News/Canada: Waves of boat people divide Chinese-Canadians in B.C.

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Subject: News/Canada: Waves of boat people divide Chinese-Canadians in B.C.
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Wed Sep 22 1999 - 11:20:58 EDT

Waves of boat people divide Chinese-Canadians in B.C.
by Alex Tizon
Seattle Times, September 19, 1999

VANCOUVER, B.C. - The overriding sentiment in the cafes and street corners
of Chinatown is "please, no more boats." It is both a plea and a hope, made
up of equal parts concern and anger.

Some of the meanest grumbling over the recent wave of Chinese boat people
has come from the Chinese-Canadian community, a sprawling, vibrant,
300,000-strong body composed in large part of new immigrants. Some of the
harshest critics of the boat people were themselves refugees a mere decade

"I don't like them (the boat people). They should be sent back. They give a
bad name to Chinese people," said Keiping Hou, 52, a transportation
engineer for the Canadian government. Hou came to Canada as a political
refugee in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Chinese-language newspapers have bristled with letters demanding the
Canadian government "get firm," that the boat people be "sent home," and
that they should "follow the rules" for becoming legal immigrants like
other Chinese Canadians.

In the past eight weeks, the Canadian navy has seized four ships attempting
to smuggle Chinese migrants into British Columbia. The last one, captured
10 days ago just south of Nootka Sound, carried 146 Chinese. The Royal
Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said two earlier ships successfully smuggled
migrants into British Columbia undetected.

The number of migrants from the four captured ships approaches 600. They
are being held in detention centers and prisons throughout British Columbia
at a minimum cost of $200 a day per person. Most of the migrants are
seeking refugee status, which would allow them to stay in Canada. The
process of reviewing all the refugee claims will take up to a year,
assuming no more ships arrive.

But from the grapevine that snakes through Chinatown and beyond, the word
is more ships are under way, as many as a dozen, plowing through the ocean
toward North America. No one knows how many, if any - given the publicity
of the four captured ships - will try to land on Canadian shores.

For the Chinese-Canadian community, the spectacle of the past two months
has exposed deep divisions among those sympathetic with the boat people,
and those who would send them back first and ask questions later.

But personal lines of demarcation are not so clearly drawn. Many people
feel torn between allegiance to their new country and loyalty to the people
of their old one.

`A feeling it could be endless'

While the boatloads of migrants provide dramatic material for news media,
the recent wave of boat people in no way makes up "the largest human
smuggling operation in Canadian history," as one newspaper reported.

Two years ago, U.S. and Canadian authorities busted an international
smuggling ring that funneled an estimated 3,600 illegal Chinese into the
U.S. through Toronto and Vancouver. The Pacific Forum, a think tank in
Hawaii, estimates as many as 100,000 illegal Chinese migrants reach the U.S
annually, a large percentage of them through Canada.

Most migrants seeking refugee status in Canada come by plane, with no
dramatic entrances and no publicity. There were more than 20,000 refugee
claimants in Canada last year, about 1,500 of them from China.

"It's not the numbers themselves - they're only a fraction of the people
who come to Canada (as refugees)," said Victor Wong about the recent boat
people. Wong heads the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians, which
helps settle Chinese refugees. "There's a stigma attached to refugees who
come by boat. Especially when they come one after the other. There's a
feeling it could be endless."

Wong, along with immigration officials and lawyers who've had direct
contact with the boat people, have pieced together parts of their story.

Most of the boat people are reluctant to talk about the smugglers who
arranged their journeys, called "snakeheads" in China. People-smuggling is
considered one of the most lucrative practices of Chinese organized crime.
The fear among the detainees is that the snakeheads would harm their
families back home.

All the boat people come from Fujian province on the southeast China coast,
directly across the strait from Taiwan. Most are rural peasants, street
vendors or fishermen. The majority are uneducated and speak no English.

They are believed to have each pledged as much as $40,000 to the snakeheads
for the journey across the ocean. Wong said he knows of no migrant who has
paid the full amount.

The passage takes four to 10 weeks, with passengers crammed into squalid
cargo holds, eating rice once or twice a day. Those who gave a down payment
are awarded privileges such as roomier quarters or time on the deck. Some
fall ill, many get seasick.

Once in Canadian waters, the plan calls for the migrants to be moved ashore
on small boats where snakeheads would pick them up and smuggle them through
Vancouver or Toronto into the U.S.

Immigration officials believe the ultimate destination for many migrants is
New York City, where an estimated 500,000 Fujianese immigrants - 400,000 of
them illegal - labor in an underground economy. Many work in garment
sweatshops for as little as $1 an hour. They work for as long as necessary
to pay off the snakeheads.

"The understanding is that employment is found for them," said George
Varnai, of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. "It's part of the package,
the voyage and then the job."

