In Vancouver, where Hong Kong’s culture has a second home, there are complaints about the anniversary of the handover to China

VANCOUVER — With the mountains and Pacific Ocean lapping the coasts of both cities, it may have always made sense that Vancouver and Hong Kong would eventually share so much. Geographically, each city has shades of the other.

Now, on the 25th anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to China under an agreement that many observers argue Beijing has long ago violated, it seems that the sharing of culture and politics between the two cities, and other places in Canada, once grows more.

On a quiet morning at the Terminal City Club in Vancouver, Tung Chan sits at a table hidden behind a pillar.

He’s a regular at the club, an established social gathering place for many of the city’s leading businessmen, but it also has an older resonance to him. It is the first place he was offered a job when he immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in 1974 before embarking on a career in banking and politics.

The first few years were a hard blow, Chan recalls. First, it was hard to find the comforts of home, including the food Hong Kong is famous for.

That changed when more Hong Kong residents started making their way to Vancouver.

“The Hong Kong-style cafes just popped up,” he said. “The cafe where you can have a plate and rice as a base, on top of that you can have ground beef. I grew up like this.”

A visitor places his camera in the Victoria Peak area to capture Hong Kong's skyline in 2019.

Vancouver and Toronto have long been destinations for Hong Kongers, dating back to an initial wave of immigrants after the 1967 Hong Kong riots, and have brought with them a culture that has woven into the fabric of the two cities.

Friday marks 25 years since Hong Kong was handed over to mainland China. Today, amid attacks on democracy and threats to human rights in the region as a result of Beijing’s National Security Law, a new wave of Hong Kongers is arriving.

Chad Wong, an artist and photographer, sees Hong Kong all over Vancouver. The architecture and shopping style of Hong Kong’s malls were imported into the region, he said. He says that you can almost see the wave of immigrants brought to them by the design and style.

Wong’s mother came to Canada in the early 1990s and grew up in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. He said the similarities between Hong Kong and Richmond are particularly strong, although this changes with immigration from mainland China.

“You see this kind of influence in older and newer buildings,” he said, pointing to some that match the generations of design trends in Hong Kong itself.

Much of the culture is moving to areas all over Vancouver as things change in Richmond, he said, and Hong Kong stalwarts are still working to keep their culture thriving. He also points to the opposition to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that has brought younger Hong Kong residents to Canada.

“I do believe there is a sense of urgency to preserve and preserve Hong Kong culture with everything that is going on,” he said. “Less commercial, but more of things that have a cultural value.”

It wouldn’t be the first wave to arrive for fear of what the CCP might do. The 1967 riots were linked to CCP supporters in the city protesting British rule; later in the 1970s more students came.

Another wave started when the UK and China began talks leading to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid the groundwork for handing over the region (then a British colony) to China. The agreement set out the terms of the transfer, including that Hong Kong would enjoy its freedoms and greater autonomy from the CCP until 2047.

Many, not confident that the CCP would honor that agreement, left in the mid-1990s in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and as the handover approached in 1997. They came to Vancouver and Toronto, among others.

Fenella Sung of Canadian Friends of Hong Kong said there have always been several waves of immigration from Hong Kong during times of unrest related to the Chinese government.

“The general mood has always been that the CCP is not trustworthy,” Sung said. “I think that’s very common for the Hong Kongers who live in Canada, regardless of how long they’ve lived here.”

Sung said that since 2020, when Beijing’s national security law came into effect, she has noticed many more people in her community of Cantonese, suggesting they are newcomers from Hong Kong.

“A lot of people are desperate to get out,” she said. “There will be no future for their next generation.”

Figures to the second quarter of 2022 from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada show a marked increase in permanent resident applications being processed from applicants from Hong Kong.

Permanent resident admissions by country of citizenship showed 1,360 admissions from Hong Kong in 2017, a jump to nearly 2,300 in 2021. But those numbers only tell part of the story.

The number of Hong Kong study permit holders went from 2,440 in 2017 to 6,360 last year. The number of refugees who are actually small has more than doubled since 2015, to 25 in 2021 and already 20 this year.

Last year, the Canadian government opened new avenues for Hong Kong residents to obtain permanent residence permits.

As in previous years, the latest additions are likely to bring about recent cultural and political trends in Hong Kong.

Chan remembers how the eateries were scattered across the city over the years. When chefs from Hong Kong arrived, things kicked things up a notch, he said, and soon the cafes were joined by excellent eateries.

Such options began to appear outside of Chinatown, he said, to serve those who worked in the financial sector and who had moved to Vancouver.

For some, it was a tougher adjustment.

Hong Kong, Chan explained, has such a high population density that opening a business is often rewarded simply by opening your doors.

But in Vancouver, which doesn’t have the same crowds or foot traffic, some aspiring traders learned a hard lesson in the differences between the markets.

As a banker, Chan was a witness.

“I’ve seen a lot of my customers lose their shirts with the same model,” he said. “They went in, they paid high rent, renovation and stuff, and they opened a clothing store.”

Many had to open a business as part of their immigration conditions, he said, exposing them to the dangers of the learning curve. But out of the trials came successes that still exist today.

Not only has Hong Kong culture permeated Canadian cities, with a vibrant Toronto community, but fragments of Canadian culture have also been brought back to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong pop stars regularly came to Vancouver. Before long, some of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, such as Edison Chen, were born in Vancouver.

The Hong Kong region is home to an estimated 300,000 Canadian citizens. Some pubs hang Canadian flags and show hockey games. Generations-old BC restaurant chain White Spot and its offshoot, Triple O’s, have even opened locations in the region.

But what hasn’t been brought back is Canada’s freedoms. With each passing year, the CCP-backed local government is violating more on the principles of joint declaration, democracy advocates say.

Sung said she and others often protested outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In 2019, they were out again as major pro-democracy protests swept through Hong Kong and this time there was a lament.

“We never thought we would meet outside the Chinese Consulate for Hong Kong,” Sung said.

She said pressure from the CCP on elected officials and the Hong Kong community in Canada is now a major concern.

The Canadian government knows about it, she said, but lacks the will to do anything about it. Sung warned that democracy and civil liberties cannot be taken for granted.

“I think we need to speak up and we need to tell our politicians, or those who want to run for office, that if you are firmly against the CCP, you will have our support,” she said. “I ask people to tell your own politicians.”

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