Life is good for Wei Fuqiang and Chen Qianhong.
Sitting on their 10-metre cruiser in Vancouver’s exclusive Coal Harbour marina, the married mechanical engineers recount an unlikely trajectory from wartime China, to Tsinghua University at the height of the Cultural Revolution, to elite careers building particle accelerators in Europe at a time when few of their countrymen were even allowed to leave China.
Little about this remarkable couple is typical – yet as mainlanders they now typify a vast wave of immigration that is rapidly transforming Vancouver.
Wei, 70, and Chen, 68, retired to the west Canadian city from their most recent home, Switzerland, in 2010. Chen said: “They are very different, Europe and Canada. Canada has opened its arms to all people. It’s very multicultural. But in Europe, they are always pushing you, they try to integrate you into their culture.
“In Canada, they respect your background, you feel you are the padrone,” she said, lapsing into Italian for “master of the house”. “You are not anymore a guest. This is really your home.”
The scale and impact of the mainland Chinese influx to Vancouver was laid bare this month in a report for Canada’s immigration department, titled “A New Residential Order?”
Author Daniel Hiebert, a social geographer with the University of British Columbia
(UBC), projected how mainland migration would fuel the creation of “a social geography entirely new to Canada”. Ethnic Chinese numbers in the city of 2.2 million were set to double to 800,000 by 2031, about a quarter of the projected total population, with the city increasingly divided into racial enclaves, and white residents becoming a minority group.
In Richmond, a city of 200,000 in greater Vancouver
, mainland Chinese migration has already helped create what is probably the first majority-Chinese city outside Asia.
The mainland Chinese wave has fuelled a property boom that makes Vancouver the second least affordable city in the world – behind only Hong Kong.
There have also been major social shifts, with families divided between a wife and children in Vancouver and a husband working in China. The phenomenon of returnees and part-time residents means thousands of houses and flats are vacant.
Hiebert said there had been relatively little focus on the issue, given the scale of the city’s unfolding Chinese transformation. “Are we fully reflective on these changes? No, I don’t think we are,” he said “But I think Canadians, more maybe than anyone else, have decided to trust the government and immigration policy to decide immigration issues. In Vancouver, we have come to a consensus that a global cosmopolitan society is what we are going to be.”
There are both similarities and contrasts to the pre-handover wave of Hong Kong migration to Vancouver in the 1980s and 1990s, Hiebert said.
According to immigration data, mainland Chinese arrivals in Vancouver outstripped those from Hong Kong by 7,872 to 286 in 2012. But even this 27-to-one disparity does not adequately portray the scale of the demographic shift that is taking place, because while the mainlander population is soaring in Vancouver, the number of Hong Kong immigrants actually present in the city has been falling sharply.
Mainlander numbers in Vancouver increased 88 per cent to 137,245 between 1996 and 2006, according to the most recent full census data. But Hong Kong immigrants present in the city fell 12 per cent, to 75,780, with nearly all of those losses occurring in the latter five years.
Although 18,890 new Hong Kong immigrants arrived in Vancouver in the decade to 2006, the fall in the number of such immigrants present in the city suggests that 29,325 left Vancouver in the same period. Overall, Hongkongers seem to be leaving Vancouver by the thousands, just as mainlanders are arriving by the tens of thousands.
Real estate agent Julia Lau was part of the Hong Kong wave who stayed, and she now estimates that 80 per cent of her buyers are mainlanders. “I’ve been a real estate agent for eight years. In the beginning we had a lot of buyers from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but I think maybe they all went home. Now, they are all from [mainland] China,” said Lau, at an open house for a home in the Oakridge neighbourhood, where potential buyers whispered in Putonghua as they inspected the luxury fittings.
Canada does not keep records on foreign ownership, but a Landcor Data analysis of all 164 homes sold for more than C$3 million (HK$23 million) in Vancouver’s core Westside neighbourhood in 2010 showed that 74 per cent were sold to buyers whose names were mainland Chinese spelling variants and who did not have any Western legal name.
