VANCOUVER—More than 30 years ago, immigrants from East Asia staked out parcels of land in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. Dominated by farms, a curling rink and car dealerships, the area would one day become a vibrant cluster of businesses known as the “Golden Village.”
But the pioneers behind the transition held back on breaking ground for a long time. It was an unproven concept; back in the 1980s, there were no large Asian-themed malls in North America.
Patrick Wong’s first job in Vancouver was overseeing the business development of the newly constructed Aberdeen Centre mall in Richmond, named after the Aberdeen harbour in his native city of Hong Kong.
“We knew people from Hong Kong were considering leaving, but they had options,” said Wong, who had become hooked on the relatively laid back Canadian lifestyle and access to the outdoors when he studied at the University of Victoria.
“Australia, the U.K., the U.S., and Toronto seemed like the more popular city in Canada. Would they choose Vancouver?”
Wong and his family are among tens of thousands of immigrants from Hong Kong who left the city in the period surrounding the “handover” — when the British gave control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997 — to settle in Vancouver. The West Coast city has become so closely linked to Hong Kong it is sometimes called “Hongcouver.”
This summer, increasingly violent clashes between protesters and police in Hong Kong have highlighted why so many left Hong Kong in the first place to put down roots elsewhere.
“I think that in any times of uncertainty, people around the world are drawn to Canada because our country is known as a peaceful haven with a good legal system. It’s not an exclusive attitude of Hongkongers,” Wong told Star Vancouver.
There are 74,120 people in Metro Vancouver who were born in Hong Kong, according to 2016 census data, and many thousands more are of Hong Kong descent.
Richmond in particular has earned the label of the “most Asian city outside of Asia.” According to the 2016 census, 54 per cent of the city’s population of 197,000 identifies as “Chinese,” regardless of birthplace.
“I am 100 per cent Canadian, and I’m proud of how our country is welcoming of newcomers,” said Wong, who is now vice-president of business development for the Fairchild Group, a Vancouver-based conglomerate with an investment portfolio of over $460 million that was founded by Hong Kong-born tycoon Thomas Fung.
The success of Aberdeen Centre, as well as similar ventures nearby like the Yaohan Centre, transformed the area into a bustling commercial centre catering to the growing Asian diaspora: the “Golden Village.”
Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, says Richmond has long attracted Asian migrants for various reasons, with Japanese being some of the earliest settlers in the Steveston area in the late 1800s.
“Gradually, more Chinese migrants came to Richmond to farm and post-1970, investors from Hong Kong saw value in the location close to the airport and relatively low land prices at the time compared to the City of Vancouver.
“The strata ownership system in malls like Aberdeen Centre also acted as a way people could become investor immigrants to Canada because they were able to own units.”
Yan said the development of the “Golden Village” in Richmond is a classic case study of how flows of money and people can establish very strong links between different places in the world.
Inside Aberdeen Centre on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, shopkeepers had the latest developments in Hong Kong on their minds.
The mass demonstrations have drawn more than a million people at times. The movement’s demands include the resignation of the semi-independent Chinese territory’s leader, Carrie Lam, democratic elections for her successor, the release of those arrested in earlier protests and an investigation into police use of force.
Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators crowded into Hong Kong International Airport’s main terminal on Monday, forcing one of the world’s busiest airports to cancel all flights.
The shutdown came as China’s central government in Beijing ominously characterized the ongoing protests as something approaching “terrorism,” raising fears of a military response.
Richmond shopkeepers had mixed perspectives on the impact of the unrest for Canadian businesses.
“We’ve seen less tourists come from Hong Kong, and less local people seem to be visiting their relatives in Hong Kong,” said Ivy Ho, supervisor of the Ten Ren Tea & Ginseng shop in Aberdeen Centre.
“Usually, there’s a constant back-and-forth happening, and people like buying Canadian ginseng as souvenirs and gifts. With the timing during summer, which is usually a peak travel time, we can’t help wondering if the chaos in Hong Kong has something to do with it,” Ho said.
But a few stalls down, at a shop selling housewares, shopkeeper Phoenix So said a return to Vancouver of even a fraction of the estimated 300,000 Canadians who reside in Hong Kong could be great for business. Many have dual citizenships.
“Hong Kong people love the experience of browsing and shopping at real stores, not like typical Canadians who are attracted to online shopping,” said So, an immigrant from Hong Kong who used to work in the jewelry business.
“If more of them come back to Canada, they could revitalize the (brick and mortar) retail scene here.”
Historically, most of the Chinese migration to Vancouver came from the southern part of the country, specifically from Hong Kong. Cantonese, the dialect spoken by Hong Kongers, was the most commonly spoken Chinese language in Metro Vancouver homes until 2016, according to census data. That year, Mandarin overtook Cantonese.
While some Canadians with Hong Kong roots feel comfortable speaking publicly about their views on the ongoing protests, immigrants from mainland China do so with more caution.
A Canadian woman who was born and raised in mainland China until she was 13 told Star Vancouver that she was attacked online by family members and friends from China for voicing her support of the protest. The woman asked that the Star not use her name due to concerns about the safety of her family in mainland China.
She was distraught to hear “violent views” toward the Hong Kong protesters from her family and friends. Even in Canada, she said, she’s not immune to receiving what she considers Chinese government propaganda on the widely used social-media platform WeChat.
“They’re being brainwashed by the news there and they didn’t really get the real news, and they only see one point of view,” she said.
“Right now, the Chinese media is trying to say we can use military force and people are supporting that. People in mainland China (tell me) they would support the government use of force on the protesters.”
With files from Wanyee Li and The Associated Press
Joanna Chiu is a reporter and managing editor of Star Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu
Jenny Peng is a Vancouver-based reporter covering culture and business. Follow her on Twitter: @JennyPengNow