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Sunday, February 23, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Places

Uncertain Canadians -- With Hong Kong's Future Unknown, Immigrants And `Astronaut Families' Have Created One Of North America's Biggest, Busiest Chinatowns In Richmond, B.C.

IN RICHMOND, B.C., ONE OF THE last places you might look, the global economy can be found in strange and mysterious places. There are the city's championship high-school badminton teams, professional "Aunties" looking after teenagers whose parents commute back and forth to Asia, and Feng Shui masters trying to ensure the fortuitous alignment of new homes and buildings.

There are four Asian malls in this Vancouver suburb swollen by Hong Kong immigrants, and at a kiosk in one of the them sits a slim, elegantly dressed 25-year-old woman named Ruby. Her job is to greet any non-Chinese who wander into the shopping center.

"We try to make them make them feel comfortable," she says. "I usually suggest they go to the traditional tea or herb shops because Caucasians like that kind of stuff. They are not very interested in modern Chinese things."

She points them toward a grocery pungent with the smell of dried cuttlefish, fermented black beans and a food whose name translates into "stinky tofu." She can offer them a traditional herb dispensary with windows displaying prized $1,000 ginseng roots resembling a human face. Perhaps the visitors already have noticed the large golden Buddha decorated with glittering colored glass that stands guard outside the Yummy Pizza parlor at a neighboring mall.

These reminders of old China don't attract most of the malls' patrons - Hong Kong natives looking for a taste of their hometown's hustle, not its nostalgia. They come for Ralph Lauren knock-offs and discount international calling cards. Flashy car decals at the Ming Auto Beauty Center. A few games at Top Gun bowling alley, where members of the Chinese Bowling Club chatter endlessly on cell phones between frames. Or the latest Hong Kong action flick, with snacks that include dried fish, mango-and-red-bean ice cream and chrysanthemum tea.

This is Hong Kong's restless materialism transplanted to the Fraser River delta. And something far more complex, as well.

For many owners, these small shops are a ticket into Canada, part of an ambitious experiment that has turned the traditional immigration fable on its head. Some mall spaces are sold like condos, the price counting toward the investment Canada requires from "business-class immigrants" in exchange for citizenship.

In 1984, when Britain first announced it would hand over Hong Kong to Chinese control on July 1, 1997, Canada began wooing tens of thousands of the island's jittery business people and professionals. The exodus, mostly to upper-middle-class areas of Vancouver and Toronto, accelerated following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing.

Many of Richmond's newcomers came to Canada not in search of a fortune, but to keep from losing one in the uncertainty of what is simply referred to as "1997."

When Chinese first ventured to the United States and Canada as laborers in the 19th century, their families stayed behind because of poverty and racist immigration laws. Richmond, by contrast, is home to hundreds of "astronaut families," where at least one parent has been lured back to Hong Kong by a growing confidence that the island's unshackled capitalism won't be chained up by China.

Ruby, the mall greeter, will soon become the same kind of global commuter. Her parents and her boyfriend have already returned to Hong Kong. She has a Canadian university degree, dreams of breaking into radio work and a longing for Hong Kong's faster pulse. "For professionals like me, its hard to find a job with status here," she says. "In Hong Kong, for sure you can find a job. Well, maybe that's my excuse to cover up worries for 1997."

Confident though she seems, Ruby will carry one essential possession back with her - a Canadian passport. "Canada is my security policy."

VANCOUVER BOASTS THAT IT IS the world's first true Pacific Rim city. Richmond, whose previous claim to global fame rested on being the site of Canada's first McDonald's restaurant, resembles a suburb of Hong Kong.

Along Number 3 Road, the city's clogged main artery, you can get your car fixed, use a cash machine, go bowling or bury a relative without reading a word of English. There are hundreds of 200 Chinese restaurants, including a trendy Hong Kong karaoke club that features an Asian version of 1950s "`Western" cuisine: pork-chop sandwiches, macaroni and cheese.

The first Asian mall was Aberdeen Centre, named after a harbor district in Hong Kong. Its developer, Hong Kong native Thomas Fung, turned to Asian shops after he failed to lure a Canadian department store as an anchor tenant. Now, nine years later, Aberdeen Centre has spawned a square-mile shopping district bigger than Vancouver's traditional Chinatown.

