Van­cou­ver-bound: Cana­di­ans exit Hong Kong as Bei­jing edges in

Many ex-pats headed home fled city once be­fore when it came un­der Chi­nese rule

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE

The sheen of op­por­tu­nity and ad­ven­ture that made Hong Kong into one of the world’s great gate­ways – the City of Life, as it calls it­self – has dulled for some as the cost of liv­ing rises and the grip of China tight­ens.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey, nearly a third of the Hong Kong pop­u­la­tion is think­ing about leav­ing the city of 7.4 mil­lion. Canada, as it has in the past, is play­ing an out­size role in their search for an al­ter­na­tive; Hong Kong has boasted an es­ti­mated 300,000 Cana­dian pass­port hold­ers, enough to rank the Asian fi­nan­cial cen­tre as the equiv­a­lent of one of Canada’s 20 most pop­u­lous cities.

Many Hong Kong res­i­dents fled the is­land for Canada be­fore it came un­der Chi­nese rule in 1997 – fear­ing Bei­jing’s power. They later re­turned for jobs. Now, the cur­rent of hu­man move­ment has once again shifted, mov­ing back to­ward Canada. It is for some a third cross-Pa­cific move. They call them­selves the “re-re­turnees.”

“Peo­ple are think­ing twice about stay­ing in Hong Kong,” said Eu­gene Ho, an en­tre­pre­neur who is pres­i­dent of the lo­cal Univer­sity of British Columbia alumni chap­ter. It is hold­ing a ses­sion on Tues­day to guide peo­ple through the process of mov­ing back to Canada, from sort­ing through taxes to se­cur­ing a mort­gage and find­ing the right school for their kids.

A third of Hong Kong’s pop­u­la­tion wants to leave, says a sur­vey re­leased by the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong ear­lier this month. Their top rea­sons were “too much po­lit­i­cal dis­pute” and so­cial rifts, over­crowd­ing and dis­sat­is­fac­tion with lo­cal po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions. Fifty-one per cent of those be­tween the ages of 18 and 30 want out. They cited Canada as their most de­sired desti­na­tion. Cana­dian im­mi­gra­tion data show that the num­ber of peo­ple from Hong Kong ap­ply­ing for per­ma­nent res­i­dency in Canada in­creased by 50 per cent in 2016, to 1,360, and has re­mained at that el­e­vated level.

What those fig­ures do not count, how­ever, are the peo­ple who al­ready hold Cana­dian pass­ports, and who are slip­ping back across the Pa­cific.

They are peo­ple such as Har­jeet Gre­wal, 39, a Can­tonese speaker who was born in Hong Kong but is dis­turbed by its chang­ing po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment and in­flu­ence from Bei­jing. “You have to be care­ful what you are say­ing and I don’t want to live in that kind of cli­mate for the long term," Ms. Gre­wal says.

John Lu­ciw has his own rea­sons. Mr. Lu­ciw, 51, a long-time Hong Kong res­i­dent who plays in a Trag­i­cally Hip cover band, runs a news site for ex­pats and is now so done with the city’s bru­tal cost pres­sures that, “I don’t even know if I’m go­ing to come back for a visit."

And 45-year-old An­drew Loo, a banker, de­camped for Van­cou­ver to es­cape a high-pres­sure ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in a city where he was once told his six-year-old daugh­ter was “av­er­age at best” when she in­ter­viewed for a pri­mary-school spot.

Mr. Loo em­bod­ies the shift­ing cur­rents that have car­ried peo­ple to and from Hong Kong. Born in the city to a fa­ther in the ship­ping in­dus­try, his fam­ily moved to Van­cou­ver when he was 10. They were, like many fam­i­lies, wor­ried about what would hap­pen to Hong Kong when it was re­turned to Chi­nese rule in 1997, an anx­i­ety that prompted an ex­tra­or­di­nary tide of em­i­gra­tion, par­tic­u­larly to Canada, which of­fered rel­a­tive prox­im­ity and a wel­com­ing en­vi­ron­ment. In 1994 alone, 48,000 peo­ple ar­rived from Hong Kong.

But when the worst fears about Bei­jing rule failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize, the tide very quickly re­versed course. Mr. Loo was among the droves who re­turned – a flock of 65,000 be­tween 1996 and 2011, ac­cord­ing to a South China Morn­ing Post anal­y­sis.

In the sum­mer of 2001, he and the woman who be­came his wife trav­elled to Hong Kong for the Dragon Boat Car­ni­val. Cana­dian-ed­u­cated and a Can­tonese speaker, he found him­self in de­mand. “I had two job of­fers in a very short span of time,” he said. Hong Kong, the land of op­por­tu­nity, had hooked an­other young Cana­dian.

It’s “a very easy place to get used to,” he said. Taxes are low, jobs are rel­a­tively plenty, salaries can be high and do­mes­tic help in­ex­pen­sive.

He mar­ried and had three chil­dren, build­ing a com­fort­able ca­reer as a banker, with three nan­nies and a driver. But he be­gan to think about Canada as his three chil­dren be­gan to move through a fiercely com­pet­i­tive school sys­tem that, fa­mously, in­ter­views tod­dlers. “It’s just ridicu­lous,” Mr. Loo said, not to men­tion stress­ful – both for stu­dents and their par­ents liv­ing in the city.

He adds, “there’s no such thing as work-life bal­ance." He wasn’t the only one rais­ing ques­tions. “Our friends are around the same age and their kids are the same. And they’re all think­ing the same thing” – go to Canada. In 2017, Mr. Loo and his fam­ily moved back. His daugh­ter was 10, the same age as Mr. Loo when he first moved to Canada.

There is “a bit of sym­me­try there,” he says.

