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Safe Haven for Capital : Hong Kong Buys Into Vancouver

July 16, 1989|ROBERT W. GIBSON | Times International Economics Correspondent

VANCOUVER, Canada — Electrified, the wealthy Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong began spluttering.

David Lam--himself from Hong Kong and now British Columbia's lieutenant governor--had been advising the mogul that a newcomer to Vancouver must "participate" like a concerned Canadian citizen to win acceptance.

In your case, Lam says he told the Chinese tycoon, you must give generously. The newcomer nodded. Canada was now his home; he planned to do lots of business. In the way of contributing, he asked Lam for guidance.

Lam was ready. "You should give $10 million to the University of British Columbia," Lam told him.

That is when the spluttering began.

$1-Million Token?

"But I've never seen the University of British Columbia!" the newcomer exploded. "I don't even have children who will be going to college. How about a token? How about $1 million?"

"No token," Lam replied firmly. "Not even $9 million. Give $10 million. You want to make an impression."

For good or ill, Hong Kong is indeed making an impression on Vancouver these days.

In one of history's toniest diasporas, millionaires and multimillionaires from the British crown colony are arriving here at an accelerating clip. And while not all of the immigrants are rich, newcomers are swelling the topmost tiers of Vancouver's demographic pyramid.

With them comes a flood of capital, and the combination has turned real estate markets topsy-turvy, triggered a construction boomlet and launched Vancouver into light manufacturing of the type that made Hong Kong famous--and rich.

By extending their economic grip, Hong Kong's investors and entrepreneurs are expanding not only the overseas Chinese network but also Vancouver's role in the Pacific Rim.

Growing Resentment

But this economic influx is not without problems. As much of Vancouver's best property falls into foreign hands, resentment grows. "We are rapidly becoming an Asian city," a Vancouverite who works for the British Columbia government says. T-shirts advertise "Hong Couver" and "Van Kong."

So David Lam, 65, who arrived from Hong Kong 23 years ago and has risen to be Queen Elizabeth II's chief representative in British Columbia, exhorts wealthy Chinese newcomers to do things right for the sake of all Vancouver Chinese.

To Lam, the newcomers from Hong Kong too often are abrasive. Brimming with self-confidence from success in Asia and indifferent to Canadian tastes and ways, some immigrants give the whole Chinese community a black eye, he believes.

"I try to show them," the lieutenant governor says. "I tell them . . . that it's not dog-eat-dog over here with everyone fending for himself. . . . I tell them to volunteer, to cross the ethnic line and get to know and help others. To people who have money, I say 'Give.' "

Lam's prestige spans the Pacific Ocean and circles the Pacific Rim; his own fortune from North American real estate development is estimated at more than $80 million, and he never donates less than $1 million a year to universities, colleges and worthy works; once, he subsidized the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's tour of Japan.

A new immigrant does not deny Lam lightly, and so the tycoon gave in, and the university found itself $10-million richer. But when he made his pledge, he did it in a way that flabbergasted Lam--he insisted that the gift be anonymous.

Lots of Surprises

The fact is that the lieutenant governor and other Vancouverites are getting lots of surprises from Hong Kong these days.

The story of Hong Kong's growing presence in Canada begins with the 1984 British agreement to turn over Hong Kong to the Beijing government in 1997 without enforceable safeguards for the colony's 5.7 million Chinese, including the 3.25 million natives entitled to hold British passports.

Whether born under the Union Jack or not, Hong Kong's residents have been left by their colonial masters to find their own "insurance"--safe domiciles for family and fortune after 1997 if Beijing reneges on its promise to let capitalism operate for 50 years.

In 1986, 19,000 Hong Kong residents emigrated; in 1987, 30,000; last year, 45,000. Half of them have come to Canada. This year--a week before the Tian An Men Square massacre on June 4--so many Hong Kong residents had applied for visas that the Canadian consulate was out of forms.

To some extent, the investors and entrepreneurs who created Hong Kong's economic miracle are practicing family division. They are installing relatives abroad to obtain citizenship and a family beachhead.

Frequent Fliers

In another practice, the head of household emigrates with wife and children, then commutes to Hong Kong. "Because they spend so much time in the air (over the Pacific), they are called 'space men,' " said Sarah Monks of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council's North American office.

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