Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ironic Migration: Exodus From Vancouver

The headline screams, "Hong Kong Chinese leaving Vancouver ‘by the thousands’." That sounds bad, really bad. The caption under the photo does little to rein in the sensationalism:

Mainland Chinese arrivals in Vancouver outstripped those from Hong Kong by 7,872 to 286 in 2012. Indeed, the data show the number of Hong Kong immigrants actually present in the city has been falling sharply. Many seem to be returning home to Hong Kong (above).

Vancouver isn't emptying out. As those from Hong Kong exit, the mainland Chinese arrive. The story is about the increasing cultural tensions between the two group in Richmond.

Why are people from Hong Kong fleeing Vancouver? While attending the Inaugural International Conference of Critical Geography (1997) in Vancouver, I learned about how Hong Kong residents snapping up real estate in British Columbia. At issue was the uncertainty surrounding the end of British rule. Hongcouver was a bizarre form of refugee urbanism. Many of the towers dominating the horizon were empty. The Hong Kong Chinese had no intention of sticking around:

With less than five months to go before the Union Jack is lowered for the last time in Hong Kong, what had seemed to be a vast and transforming settlement of new Canadians has turned out to be something altogether different.

For many Hong Kong Chinese, Vancouver is less a new home than a way station where they can safely keep their families and wealth while they wait to see what becomes of the island.

Of course, leaving Hong Kong was a one-way trip for many exiles, and they are happily settled in Vancouver.

But among the wealthiest immigrants, the only roots many have put down are in the billions of dollars they have pumped into the local economy. And the tentative nature of their residency here has led to friction and resentment.

''Plan A is that when our daughter gets a little older, we will let her go to boarding school and I will go back to Hong Kong,'' Betty said through an interpreter. ''Plan B is for my husband to sell the business and move here.'' But she clearly longed to go home. ''I'm still a Hong Kong lady,'' she said.

Simply put, returning to Hong Kong is now a practical reality. Some might see brain drain. The inward flow of mainland Chinese is a stark reminder of how migration connects two places. It isn't a zero-sum game. Vancouver and Hong Kong are closer.

The urban pairing of Hong Kong-Vancouver is one of the most lucrative in the world. New York-London (i.e. NYLON) is king. Peter Taylor lists other key "city-dyads" such as LA-CHI, HONG-SING, and PAR-FRANK. Taylor measures service industry connectivity. I am thinking in terms of talent exchange. How well might those two urban network geographies map onto each other?

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