“I am a slave here. My son brought me here to be an unpaid nanny and helper to his children. I cannot drive and dare not answer the telephone because I cannot speak English.”
Madame Leung Siu-mei was sitting in the spacious sitting room of her son’s house in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver dominated by Chinese.
The home was several times the size of her small apartment in Hong Kong, and a short drive to the Pacific Ocean.
But she would happily have traded it to return to her small apartment, her friends and her old life in Hong Kong.
“But what can I do? All my children have migrated to Canada. Who will look after me when I am old? I have no choice but to stay.”
A survey by the think tank Civic Exchange released in October found that seven out of 10 people in Hong Kong thought that, over the last year, the city had become a worse place to live in.
More than 40 per cent said they would leave if given the chance.
It is the dilemma faced by its residents ever since it became a major city with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees in 1949.
The largest waves of emigration followed convulsions in the mainland – the Cultural Revolution, the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the military suppression in Beijing in the spring of 1989 and the approach of 1997.
The children of Madame Leung left in the mid-1990s. The Canadian census of 2006 found 301,000 speakers of Cantonese, of whom about half were born in Hong Kong. The most popular destinations are Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary.
The Leungs sold their properties in Hong Kong, enough to buy their spacious home in Richmond.
Life there is completely different to the one in Hong Kong – suburban, reliant on cars they must use to go to work, to shop and see friends.
Working hours are shorter, leaving weekends free, and the income tax rate higher.
The children enjoy smaller school classes, less homework and more extra-curricular activities.
There is a sharp divide among the generations. While Madame Leung does not speak English, her grandchildren are fluent in it.
They speak Cantonese to her but do not write nor read Chinese; nor do they wish to learn. She feels excluded from most of their life.
Her children are stuck in the middle. University-educated, they speak English well and were able to find work, although they earn less than in Hong Kong.
Like her, they miss much of their former life but believe they are doing the best for their children.
With the rising gap between property prices in Vancouver and Hong Kong, there is no going back.
For many migrants who did not keep a home in Hong Kong, it is the same. Even if they wish to return, they cannot afford to buy the same property they had before.
Richmond is the easiest city in Canada for Chinese to live. They account for half of its population of 190,000; they come from Taiwan and the mainland as well as Hong Kong.
It has shopping malls, restaurants, mahjong parlors and beauty salons similar to those in Hong Kong. You can live there without speaking English or French, the two official languages.
Wong Man-song, 72, made the opposite decision to Madame Leung. After his son emigrated to Toronto, he went to stay in his apartment for three months as a trial.
“It was convenient enough, close to Chinatown. I could walk there for yum cha and to buy Hong Kong newspapers,” he said.
“But it was so boring. In the morning, my son and his wife went to work and I was alone in the apartment. I could only watch Cantonese programs on television. And the Canadian winter is so long. You do not want to go out.”
After two trials of this kind, Wong decided enough was enough — he would stay definitively in Hong Kong.
They say that emigrating is like pulling up a tree and planting it somewhere else. You move not only the stem and branches but also the hundreds of roots; can they fit into the new soil and grow again?
Most fortunate are the highly qualified and those with job skills in demand in their new countries. They can find work they enjoy, giving them a good economic base and a network of new friends.
But many have to trade down, accepting jobs worse and paying less than before.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States – the main migrant countries – are full of well-qualified people competing fiercely for jobs.
And their children will not be Chinese. They will be citizens of the new country; as new migrants, they must try harder than local people to adapt and fit in.
Few are interested in the culture and language of their ancestors.
Many Hong Kong people have the skills, family ties and wealth to emigrate. It is a grave and momentous decision.
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