Vancouver Has Been Transformed By Chinese Immigrants Chinese immigrants and investors have bought businesses and property, made philanthropic contributions and supported the arts. But some Vancouver residents feel priced out of the real estate market.

Vancouver Has Been Transformed By Chinese Immigrants

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The Canadian city of Vancouver has been in the news lately because it's where an executive of the Chinese telecom Huawei lives under partial house arrest. The U.S. accuses her of violating sanctions against Iran. She's just one of many wealthy Chinese immigrants who have homes in Vancouver. They have transformed the city and tested Canada's liberal immigration policies. From Vancouver, NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: When you cross over the Granville Street Bridge that winds into downtown Vancouver, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're in Hong Kong. The skyline has the same ribbon of gleaming apartment towers hugging the waterfront, mountains in the distance, and there's the unmistakable smell of money.

WILSON NG: You're looking at a McLaren 570GT right here, which is part of our entry-level lineup.

NORTHAM: Wilson Ng, with McLaren Autos, gently runs his hand over a sleek white sports car. This is a McLaren supercar, and that includes its price.

NG: They're starting around $200,000, up to $250,000 or $300,000.

NORTHAM: And that's for one of the cheaper models in this showroom. There are lots of supercar dealers to choose from in this Vancouver neighborhood - Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Rolls Royce and Aston Martins. That's because there's a big market for these types of cars in this city, and most of the customers are foreign.

NG: A lot of mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, East Indian, Singapore - so a lot of foreign money.

NORTHAM: Ng says the supercar market in Vancouver started to really take off around 2010 when China's economy was red hot. Asian immigrants and investors also started buying up businesses and property in the Vancouver area.

MARIANNE WU: You know, people really want to own something because that's where their security come from.

NORTHAM: Marianne Wu first came to Vancouver as a student seven years ago. She now works in marketing and translating. She loves the city and just got her permanent residency card. Wu says her family back in China helped her buy a home here in Vancouver.

WU: They pushed me to, you know, buy a property here. They want me to feel a stable life, which everybody wants.

NORTHAM: Vancouver has long been a magnet for Chinese immigrants, starting in the late 1800s when Chinese laborers came to help build the Trans Canada Railway. Nearly a quarter of Vancouver's population now identifies as ethnic Chinese. Henry Yu, a professor of history at The University of British Columbia, says the Chinese community has made a positive contribution to Vancouver.

HENRY YU: You'll see hospital wings. You'll see at UBC the Chan Centre for Performing Arts. There are Chinese names on all of the institutions of arts and culture.

NORTHAM: Since the late 1990s, there's been a surge of Chinese investment. Andy Yan, an adjunct professor in urban studies at Simon Fraser University, says that's because Vancouver is seen as a good place to park money.

ANDY YAN: It's actually the desire for a safe haven where you are looking for a hedge against political, economic, social insecurity. And I think you're coming to a place like Vancouver because it's safer.

NORTHAM: Analysts say some of the money flowing into Vancouver through investments or real estate is legitimate; some of it isn't. The River Rock Casino in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond is a massive popular place for gamblers. Customers fill the baccarat tables and roulette wheels. The River Rock is the largest of several casinos that produces a lot of revenue for the provincial government.

PETER GERMAN: But over a number of years, it had also become a very comfortable place for organized crime to launder its money.

NORTHAM: Peter German, a former deputy commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was commissioned to look into money laundering at the casinos. German found they were an easy way to wash money, using an underground banking network between Vancouver and China.

GERMAN: We have video of people walking into casinos with duffel bags of cash - $20 bills.

NORTHAM: German found that at least $5 billion of laundered money made its way into Vancouver's real estate market. That's only added to a run on the city's housing stock and a growing resentment among the locals who feel priced out of the market.

Vancouver's popular Granville Island is a great place to walk your dog. That's where we found Brittany Davis and her border collie, Bella. Davis just moved back to the city after living in the U.S. for a couple of years and is struggling with the housing crisis. She says it's frustrating when foreign investors buy up the houses but don't even live in them.

BRITTANY DAVIS: Even where we live, I've seen apartments that are just - nobody's - they're vacant. You can walk around and see just empty houses.

NORTHAM: Kevin Huang, founder of the Hua Foundation, a nonprofit community development organization, says undoubtedly some wealthy people see Vancouver as only an investment.

KEVIN HUANG: However, there are a lot of folks that are wanting to integrate, wanting to find jobs and wanting to contribute.

NORTHAM: Federal and provincial governments are now trying to stabilize the real estate market by adding a new tax for foreign buyers. But for those ultra-wealthy investors, Vancouver is still a key destination to park money. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Vancouver.

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