Fenella Sung hears more Cantonese spoken in Vancouver these days. The founder of Canadian Friends of Hong Kong can tell new arrivals by overhearing their conversations in supermarkets, shopping malls and restaurants.
“You look at what they are looking at, watch how they find things, and they are speaking perfect Cantonese – and you know they are newcomers,” she said.
In the last 20 years, Yan added, many Hong Kong immigrants got permanent residency or Canadian citizenship and either travelled back and forth or returned to Hong Kong for work.
Jeff Nankivell, Canada’s consul general in Hong Kong and Macau from 2016 through 2021, attributed some of the early immigration to Hong Kong’s Covid-19 restrictions: “But in the longer term, the total change in the political climate in Hong Kong is definitely a driving factor as well.”
“We do see young people coming from Hong Kong who are looking to get out from this new political regime that’s in place in Hong Kong, of media, of administration, of the justice system and so on,” Nankivell, now president and chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a non-profit think tank, added.
“And people who are making that decision to come to Canada and if they’re not dual citizens already, the new visa measure for recent graduates gives them a pathway to be able to settle in Canada.”
Queenie Choo, the chief executive of Success, a non-profit agency that helps immigrants settling in Metro Vancouver, said that the agency was “seeing some new Hong Kong immigrants and some returning”.
“The returnees went back to Hong Kong for personal, business or domestic reasons, but now they are returning here for another set of reasons that may be personal or political, or they want to bring up children or grandchildren here.”
Choo said that most of the newcomers were young professionals in their 20s to 30s, and that many cited Hong Kong’s political turmoil in deciding on a fresh start in Vancouver.
“I met one young woman who had two degrees, in social work and law. I asked her why she came here, not knowing anyone, and she said she didn’t like the political situation in Hong Kong and wanted to go to a country that has more democracy,” Choo said.
Hong Kong’s new chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu, has played down suggestions the city is experiencing “a brain drain”. Last month, during his first policy address, he called it a “rough conclusion” to assume unhappiness was the main cause of the emigration.
“Everyone has a different story,” he said, suggesting that some Hongkongers may have left for their studies or families, as well as unique situations caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Still, after more than 10,000 people were arrested in Hong Kong during and after the protests, Canada received numerous refugee applications from Hongkongers fleeing what they called political persecution.
From 2016 to 2020, IRCC approved on average 8.4 applications for humanitarian and compassionate grounds. The number jumped to 596 in 2021, and was at 221 as of April 30 this year.
The strict Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the Hong Kong government also led some families to move to Vancouver for their children to have in-class learning, or pursue university degrees abroad.
From 2016 to 2019, IRCC averaged approving and extending 2,732 study permits; that jumped to 4,055 in 2020, and to 7,833 in 2021.
While she does not have specific numbers, Choo has seen a slight uptick in Hong Kong immigrants since the start of this year.
Yan said the 2021 census was the first time Canada had given Hongkongers the opportunity to identify themselves as such.
“People from Hong Kong [living in Canada] advocated since the 2016 census to include the Hong Kong identity on the form,” he said. “It’s interesting to see the separation between those born in Hong Kong and those who identify as Hongkongers, as the latter could be born in China.”