The Longest Commute: How Canada and Hong Kong are Tied Together

When homesick Hongkongers pass through one of Montreal’s downtown metro stations, they could be forgiven for thinking they’ve suddenly made the jump back into the MTR. Amidst the clamour of morning commuters wafts the sweet, unmistakable scent of freshly baked pineapple buns.

“We were looking for a location with consistent foot traffic, and next to the metro station is the best place for that,” says May Giang, co-owner of Pâtisserie Cocobun.

“Much like in Hong Kong, where there’s a bakery in every MTR station,” adds her husband, Paul Li, who launched his first bakery in 2007.

All of the greatest hits of Hong Kong baking are represented. “It’s funny, the best sellers are pretty much the same as in Hong Kong,” says Giang. Her favourite are the barbecue pork buns (caa1 siu1 baau1 叉燒包), while Li is partial to the cocktail buns (gai1 mei5 baau1 雞尾包). “I used to eat one every day as a kid,” he says. Egg tarts, wife cakes, Swiss rolls – they all make an appearance.

Raised in Montreal, Li learned how to bake at Chinese bakeries in Toronto before he returned home to open his own venture, Pâtisserie Harmonie, in Montreal’s small but bustling Chinatown. Giang was another Montrealer who had been living in Toronto, where she worked in finance. When they married, they joined forces to expand Harmonie to a retail outlet inside a major downtown metro station.

They initially expected to target the many Chinese international students who live and study in downtown Montreal, but the bakery drew an even more diverse crowd than they anticipated. They rebranded it as Cocobun and eventually expanded to three more metro stations. Li says he has adapted all of the recipes to the Montreal climate, which is drier than Hong Kong, with huge seasonal swings between a hot summer and a frigid winter. “The most important thing to making Chinese buns is the dough – it has to be soft,” he says.

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Spadina Avenue, which runs through the heart of Toronto’s oldest Chinatown

It might seem surprising to find these Hong Kong treats in Montreal, a city whose pastry tastes lean towards the French; croissants and chocolatines are staples of the city’s bakeries. But it shouldn’t be unexpected at all. Few countries have as close a connection to Hong Kong as Canada, which is home to nearly 600,000 people who claim Cantonese as a first language. Out of a total population of 36 million, about 1.8 million Canadians trace their origins back to China, many of them specifically to Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, there are roughly 300,000 Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong, most of whom are ethnically Chinese – Hongkongers who emigrated and then returned. “The long-term pattern is crosscurrents,” says Henry Yu, an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia who studies the relationship between Hong Kong and Canada. “There’s a reason why you have [so many] Canadian citizens in Hong Kong and it’s because people go back and forth — both directions — at different points in their life.”

The story of how these two places became so intertwined goes back to 1842, when Hong Kong became a British colony. From the beginning, the city was a portal between China and the rest of the world, and as stories spread of the riches to be had in Gold Mountain (gam1 saan1 金山), migrants from the poverty-struck southwest of Guangdong flocked to the port to find passage overseas. Gold Mountain wasn’t a specific place, just a catch-all term for places in Australia, the United States and Canada that were caught up in a gold rush.

Hong Kong’s 1853 census records 800 men — about two percent of the city’s population at the time — as “emigrants waiting for passage to California &c.” More often than not, what they encountered when they finally made their journey was hardship, not prosperity. Chinese men who were hired to built the Canadian Pacific Railway, which linked Canada from east to west, endured a brutal life. They were paid less than their white counterparts and subjected to horrifying conditions. After their contracts expired, many did not have enough money to return home to their families, and they spent the rest of their lives stranded in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Despite a head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants and racist laws that confined them to specific neighbourhoods, Canada’s Chinese population continued to grow until Chinese immigration was banned outright in 1923. Change didn’t come until 1962, when Canada finally introduced a race-neutral immigration policy, opening the door for families to be reunited and new immigrants to arrive from areas, like Hong Kong, that had been previously considered undesirable.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong was undergoing some significant changes itself. The flood of refugees from mainland China after World War II and the Communist Revolution left the colony in a state of upheaval, culminating in the 1967 riots. The government eventually began to provide public education, housing and other social services. That, combined with growing prosperity in the 1970s, led to the creation of a unique Hong Kong identity based around the Cantonese language, a mixed Chinese and colonial heritage, and a shared experience of the city.  

