All bets are off for Canada's Hong Kong Chinese

Tim Cornwell in Vancouver reports on a divided community
Only the seagulls are awake at 4.30am, along with a couple of prostitutes and all-night drunks, on the main road through Vancouver's seedy east side.

But inside the club house at the Hastings Park race course, three or four hundred people are gathered, braving the glare of stark fluorescent lights for a live taste of home.

On the other side of the Pacific, 15 hours ahead, the races at the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club are just getting under way in front of a crowd of 36,000.

Here, people cluster round the television screens in the half-empty hall, where the commentary comes in a clipped British accent. In the smoky, crowded Pacific Rim lounge upstairs, it is in Cantonese. Hastings Park runs a live telecast from Happy Valley twice a week.

On weekend evenings, the races start at a more civilised Canadian hour and the place is packed. Wednesday mornings are for the diehards, betting about pounds 200 a night.

There are a score of punters armed with cell phones, said to be placing telebets in Hong Kong. "It brings back the old memories," said Peter, 42, who went to the races every week before he emigrated in 1985: "I want to see the jockeys after the races. I want to see the people, how they react."

A Canadian citizen, he comes straight from his late shift with British Columbia's telephone company. On the surface, Vancouver's community of about 250,000 ethnic Chinese is thriving, boosted by a massive influx of wealthy emigres from Hong Kong.

In a sign of its emergence on the Pacific Rim, the city will host the Apec Asian economic meeting this summer. Greater Vancouver brags of showcase shopping malls in Richmond, near the city's airport, where wealthy Chinese suburbanites shop for electric rice cookers and Gucci sunglasses. The supermarkets offer specials on giant geoduck clams, the slug-like monsters once derided as worthless by local fishermen which now fetch gourmet prices in Asian markets.

Several Chinese-Canadian candidates were running in the 2 June national elections. The number of Chinese Canadians in parliament rose from one to three - two from Vancouver, both members of the ruling Liberal coalition.

The handover in Hong Kong is testing a young community, uncertain whether it is Canadian or Asian. "Now is the time to decide whether to go back or settle down," said Paul Tsang, managing editor of Sing Tao, the Vancouver edition of a Hong Kong daily that competes with two other Chinese-language newspapers, cable and radio stations. "It is time for these Chinese to make up their mind."

The number of Chinese immigrants arriving in Canada accelerated after Tiananmen. The relatively liberal immigration laws require only about a US $250,000 (pounds 150,000) local investment to qualify for residence. In 1992, 55,000 people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China arrived in Canada. In 1994 about 20,000, mostly from Hong Kong, settled in Vancouver.

Now the flow has declined. Thousands of Chinese, armed with their Canadian passports, are said to be returning to Hong Kong, though accurate figures are not available.

New tax laws that require residents to declare their worldwide assets are blamed by some. But while Canada offers peace of mind and low house prices, Chinese-speakers struggle in a weak job market and an economy that grew only 1 per cent last year. There are big salaries to be made in Hong Kong.

Many families seem in danger of coming apart at the seams. A plaintive letter in an advice column run by Sing Tao told a familiar story. They had moved from Hong Kong after Tiananmen, the writer explained, and her husband became an "astronaut", the nickname for businessmen who settled families in the US or Canada and continued to work in Asia. As she settled down in Vancouver, he began spending more time in Hong Kong. On his rare visits he spoiled the children and they were becoming "quite unreasonable". Now he talked of moving the family back. "At the beginning I didn't actually want to come. Now if he wants me to go, I have to go, but this is not what I want." She ended: "What should I do?"

At Hastings Park, Fred Lam is debating his next move. In the country 18 years, a racehorse trainer whose family also owns an Asian import-export business, he has been offered the chance to run horses in Hong Kong. Vancouver's race circuit is small and unexciting compared with Happy Valley. In mainland China, at least one race- course is under construction. "I've been away so long," he said, "but as an opportunity it's better." Hong Kong is like a gold mine for China, so why should it change? he asked. The Jockey Club would still be open after the handover: "The horses will still be running."