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HONG KONG: One Country, Two Systems, but Will It Be

'I Live in America, the Land of the Free'

Thousands of Hong Kong residents wary of life under Communist China have traded lucrative work in a booming economy for a politically stable future in the U.S. Colony's loss of some of its best and brightest has been Southland's gain.

June 15, 1997|EVELYN IRITANI | Times Staff Writer

As the heir to a Hong Kong apparel fortune, Daniel Fong was destined for a life among the British colony's wealthy and powerful.

But his confidence was shattered on June 4, 1989, when China's aging leaders sent tanks into Tiananmen Square. In Hong Kong, the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement--which killed hundreds and possibly thousands--prompted huge protests against the "butchers of Beijing."

"I was watching the television with my friends [in the colony], and I said, "If that is the future for me, if there's any chance that may happen in Hong Kong, do I want to be here?' " explained the young Harvard University graduate, thinking ahead to the colony's July 1 return to China.

The answer was no. Within months, Fong, his wife, Maryann, and their two young children were on a plane to the United States, joining thousands of other Hong Kong residents who have abandoned one of the world's fastest-growing economies for an economically uncertain but politically stable future in the United States.

While the robustness of the Hong Kong economy in recent years has tempered predictions of a post-1997 meltdown, the longtime British colony paid a high price for a decade of uncertainty, losing many of its best and brightest at the peak of their careers.

Hong Kong's loss, though, has been Southern California's gain, since it is the second home for one of the largest groups of Hong Kong Chinese living in the United States, said Philip Tam, senior vice president of TVB Holdings USA Inc., a subsidiary of Hong Kong's leading Chinese-language broadcaster.

"Had all this exodus not happened, the price of real estate in Diamond Bar and Warner would not be at the stage it is today," said Tam, who moved his family to Los Angeles in 1983.

Tam, who beams Hong Kong's most popular soap operas and newscasts to more than 150,000 people in the San Gabriel Valley, estimates that there are more than half a million Hong Kong natives living in America, concentrated in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Unlike earlier generations of Chinese immigrants who fled famine and political chaos for jobs in America as miners, railroad workers and cooks, these refugees from Asia's leading financial center include many well-educated, wealthy business people and professionals.

Some came from prominent families, who view their overseas family networks as insurance in the event of political turmoil back home. The new migrants also include bureaucrats fearful of increased corruption, shop owners worried about economic uncertainty and academics fleeing the prospect of less freedom under the Chinese.

While more established Hong Kong families had preferred the climate and geography of San Francisco, newer emigres have gravitated to Southern California's more entrepreneurial environment, said Dominick Ng, a Hong Kong native and president of San Marino-based East-West Bank.

Once here, they are likely to shun the Chinese community associations that cater to immigrants from Taiwan in favor of those formed by newcomers from mainland China, said Min Zhou, a UCLA sociologist who has studied Chinese immigration patterns.

The Hong Kong immigrants find starting over in ethnically diverse California to be relatively easy, because they have grown up surrounded by Western products in a cosmopolitan, English-speaking city; many also were educated in the United States, the most popular choice for overseas studies.

With the exception of a few Hong Kong personalities--such as actor Chow Yun Fat and director John Woo--few of California's newest Hong Kong imports are household names back home. One reason: Due to restrictive U.S. immigration quotas, many of Hong Kong's celebrities ended up in Canada and Australia.

In 1990, the U.S. government opened the door a little wider by offering green cards to foreigners willing to invest at least $1 million in a U.S. business that created at least 50 jobs. Consultants say that helped spark a rush of Hong Kong investment in Southern California hotels by would-be immigrants.

Fong was lucky: Because his wife was a U.S. citizen, he could bring his family to Los Angeles within months of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Shortly after arriving here, he bought a small baby-furniture company for $400,000 and took over a small denim-importing business run by his sister. Within a few years, Los Angeles-based Daryan International had made it onto Inc. Magazine's list of the 500 fastest growing companies, and Fong was well on his way to carving out a $20-million-a-year business.

When he returns to Hong Kong, where his friends and former colleagues now wield tremendous power in an economy being fueled by double-digit growth in neighboring China, he is reminded of what he gave up.

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