At C$3.58 million, Lau considered the new 4,458 sq ft home she was showing on a nondescript suburban street to be “quite affordable”. “Right now, a lot of mainland buyers just want brand new homes or they want land so they can build … Usually, in Shaughnessy, or South Granville, or Point Grey, a house like this will be four or five million,” said Lau, reeling off suburbs favoured by Chinese buyers. Lau sold a string of homes worth eight figures to mainland buyers last year.
With the benchmark price for a detached home on the Westside now more than C$2 million, why would a mainlander choose Vancouver? “They like the fresh air, it’s a very beautiful environment, and the education system for their children,” said Lau, of Homeland Realty. “Lots of buyers, the wife and children will stay in Vancouver, but the husband will still live and work in China.”
That common scenario reflects the difference between Hong Kong and mainland government attitudes towards Canadian citizenship.
David Ley, author of the book Millionaire Migrants about modern East Asian migration patterns, said China’s prohibition on dual citizenship made it less attractive for a mainland Chinese migrant than for a Hongkonger to go “all the way” and seek Canadian citizenship, a process he termed “passport insurance”.
“For a mainland Chinese, if they want to go back to China with a Canadian passport, they are at a disadvantage, unlike people from Hong Kong who are able to hold both [Canadian citizenship and Hong Kong permanent residency],” Ley said. “The stakes are much higher. If they … get a Canadian passport then they are taking a much bigger risk.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests mainland Chinese wives commonly stay in Vancouver to provide a citizenship toehold for their absentee husbands.
Ley, also of UBC, added: “Around 2000 there was an almost complete transition in migration, switching to the PRC instead of Hong Kong and Taiwan. In other words, everyone [from Hong Kong or Taiwan] who wanted a passport got one.”
Another key difference between the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese waves is their potential scale and duration. “We know for sure there is very deep wealth in the mainland, whose holders want to diversify. [A recent study suggests] that 20 per cent of those very rich wanted to come to Canada,” Ley said. “We are talking about a substantial body of wealth that won’t run out in the way that Hong Kong [migration] did. Over the years we are looking at an ongoing presence, depending on a variety of factors.”
Mainlanders outnumbered Hongkongers in Vancouver some time between the 1996 and 2001 censuses. In that period there were 85,756 mainland arrivals to the city. But that only reflected the speed with which Canada’s immigration authorities could process their applications. There is a vast backlog.
When asked whether she saw any downside to the mainland Chinese influx, real estate agent Lau agreed that local first-home buyers were struggling. But she added: “I see a lot of people here who bought in West Vancouver a long time ago. They can sell for a lot of money and move somewhere else. It’s very good for them.”
Hiebert said that when the Globe and Mail newspaper used the alarmist term “white flight” to describe what was happening in Vancouver’s suburbs “they got hammered for it”. “I’d use a different term to white flight,” Hiebert said with a laugh. “I’d call it ‘cashing in’.”
There have been some tensions, in addition to grumbling about property prices. In Richmond, where the proliferation of Chinese-only business signage has upset some long-time residents, the city council was presented with a 1,000-name petition demanding an English component to all signage. “It [Chinese-only signage] has got progressively more noticeable,” said Richmond resident Kerry Starchuk, who helped organise the petition. Richmond’s council rejected the petition’s demands.
Back in Coal Harbour, Wei said he saw no problem with the influx of his countrymen. “I’m happy if they come. These are not low-level people, they are very high-level in China, they are very educated.”
After almost 30 years in Europe, Wei, one of nine children, said he once hoped to retire in China. “I wanted to come back. In China we have many friends, many relatives, and the food is good too. With our money, China would be very comfortable.”
Chen shook her head: “He is crazy! Not many would agree with him.” Chen wants to apply for Canadian citizenship – “Chinese should involve themselves more in the community,” she said – although her husband, reluctant to give up Chinese citizenship, does not.
They agree, however, that their new city was the right choice. With their son, daughter-in-law and three-year-old granddaughter living nearby, Vancouver is their home. “Now, this is perfect,” said Wei, waving an arm over the marina. “I never want to have regrets.”