Oth­ers are com­ing be­hind them. Take Mr. Lu­ciw, who ar­rived in Hong Kong in 1999 and dove into the thrills of be­ing young and “wild and crazy” in the city. He be­came the gen­eral man­ager of Asi­aXPAT. a news and dis­cus­sion site for ex­pa­tri­ates. But he him­self is now keen to exit ex­pat life. “As I’ve got­ten older, this place has lost its lus­tre for me,” he says. He has two chil­dren, and “when you have kids here, it sucks. It’s ex­pen­sive. There’s a lack of things to do. You may think it’s a but it’s not.”

He’s al­ready sold his apart­ment, booked his tick­ets to Canada – after one last show with Phan­tom Power, his Hip cover band – and picked the mini­van he in­tends to buy. He wants his kids to live in a house with a back­yard, not a cramped apart­ment an el­e­va­tor ride from the out­doors. “I was watch­ing them not have a child­hood I think they de­served, that I can give them by be­ing a Cana­dian cit­i­zen,” he said.

Ms. Gre­wal, mean­while, cites the changes in a city that is in­creas­ingly be­ing brought un­der the thumb of po­lit­i­cal mas­ters in Bei­jing. Chi­nese se­cu­rity ser­vices have seized peo­ple from the city, while new bridge and rail links have more deeply en­meshed Hong Kong with main­land China. Ac­tivists for democ­racy and in­de­pen­dence have been banned from po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, and a pro­posed new rule out­laws in­sults to the Chi­nese na­tional an­them.

“I just felt con­stricted,” Ms. Gre­wal says. When Kee­lan Chap­man moved back to Hong Kong three years ago, he didn’t ex­pect to find him­self with a front-row seat to a Cana­dian ex­o­dus.

Mr. Chap­man runs the Cana­dian Real Es­tate In­vest­ment Cen­tre Hong Kong, a com­pany he cre­ated three years ago to help peo­ple in Asia buy prop­erty in Canada. He fig­ured his clients – who meet him in Hong Kong’s sky­scraper forests of buzzy cof­fee shops and swish board­rooms – would be in­vestors mov­ing cash into Van­cou­ver’s ex­u­ber­ant hous­ing mar­ket.

What he has found in­stead is peo­ple look­ing to buy homes for them­selves.

“My main clients in Hong Kong tend to be Cana­di­ans look­ing to re­turn to Canada,” he says.

Hong Kong’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in China’s eco­nomic rise has helped make the city wealthy. But it has also made Man­darin an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant lan­guage for those in busi­ness and bank­ing, tilt­ing ad­van­tage to­ward job seek­ers from main­land China. In­deed, that may be ex­actly how Bei­jing wants it, sug­gests David Zweig, a Cana­dian who is a scholar at the Hong Kong Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, where he has re­searched the move­ments of Chi­nese stu­dents.

China “may be very glad to have a new co­hort of young col­lege grad­u­ates come down here, grad­u­ate and then work here – and re­place the Hong Kongers,” he said.

At the same time, at least some of those load­ing chil­dren and pos­ses­sions on planes bound for Canada are be­ing repar­adise,

placed by younger peo­ple wing­ing their way into Hong Kong. Some of what drew Mr. Loo to Hong Kong two decades ago re­mains true to­day. Jobs are avail­able, taxes are low and salaries can be high.

Kale Law, 26, was born in Hong Kong but moved to Canada with his mother in 1997. They came back to Hong Kong, where he at­tended high school, be­fore he re­turned to Canada for univer­sity. Now, he’s back in Hong Kong again, work­ing at a small con­tent com­pany with an of­fice in a ware­house con­verted into a co-work­ing space.

“Hong Kong seems to be the crown jewel for a lot of young pro­fes­sion­als want­ing to hus­tle,” he says. Even Ms. Gre­wal may come back. She has yet to find a job in Canada, while she has a half-dozen of­fers in Hong Kong. She also finds her­self chaf­ing at Van­cou­ver’s slower pace. “It just doesn’t ful­fill me the same way Hong Kong does,” she says.

Still, Mr. Law isn’t sure how long he can last. He fig­ures he will stay un­til he is 30, at which point he, too, may join the march out of the city – along­side his mother and fa­ther.

“A lot of the older gen­er­a­tion, which is my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion, they can’t wait to get out of Hong Kong,” he said.

BEN NELMS/THE GLOBE & MAIL

An­drew Loo, who had a ca­reer in Hong Kong as a banker, be­gan to think about Canada as his three chil­dren moved through a fa­mously com­pet­i­tive school sys­tem that in­ter­views tod­dlers. He and his wife Jobina moved their fam­ily back to Canada in 2017.

BEN NELMS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

An­drew Loo, right, a banker who de­camped for Van­cou­ver partly to es­cape Hong Kong’s high-pres­sure ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, walks on Am­ble­side beach in Van­cou­ver on Satur­day with his wife, Jobina, their three chil­dren and dog.

BEN MARANS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Alex, son of long-timeHong Kong res­i­dent John Lu­ciw, looks out the win­dow of the fam­ily’s apart­ment on Sun­day. Mr. Lu­ciw and his fam­ily are leav­ing the ur­ban cen­tre, and he says he doesn’t ‘even know if I’m go­ing to come back for a visit.’

BEN MARANS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

John Lu­ciw sits with his wife, Con­nie, and their two chil­dren, Claire and Alex, in their Hong Kong apart­ment on Sun­day. Mr. Lu­ciw ar­rived in Hong Kong in 1999 and be­came the gen­eral man­ager of a news and dis­cus­sion site for ex­pa­tri­ates. ‘When you have kids here, it sucks. It’s ex­pen­sive. There’s a lack of things to do. You may think it’s a par­adise, but it’s not,’ Mr. Lu­ciw says of Hong Kong.

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