Op-Ed: A city transformed — for better and worse — by influx of Chinese wealth
Once a British outpost on the far side of the New World, later a countercultural mecca known for its pot-infused vibe, Vancouver, Canada, is entering a new phase, transformed by immigration from across the Pacific. Greater Vancouver’s population of approximately 2.5 million is now 16% of Chinese origin; the city proper is 28% ethnically Chinese. Some locals have dubbed it “Hongcouver.”
What does such substantial and continuing Chinese migration to Vancouver — in the form of capital as well as people — signify? For some, the answer is wrapped in anxiety. “Here you have this former British colony that is now becoming colonized itself,” a longtime city resident told me.
Of course, Vancouver is not being “colonized” by the Chinese in any meaningful definition of the term. The Chinese influence there is of a different character, but it serves as an early example of how a rising tide of Asian wealth is making over Western cities.
Today’s wave of Chinese migration dates to Britain’s 1984 agreement to deliver Hong Kong to mainland Communist China in 1997. The transfer prompted concern among Hong Kong’s prospering middle and upper classes for the safety of their assets and possibly even of their persons.
Though Britain chose not to offer Hong Kong’s residents a right to relocate and pursue permanent-resident status or citizenship, Canada established the Immigrant Investor Program to award fast-track resident visas to wealthy foreign businesspeople who pledged to invest a substantial portion of their assets in Canada. The program was available to Chinese mainlanders too, and a growing number took advantage of it after Beijing’s suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
These Chinese newcomers were not impoverished strivers desiring a fresh start, as in an earlier age, but established winners seeking to protect and build on their gains. Vancouver was a natural destination. Compared with Toronto — Canada’s financial center — Vancouver appeared provincial, but the city offered the same attractions of stable banks and rule of law, along with the advantage of proximity: it was a 10-hour nonstop flight from Hong Kong.
The arrival of the Chinese investor-class migrants spurred blockbuster city-development projects, including glass towers of luxury waterfront condos. Bungalows were bulldozed to make room for the much larger dwellings they preferred. It was an aesthetic and economic jolt: “Merry Old England suddenly replaced by colonial mansions,” as one critic put it.
Property prices soared. A median-priced house in East Vancouver that cost about $20,000 (Canadian) in the early 1970s would have easily fetched $800,000 (Canadian) in 2000. Today, that same house is worth about $1.3 million (Canadian). Native Vancouver homeowners reaped a windfall in selling their properties to cash-flush Chinese buyers, but today, Vancouver’s housing market is the least affordable in North America.
Still, any argument that Asian migration has damaged the Vancouver economy doesn’t hold up, even when the jump in housing prices is taken into account. Granted, the Immigrant Investor Program didn’t stimulate the job growth (particularly in manufacturing) that advocates had hoped. But in truth, there was no economic “golden era” for Vancouver before the Chinese influx either. Vancouver’s unemployment rate was 13.6% in 1984. In April 2015, the rate stood at 6%. Its economy evolved, as have those of many other cities of the West, in a postindustrial direction.
Vancouver has benefited handsomely in some specific ways from its new Chinese ties. Public schools charge steep fees to “international students” — again, largely from China — who are neither permanent residents nor Canadian citizens. Education and arts institutions have received huge gifts from Chinese philanthropists.
Perhaps the best way to grasp the city’s transformation is to see Vancouver as a node on a pathway of people and money that begins in Asia. So-called astronaut families abound, with fathers working primarily in China and occasionally traveling to Vancouver, where the mothers and children live. Many homes or condos purchased by absentee Chinese investors stay unoccupied for much of the year.
The problem of unoccupied homes, in particular, grates among the Anglo population. A website, Beautiful Empty Homes of Vancouver, features running accounts, typically supplied by unnamed, aggrieved Vancouver residents, of neglected properties.
The question for the city is whether it can apply its store of civic goodwill and wisdom to address such unanticipated problems. James Macdonald, an urban planner who founded the Beautiful Empty Homes website, offers a list of policy options, including charging absentee owners a vacant-property fee modeled on surcharges that Hong Kong and Singapore levy on nonresident buyers.
Barring an implosion of the Chinese economy, the migration trend is apt to persist. Periodic political instability, such as the recent protests in Hong Kong demanding democratic reforms, also give Chinese savers and investors reason to look abroad — not just to Vancouver, but also Seattle and cities up and down California — for a place to ensure the security of their assets. Remarkably, this tidal shift of wealth may be only in its adolescence. One survey by a Chinese research company found that 64% of China’s millionaires have emigrated or have plans to.
For Western policymakers seeking to lure China’s wealth, the Vancouver experience counsels anticipation of the consequences of speculative inflow, and the need to put rules in place to stem excesses.
Vancouver may yet become less a way station for astronaut families and more of a home for migrants aiming to plant roots for themselves and their children. Cultures can clash, but they can blend too. If, in an earlier age, Vancouver seemed destined to fulfill Rudyard Kipling’s doleful 19th century adage about East and West — “never the twain shall meet” — perhaps in the 21st century, the city will expose that maxim for the cliche that it is.
Paul Starobin is a Massachusetts-based writer who is working on a book on the city of Charleston, S.C., on the eve of the Civil War. This essay was adapted from the Summer 2015 issue of City Journal.
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