Hong Kong changed us

Vancouver architect Ron Yuen will never forget those heady days following Expo 86 when he helped redesign the north side of False Creek. Yuen was part of a team hired by Concord Pacific to create a new neighbourhood of high-rise residential towers after Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing’s purchase of the former Expo site.

“I can still remember how amazed I was when the first tower started to go up, and the lineups were around the block,” Yuen recalled in an interview with the Georgia Straight. “There were a lot of Chinese immigrants, Hong Kong immigrants mainly, because of Li Ka-shing and his name.”

Tens of thousands of people moved from Hong Kong to Vancouver in the late 1980s and early ’90s, concerned about the future of the then-British colony, which was going to be returned to China on July 1, 1997. In the late ’80s, there was also an investment boom from Hong Kong, triggered by concerns about what would become of the colony’s capitalist business culture after it reverted to China.

Yuen explained that the exodus from Hong Kong has had a big impact on the Vancouver real-estate industry, noting that prior to Expo 86 there were never lineups to buy property. He said the Hong Kong immigrants also brought with them a strong sense of the economic value of land, a sense that has since been developed by local residents who buy condo units before buildings are constructed. “The Chinese immigrants have said, ”˜We keep real estate for the long term. We keep it for generations,’” Yuen remarked.

On June 26, the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia organized a forum at UBC’s C.K. Choi Building for the Institute of Asian Research to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. One of the speakers, Vancouver multicultural social planner Baldwin Wong, cited three factors that came together to transform Vancouver: the above-mentioned influx from Hong Kong in the late ’80s; the city’s interest in densifying the downtown core; and the combination of developers’ expertise and the injection of new capital into the market.

“Vancouver’s downtown waterfront area was forever changed, more so than any other North American city within such a short time,” Wong said, emphasizing that he was speaking personally and not as a city representative.

Wong, a Hong Kong native, moved to Vancouver in the middle of the 1970s. He explained that by the late ’90s, the Hong Kong style of preselling condos and living in high-rises had become a standard way of investing in real estate in this city. “The practice has now spread to many parts of the Lower Mainland,” he said.

Wong noted that between 1971 and 1986, the city of Vancouver’s Chinese population increased from 25,000 to 70,000. Between 1986 and 1996, it doubled again to 140,000, out of an overall population of 420,000. Much of this increase was fuelled by immigration from Hong Kong.

However, he said, after the British ceded control over its colony in 1997, immigration from Hong Kong fell off sharply. “Chinese immigration continues to grow, now from a different source [China],” Wong said. “One can say that the Hong Kong immigrants more or less have paved the way for other Chinese immigrants or have consolidated the reputation of Vancouver as being an immigrant- and possibly a Chinese-friendly place.”

According to Yuen, one indication of the importance of Hong Kong real-estate buyers has been the avoidance of using the number four when labelling the floors of many buildings. In Cantonese, that number sounds similar to the Cantonese word for death, and so someone from Hong Kong might have an aversion to living on the fourth floor, just as North Americans might not want to live on the 13th.

At the June 26 forum, UBC historian Henry Yu noted that the legacy of Vancouver’s 1907 race riots was that Chinese people were permitted to live only in specific parts of the city. For many years afterward, the only persons of Chinese origin allowed to reside in Shaughnessy and Kerrisdale were servants.

“Then the Hong Kong Chinese came with their money and the entitlement of thinking, ”˜I can live anywhere I want,’” Yu said. “That is a major, major change in this city. We need to remember this and to think about it. It changed the city for the better. Chinese can now live anywhere.”