“Almost anyone who came to Canada before 1962 came through Hong Kong, but almost none of them said, ‘I came from Hong Kong,’” says Yu. That changed in the 1960s, when a new generation of people came of age in the city, seeing themselves as Hongkongers as much as they were Chinese. Even if they left, they took that newly forged sense of Hong Kong identity with them abroad.

Every year, the flow of people from Hong Kong to Canada increased as families looked for somewhere stable and secure, with a high quality of life. Many were prompted to leave by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which paved the way to the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997. When tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to crush the Beijing student uprising in 1989, the flow became a torrent. In 1986, less than 10,000 people moved from Hong Kong to Canada; by 1994, that number had reached 44,000.

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Vancouver’s skyline was shaped by Hong Kong developers

Many of those newcomers settled in Vancouver. Not only did it have a longstanding historic connection to Hong Kong and a growing global reputation thanks to the 1986 World’s Fair, the British Columbia government made it easier than ever for affluent families to settle in the province, thanks to a programme that offered permanent residency in exchange for a C$250,000 (roughly HK$1.5 million) investment. After three years, permanent residents were eligible to apply for citizenship. “An accountant could make that investment,” says Yu. “It was a low bar to buy into the safety net of Canadian citizenship.”

Vancouver was not a particularly large city at the time — it had 1.6 million people in 1991, compared to 2.4 million today — and it was fundamentally transformed by the arrival of Hong Kong immigrants. Most families eschewed Chinatown and other historically Chinese neighbourhoods in favour of middle-class enclaves like Kerrisdale, a leafy district of tidy bungalows and Tudor-style houses. The influx was a shock to many longtime residents. Some newcomers preferred to tear older houses down to replace them with larger, more modern accommodations – homes that were derisively referred to as “monster houses.” As Chinese signage proliferated around Vancouver and schools filled with Cantonese-speaking children, the name Hongcouver became used as an epithet.

Not many people were keen to acknowledge it at the time, but life in Vancouver was based on a clear racial hierarchy. “It was a colonial society,” says Yu. The Indigenous people on whose land the city was built were dispossessed, immigrants of colour were marginalised and white Protestant settlers of British stock enjoyed the highest spot on the totem pole. “Certain neighbourhoods were bastions of white supremacy,” says Yu. “Shaughnessy” — a garden suburb of winding streets lined by mansions —  “had a Ku Klux Klan chapter in the 20s. It had covenants that said you cannot sell this property to Chinese, blacks or Jews. I’m not saying that to be provocative – it’s just the history of the city.”

Hongkongers upended this old social order. By 1996, more than a quarter of Shaughnessy residents spoke some form of Chinese as a first language, a proportion that has since risen to 32 percent. All the while, Hongkongers have reshaped the very fabric of Vancouver. Li Ka-shing’s Concord Pacific Developments planted a forest of high-rise towers on an abandoned waterfront railyard, setting the stage for Vancouver’s transformation from a city of single-family homes into one where a majority of people live in apartments. Hong Kong-born architect James Cheng pioneered a new type of podium tower that was so influential, it led to an urban planning approach commonly known as “Vancouverism.”

The numbers speak for themselves. In the mid-1980s, direct investment from Hong Kong in Canada was about C$170 million per year (HK$1 billion). By the end of the decade it had increased to C$1.3 billion. Today, that number is C$12.6 billion.

Entire suburbs were transformed into microcosms of Hong Kong. In Richmond, just south of Vancouver, you can buy roast goose for lunch, a shirt at Giordano and a mattress from Seahorse, whose slogan is “Like a wooden board” (hou2 ci5 muk6 baan2 gam2 gin1 ngaang6 好似木板咁堅硬). In 1986, just over 8 percent of Richmond residents were of Chinese origin; they now account for 55 percent of the population. About 22 percent of the city’s population speaks Cantonese as a first language.

