Kongers think vertically. The city is learning to zone for buildings that include shops and apartments, with perhaps a temple on the seventh floor and a day-care center on the ninth.

Because many Chinese maintain businesses and homes in Hong Kong, they have little motivation to blend into the Canadian culture. Worse, they spend months at a time working overseas while their teenage children remain in Richmond, alone, but with plenty of spending money and access to the family Mercedes. Parenting is limited to faxed messages. Not surprisingly, Chinese youth gangs are becoming a problem.

But efforts are being made to bring the two solitudes together. Ray Woodard, pastor of Richmond's The Towers Baptist Church, reports that a mission his church sponsored for Chinese immigrants quickly grew too big to meet in the mother church's building. Now the two congregations have jointly formed the New Wineskins Society and will soon begin building a new structure large enough to accommodate both groups. It took them four years and many joint prayer sessions to reach the point where they could trust one another enough to work together. But Mr. Woodard says the effort has prepared them to make a major impact: "It's our goal to show the city a model of God's reconciling love." Especially if reconciliation on the other side of the Pacific seems unlikely.


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