Two Hong Kong-owned dailies print newspapers in Richmond. Transplanted Hong Kong news anchors broadcast on a local Chinese-language television station. And every weekend, former colony residents bet $500,000 or more on horse races beamed by satellite from the Hong Kong Royal Jockey Club.

At the R.C. Palmer Secondary School in an upscale neighborhood, team tryouts for table tennis and badminton, two of Asia's most popular sports, attracted more than 80 kids. A nearby high school dropped football when just a handful of students turned out.

"Richmond is like Hong Kong. You can smell it," say an excitable local realtor, Chin Li, pinching his nose. "One lady client of mine, I sold her a house in Vancouver. She didn't like it. It didn't smell right. So she moved here."

This year, Canada will accept more than 225,000 immigrants - proportionally, three times as many as the United States. In few places has the cultural make-over been as swift and deep as in Richmond, population 150,000. The city's name is translated, auspiciously for real-estate salesmen like Chin Li, with the Chinese characters for Rich Man.

It is estimated that one out of three residents is an ethnic Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong or Taiwan. In 1987, 1 percent of the students in Richmond pubic schools were enrolled in English as a Second Language programs. Today, that number is 43 percent.

There's little dispute that Canada's new immigration policy has been a financial boon, helping rescue British Columbia from the rest of the nation's sluggish economy. In the reserved political culture north of the border, there are no Pat Buchanans calling for barbed-wire fences to keep "Jose" out.

There are strains on public schools, worries about ethnic gangs and tales of extortion rackets targeting wealthy newcomers. But what's most striking to visitors is how much change has been absorbed so quickly with so little overt racial tension.

Instead, Richmond holds debates - polite by American standards - over how big the Cantonese-language collection in the public library should be and whether Chinese-owned stores should put up English-language signs.

Far more prevalent than conflict is ambivalence.

The feelings of Chinese like Ruby toward their new home, coupled with the financial means to keep a foot in more than one world, has created a group of immigrants like few others in North American history. Global capitalism and 30 direct flights a week from Vancouver to Hong Kong has shrunk the vast, bittersweet ocean that once divided sojourners from their homelands.

It has also put up for grabs the notion of just what "becoming Canadian" means these days.

SONIA KWONG IS AN expressive woman in her late 40s who laughs and mockingly smacks her forehead after telling a story. Most are about her ineptitude as a new Canadian. There was, for example, the time she lost eight pounds just worrying about her driving test.

"People are friendly here, but they sometimes give you the shoulder," says Kwong, tapping hers in search of the more precise term. Her kids laugh and provide the phrase - "cold shoulder" - for her.

"Especially they blame us for making it too expensive for their children to buy houses here," she said. "But they're the ones who made the money selling their homes."

This is Kwong's gentle way of discussing the most delicate subject in Richmond race relations - "the monster house."

Those are the grand new homes with circular driveways and imposing arched entrances plopped down in neighborhoods once filled with modest stucco split-levels. They are targets of all sorts of complaints about not doing things the Canadian way.

She offers a tour of her house: a living room with a 22-foot ceiling, heated stone floors, a gracefully landscaped koi pond, a Jacuzzi the size of a small swimming pool, a game room equipped with a floor-to-ceiling TV screen where the family plays its karaoke machine.

Fittingly for exiles from the most entrepreneurial spot on the globe, real-estate plays a central role in reconciling the Chinese and Canadian identities of newcomers like the Kwongs.

What they have found in Canada is, literally, living space. In Hong Kong, the Kwongs and their five children lived in a 1,200-square-foot apartment. Everything from the size of the kitchen in their Richmond home to obtaining a golf-course tee time were unimaginable luxuries in Hong Kong.

Many of the new immigrants are far from wealthy. But with a 500-square-foot apartment selling for $350,000 and up in Hong Kong's stratospheric real-estate market, they arrive with more than enough to start over comfortably.

A century ago, most of the Chinese arrived here under the thumb of labor bosses. Now Hong Kong emigres are frequently met at the airport by real-estate agents. Some take their clients to buy cars and obtain driver's licenses, help them shop, visit schools. A few set themselves up as guardians for clients' children, so the parents can keep working in Hong Kong.