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The Chinese Cultural Centre in Calgary, Canada’s fourth-largest city.

The impact was not limited to Vancouver. Even more Hong Kong immigrants chose to live in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, where there were more economic opportunities. Because Toronto was so much bigger than Vancouver, the influx was not quite as transformative, but it still shaped a large swath of the city’s suburbs into a sea of Chinese shopping malls and subdivisions where Cantonese is heard more frequently than English.

“We settled down very nicely,” says James La. Not long after graduating from the University of Hong Kong, he was referred to a diamond trading job in Toronto by a friend who had already moved there. He took the job and ended up buying a house near his friend in suburban Scarborough. Over the next decade, tens of thousands of Hongkongers followed in his footsteps, and in terms of creature comforts, they don’t want for anything. “In the past few years, if you go for yum cha in Toronto the quality is very nice and it is not expensive,” says La. “But in Hong Kong, it is not as good anymore, unless you go to a very expensive restaurant.”   

He is able to compare the quality of dim sum in both cities because, like many Hong Kong immigrants, his connections to Hong Kong have remained strong over the years. Henry Yu is currently in the final stages of a five-year research project called Hong Kong Canada Crosscurrents, which explores the experience and influence of Hong Kong immigrants between 1962 and 2012. “We called it crosscurrents because to use that wave metaphor it flows back and forth,” he says. A journey to Canada is rarely a one-way trip.

Yu says Cathay Pacific CX888 is an apt symbol. Launched in the 1980s, it enabled a generation of so-called “astronaut families.” (Not to be outdone by Cathay’s lucky flight number, Air Canada launched a rival service, AC8). Mothers and children stayed in Canada while fathers returned to Hong Kong to earn incomes that went much further in Canada than in Hong Kong. With several daily flights between Hong Kong and Vancouver, says Yu, “a Hong Kong business person could come to Vancouver for the weekend, visit his wife and kids, and go back to Hong Kong for work.”

Some people stayed in Canada to study and returned to Hong Kong to work; others enjoyed full careers in Canada, only to discover a new chapter of their life in Hong Kong. Yu gives the example of Alannah Ong, a classical musician who was born in Hong Kong and went to Canada to play in an orchestra. Just as her musical career was beginning to wind down, she was spotted by a talent scout and she began to appear in Hong Kong soap operas. “Now she has a second career as an actress in Hong Kong productions,” says Yu.

The number of Hong Kong celebrities with connections to Canada is remarkable. Pop star turned indie maverick Denise Ho Wan-see was raised in Montreal. So was Christy Chung, who won the Miss Chinese Montreal pageant in 1992, which set her down a path to Hong Kong stardom. Bernice Liu Bik-yee, Linda Chung Ka-yan and Aimee Chan Yan-mei are more Canadian-born Hong Kong celebrities who became famous through beauty pageants.

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A Chinese archway in Montreal’s Chinatown

After the 1997 handover, the number of Hongkongers moving to Canada plummeted from tens of thousands a year to just a few hundred. The relatively stability of those early post-handover years alloyed many fears that China would crush Hong Kong’s economic and personal freedoms, and as Hong Kong recovered from the Asian financial crisis and SARS, many Hong Kong Canadians returned to take advantage of the city’s opportunities. By 2013, the number of Hong Kong-born people living in Canada had declined by 13 percent from 1996.

But a round-trip ticket is always a better deal than a one-way fare. “These crosscurrents are about a network – a network that has been long standing,” says Yu. It’s likely that as returnees grow older, or as fears grow once again over China’s influence in Hong Kong, the tide will shift back in Canada’s direction. Indeed, 2017 saw 1,210 Hongkongers apply for Canadian permanent residency, more than any year since the handover.

In the meantime, CX888 continues to shuttle back and forth between Hong Kong and Vancouver – and the smell of warm pineapple buns continues to waft through the Montreal metro.

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