`They're doomed here'

The Chinese-Canadian community in Vancouver sees the boat people as an
embarrassment and a reminder of their own past, said Wong, the activist.
"They look at these people and see who they were before and it makes them

Many Chinese Canadians argue that detaining or sending home the boat people
is for their own safety.

"They've started on a life that they have no idea about. They would be
subject to the whims of criminals," said Cindy Chan Piper, a city planner
and a Chinese community advocate. "If they're sent back home, as poor as it
is there, they can function, they have family and people to take care of
them. They won't have that here. They're doomed here."

There are really two Chinatowns of Greater Vancouver: the traditional one
of quaint shops and hideaway restaurants off East Pender Street and the
city of Richmond, just south of Vancouver, a place of new shopping malls
and office buildings.

Nearly half of the estimated 300,000 Chinese Canadians of Greater Vancouver
live in Richmond and other nearby suburbs, most of them professionals and
business people who have migrated within the past two decades. Many came
from Hong Kong, bringing with them money and connections.

Mainland China for years has been the No. 1 source of legal immigrants to
Canada, totaling some 20,000 annually. The influx into Vancouver has given
rise to a "little China," with its own network of Chinese-language media,
banks, businesses and civic groups. It's estimated that 50 percent of
Chinese in Vancouver speak little or no English.

And because Canada has among the most lenient immigration laws in the
world, it draws refugees worldwide. More than 2,000 Chinese sought
political asylum in Vancouver after the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square.
Many of these political refugees had to endure years of waiting and jumping
hoops to gain legal status in the country.

"The anger comes from a feeling that they (the boat people and the
snakeheads) are cheating the system," said Angela Kan, executive director
of the Chinese Cultural Centre of Vancouver. The boat people are sometimes
called "queue-jumpers."

Artist Gu Xiong, 45, came as a political refugee in 1990. In China, he was
a university art professor. But his first years in Canada were spent
working three menial jobs to support his wife and daughter. He still
remembers the routine: from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. he worked at a laundry, 11
a.m. to 4 p.m. at a car wash, and 5 to 11 p.m. at a pizza shop.

If refugees like Gu Xiong, highly educated and resourceful, struggled in
Canada, what's in store for the boat people who are in many cases
illiterate and unsophisticated? This is the question asked by opponents of
the boat people.

"Life was very, very hard," Gu Xiong said. "I was very ashamed. I could not
look at people. My face was red."

Like other past refugees, Gu Xiong, now an art instructor at the University
of British Columbia, said he feels sympathy for all sides.

"I understand why they came. They want a better life. When you're poor, you
dream to be wealthy, and it's so easy to be convinced to go to Canada or
America. They come with dreams. But without English, without education,
they'll be like slaves here. I can't blame Canada for sending them back."

Massive displacement in China

Fujian Province is home to 30 million people. Though it's poor by Western
standards, it is relatively prosperous compared to China's interior
provinces, where unemployment is at a level incomprehensible to many

China's free-market revolution has benefited certain groups but has caused
massive displacement and instability, said Jonathan Adelman, a China
scholar at the University of Denver.

Government-run industries have gone bankrupt and laid off tens of millions
of workers. To say there is a surplus of labor is a great understatement,
Adelman said. Of the 400 million people who live in cities, 40 million are
unemployed. Most Chinese, about 900 million, live in rural areas.

"If one-third of this rural population disappeared today, there would be no
discernible impact to the economy," Adelman said. "They're superfluous

In addition, there are between 80 million to 120 million people who make up
what the Chinese government calls a "floating labor force." They are
migrant laborers who go from city to city looking for whatever work they
can get.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers from the interior have moved to the
Eastern seaboard and, with their cheaper labor, have displaced many native
Fujianese, long a seafaring people. Fujianese men often see no other option
but to sail to other lands to find work. Villages with few or no men left
are not uncommon in Fujian province

In recent years, Fujianese have stowed away on ships heading to Taiwan, the
Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Guam and all parts of North America.
This month alone, the Australian government sent back 186 Fujianese boat
people, and the U.S. government turned back 141 Fujianese boat people
intercepted near Guam.

Canadian officials hope the coming October storms in the North Pacific will
deter more people-smuggling boats while the government tries to figure out
how to deal with the problem. Canadian leaders have opened a dialogue with
Chinese leaders on the subject, and the RCMP is preparing to send a team to
Fujian Province this fall.

The Canadian navy, which monitors the ocean as far as 500 nautical miles
from the coastline, is watching closely for more boats steaming toward
North America.

Considering the decrepit condition of the impounded ships, many wonder if
some human-cargo vessels simply did not made it across the ocean or whether
future ships might be catastrophes waiting to happen.

"North Pacific storms can be very rough," said Lt. Commander Gerry Pash of
the Canadian navy. "If these vessels hit a storm and try to ride it out,
they may not make it. We may never know what happened or we may find
evidence of what happened by finding bodies on beaches from Queen Charlotte
to Oregon."

Researcher Steve Selter and interpreter Nancy Li contributed to this report

Melanie Orhant

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