In a country that prides itself on tolerance, real estate has provided a venue for expressing cultural resentments. In letters to the editor, Richmond residents scold about monster houses and wring their hands about "white flight" from the city - even though those doing the fleeing often pocketed two or three times what their home was worth a few years before. The local Chinese-language newspapers, in a list of Hong Kong habits that Canadians find annoying, counseled readers to stop cutting down trees on their lots and paving their yards.

In the face of such complaints, and remembering the squeezed lifestyles of Hong Kong, Emily Kwong, Sonia's 19-year-old daughter, turns unusually blunt. "If you can afford a bigger house, why buy a small one?"

AFFORDABLE REAL ESTATE, symbol of their Canadian-citizenship insurance policy, has carried another price for the Kwongs, however: a scattering of the family across the globe. That, too, is a recurrent theme in Richmond.

The Kwongs are an "astronaut family," a concept written in Chinese with the character for a spaceman, signifying those who have traveled far from their homes and their families. In some cases - no one is sure how many - teen-agers are the astronauts. They live alone in Canada, often outfitted with a big house and a flashy car, while their parents continue their careers in Hong Kong.

Probably more typical is Sonia Kwong's situation. She raises the four youngest children on her own most of the year in Richmond; her husband has moved the family's ornamental jewelry business back to Hong Kong. It was not what the Kwongs envisioned when they arrived seven years ago. "When we came, we had been wholeheartedly set on staying here forever," she says.

When Britain first announced the 1997 plan for Hong Kong, the Kwongs hedged their bets and applied for Canadian papers. Then came the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square. At Emily's school, they held a moment of silence and sang songs honoring the dead. A few months later, the Kwongs were on the way to Canada.

One relative went to Belgium, a second to Australia and a third to England.

The Kwongs shipped over equipment from their jewelry factory, rented a warehouse, then watched a business that had thrived in laissez-faire Hong Kong wither in their heavily taxed and tightly regulated new home.

The Kwongs bought a small hobby shop in one of the Asian malls. That, too, sputtered in the crush of competition from other immigrant businesses. Sonia Kwong said some friends have even paid people to take such shops off their hands.

So now her husband, who relished the golf and fishing and skiing in his new home, is back in Hong Kong. He flies to Vancouver every few months. Her oldest son, an engineer, has moved back. Emily expects she will return after graduating from the University of British Columbia.

"No one really wants to go back," says Kwong. "All our friends from Hong Kong are here now. But I worry the young must go back for a living."

Navigating Canada without her husband has been a lonely task. She cried a lot during the first year he left. Now she attends English classes most mornings and volunteers at a Chinese social-service agency, but complains that there is little meaningful work because so many Hong Kong women in similar situations have few other options.

Some wives left alone in Canada even work in low-wage garment factories simply for the companionship.

ON A CHILLY MORNING last December, two weeks before Christmas and exactly 201 days before the British flag over Hong Kong is to be lowered for the last time, 20 adults gathered to learn English in an overheated classroom at the Chinese Cultural Centre.

In something barely approaching unison, they tried to sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas." But "Lords a Leaping" turned tongues into pretzels for those raised on the harsh, clattering cadence of Cantonese. Later, the teacher struggled to transform her students' "con ju" into "can you."

"I'm trying to weed out that British accent from Hong Kong," she told them. "This is how it sounds in Canada."

Planting Canadian accents among newcomers isn't always easy in Richmond. When Emily Kwong moved here seven years ago, she learned English rapidly, one of only three Chinese-speaking immigrants in her class at school. By the time she finished high school, about half her classmate were Hong Kong or Taiwan natives. With each passing year in Richmond her world has become more Chinese, not less.

If Richmond is a '90s kind of immigration tale, the ending remains unwritten for the Kwongs and other astronaut families.

Various estimates place the number of Canadian passport holders living in Hong Kong between 100,000 and 200,000. Will the holders exit for Canada if things turn sour under Chinese rule? If China doesn't break Hong Kong's golden capitalist egg, will more of those like Emily Kwong take their entrepreneurial zeal, family capital and Canadian educations home again?

"This has been a good economic deal for us. But it is something new and nobody knows how it will play out," says immigration attorney Peter Rekai. "This idea, that people can get a Canadian passport and put it in their back pocket and save it for a rainy day."

Jim Simon is a Seattle Times staff reporter. His e-mail address is jsim-new@seatimes.com Harley Soltes is Pacific Magazine's staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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