Best of Vancouver 2012 communities: Shanghai migrants bring urbane sensibility

There are good reasons why more people are abandoning China’s fashionable commercial centre for the peace and quiet of Vancouver.
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Taiwan’s culture minister, Lung Ying-tai, has gained international fame as the author of 30 books. But in Shanghai, she’s probably best-known for her musings about the men in the booming Chinese metropolis at the mouth of the Yangtze River. In a 1997 newspaper essay, she characterized the men living there as “truly enlightened”, “gentle”, and “magnanimous”.

“The Shanghai man is so lovely,” Lung wrote. “He will not feel it is beneath him if he buys groceries, cooks, and cleans the floor. He will not feel low even if he washes his woman’s underwear. He speaks softly without thinking that he lacks manly mettle. He will not feel weak if his woman is strong. He can enjoy his wife’s success without thinking himself a failure.”

The Georgia Straight asked one of Vancouver’s highest-profile Shanghai expatriates, Guo Ding, what he thought of Lung’s observations. The Channel M talk-show host and bookish intellectual offered up a hearty laugh over the phone and conceded that most men born in Shanghai can cook and wash dishes, in addition to being very adept at business.

“Shanghai women are very smart,” Ding added with a chuckle. “They control their husbands.”

Former Vancouver city councillor Maggie Ip, also a native of Shanghai, told the Straight by phone that when she visited her hometown in April, the “eligible ladies” there were looking to marry a Shanghainese man. Ip, who chairs the S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Foundation board of directors, thought it was because these men are often successful in business. But the women let her know that money wasn’t the driving factor.

“They say the Shanghainese man looks after their families really well,” Ip said. “They are good cooks.”

Vancouver women have more opportunity to test Lung’s theory about Shanghai men, thanks to a sharp increase in immigration from China’s most important business centre. Ip recalled that when she was a student in Canada in the mid 1960s, almost all Canadian immigrants of Chinese descent were from Hong Kong and spoke Cantonese. She very rarely heard the Shanghainese language in this country.

In the 1990s, that began to change and now she regularly hears her hometown language being spoken in Vancouver restaurants. “We always look at each other and smile,” Ip commented.

Kenny Zhang, a Shanghai-born senior research analyst at the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, has studied the movement of people between Canada and the sprawling Chinese commercial centre. In an interview at the Straight office, Zhang noted that there aren’t official Canadian government figures on the number of Chinese immigrants by their city of birth. Well over 300,000 people from the People’s Republic of China became permanent residents of Canada between 2001 and 2010, the highest number from any country over that decade.

He described the Shanghainese as highly entrepreneurial and adaptable, and noted many have accumulated a lot of money. “Now, they are at the stage where they have to think about how to keep it safely for a long time,” Zhang, a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Immigration, said. “One of the strategies for them is to diversify, and to move some of those assets to a safe haven. Vancouver is one of the best choices.”

In his home country, Zhang worked at a municipally funded think tank called the Shanghai Academy of Social Science. While he liked his job, he worried about how his son might fare in China’s super competitive schools. So his family immigrated to Canada in 2000 in time for the boy to attend Grade 1 in Vancouver, and this year, he graduated from high school.

“I don’t like the Chinese education system,” Zhang admitted. “They teach students how to manage the examinations to get the high score, but they don’t learn how to behave in a society.”

Zhang said that Shanghai residents sometimes immigrate to Canada to escape pollution in their increasingly crowded city. According to the Shanghai Population and Family Planning Commission, the population increased 35 percent between 2000 and 2010, to 22.2 million. Zhang wrote a paper revealing that there were 6,121 Canadians living in Shanghai in 2009—about four percent of the city’s population of foreigners.

In light of all the immigration from China, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s been an explosion in the number of Mainland Chinese restaurants in Vancouver. Ru Lin Zhang, the Shanghai-born chef at Lin Chinese Cuisine and Tea House, told the Straight through a translator that when he moved to Vancouver about 20 years ago, there were only four or five Shanghainese eateries in the Lower Mainland. Now, he estimates there are at least 40 or 50.

“The people there like to eat very fresh food, which is sometimes sweeter than other Chinese food,” the chef said of Shanghai.

When asked for his favourite dishes, he mentioned honey prawns, smoked duck, juicy dumplings, and something he called the “happy family hot pot”.

The British turned Shanghai into a “treaty port” in 1843, which resulted in other western countries creating footholds and giving the city a much stronger international orientation than other areas of China. It has continued until this day as China’s primary commercial and high-fashion centre, though many of the businesspeople, including Ip’s father, fled to Hong Kong after the Communists took over in 1949. Ding pointed out that from 1949 to 1980, Shanghai was responsible for about 70 percent of China’s revenue.

“Shanghai people are proud of their contribution to the country,” he said.

Because of the city’s importance to the Chinese economy, former dictator Mao Zedong did not pursue the Cultural Revolution with as much zeal in Shanghai, according to Ding. But not everyone was spared being forced to move into the countryside.

Over a meal of Shanghainese food at Lin, Burnaby resident Alice Zhou explained to the Straight how her parents, who came from wealthy families, were forced to leave the city. Zhou self-identifies as Shanghainese and speaks the language, even though she was born in Hefei in the province of Anhui.

“A whole generation of youths got sent there,” Zhou said. “There were no universities. There were no high schools. So they became farmers.”

She expressed dismay over how some Mainland Chinese immigrants are so money-oriented, but she also pointed out that the Cultural Revolution—which caused people to lose everything—may have contributed to a sense of urgency to accumulate as much as possible. “It makes me feel sad,” Zhou confessed.

She reflects Shanghai’s entrepreneurial spirit, having founded her own public-relations firm, working for Ayan Water, and having created a large local networking group called the Social Butterfly Club. Zhou attended elementary school in Shanghai and moved to Canada when her mother, then a student, was allowed to remain in this country following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Zhou described Shanghainese people as “very cunning and clever”. And she largely agreed with the Taiwanese culture minister’s description of the men in the port city.

“The northern men are physically bigger,” Zhou explained. “They’re not as delicate and they don’t care about the way they look…whereas southern men are very metrosexual in the sense that they have better fashion sense, they are very sensitive to women, and they have a lot more etiquette.”

Best-known B.C. politician from Shanghai

Former Vancouver Centre MP and Conservative senator Pat Carney was born in Shanghai, which she has visited numerous times over the years. Her family left during the second Sino-Japanese War, but Carney has remained in contact with the family who bought her house on Yu Yuen Road. Carney, a former minister of international trade, recalls one trade commissioner describing Shanghai as “a city on steroids”.

Top cop from Shanghai

Vancouver police chief Jim Chu was born in Shanghai and moved to Vancouver when he was three years old. Chu doesn’t speak much in public about his Shanghainese background even though he speaks the dialect, and it’s not mentioned on the Vancouver Police Department website. In 2008, he told the Straight that all he wanted was to be seen as a good police officer who happens to be of Chinese descent.

Most famous local actor from Shanghai

Elly Leung (岳華), 70, is a major Hong Kong film and television star who continued to work in the industry after moving to Vancouver in the late 1980s. Including starring roles in the film classic Come Drink With Me and numerous other movies and television series, his list of credits stretches over five decades.

How Shanghainese stay connected with home

The most popular entertainment-oriented talk-show host in Shanghai, comedian Zhou Libo, is available on the Internet and YouTube. “If you mention Zhou Libo to any people from Shanghai, they will be aware of him,” Kenny Zhang said.

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Meena Wong
Enjoyed the article very much. My mother and her family also came from Shanghai and I also speak some Shanghainese. Thank you Charlie. Congratulations! Your Chinese is getting better every day.
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