April 29th, 2013

An Expat Childhood in 1930s Kowloon

Posted in Asia Pacific, History, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

carnarvon road

Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s

When Joyce Fitch lived in Hong Kong, rickshaws were a form of public transport, the only way to cross Victoria Harbour was by boat and there were about 1.5 million people living in the territory. Fitch was born in England and spent most of her youth and adolescence in Hong Kong, where she lived with her family on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui in the 1930s. I interviewed Fitch recently thanks to the English Schools Foundation’s Alumni News, and because it’s not often you hear first-hand about expatriate life in Kowloon before the war, I thought I’d post a portion of the transcript, which has been edited for clarity.

My father went out to China in 1920 as the captain of a ship for Butterfield and Swire, now Cathay Pacific. He was there trading up and down the coast, from Shanghai up to the Gorges and up to Tientsin. We were there in Shanghai for four years and then he was transferred down to Hong Kong. He was still working on the ship, going away and coming back.

We had rather a checkered family life but we managed. My brother was in England so we would have to go back there every so often. I went to the Kowloon British School near Austin Road — I travelled there by rickshaw — but I didn’t really have much time at school for any length of time. I was always coming back or forwards.

Because my father was away a lot, our life was a little bit different than other families. My mother played tennis and mahjong. I would come home and the [servant] boy would be there and I would have a meal. I was a rather solitary child and didn’t always have friends around to play. I was very independent and could walk around Kowloon all over the place and not feel at all restricted. I would go to dockyards and watch the men work.

We lived on Kimberley Road. The big houses there had gardens — Carnarvon Road too. Down where Carnarvon Road goes, there was a market garden, believe it or not. There weren’t many shops past St. Andrew’s [Church, on Nathan Road near Austin Road]. There was a sort of gap of houses and flats and maybe a few more shops further up Nathan Road, and then there was a theatre up there. I remember going to the pictures very often. It was just a very rural type area. Lots of gardens. I was really quite shocked when I went back to see it the next time. I think it was about 1970 that I went back first. I came back about three times — each time it surprised me more.


December 5th, 2011

Catholic Shrines of Carroll Gardens

Posted in Art and Design, Demographics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

At Court Street and Fourth Place is the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club’s Madonna Addolorata

Jesus has risen again on Brooklyn’s Wyckoff Street. His hand outstretched toward passersby, Christ silently sermonizes from a lightbox that both protects him from the elements and casts a holy aura around his colorfully-painted, ceramic torso. He’s also a home improvement with which the Joneses can’t keep up — the small stone statue next door (it looks a little like popular images of St. Francis of Assisi) is literally outshined and overshadowed by the devotionally double-padlocked shrine that’s built around him.

Wyckoff Street is technically in Cobble Hill, a largely gentrified slice of brownstone Brooklyn bordering tony Brooklyn Heights. Further south is Carroll Gardens, where awnings grow more metallic, siding more aluminum, and residents are more consistently old timers, many of them Italian. Carroll Gardens has seen its share of wealthier newcomers, too, but not to the extent of Cobble Hill.

The density of its shrines is a testament. Spreading out in Carroll Gardens’ unusually spacious front lawns (which give the neighborhood the second half of its name), boldly occupying prime real estate even on Court Street, one of the area’s main drags, Catholic iconography stands guard against the aesthetic imperatives of newcomers whose taste for prosciutto is more affected than acculturated.


March 15th, 2010

French Expats, Here and There

Posted in Asia Pacific, Canada, Demographics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

World cup celebration

French football fans celebrate in 2006 on the Plateau Mont-Royal
Photo by Oliver Lavery

It’s been a long time coming, but the French — in the words of a shop manager on Mount Royal Avenue — “are taking over the Plateau!” French immigrants have been coming to Quebec for decades, but the past few years have seen an especially large influx. This year, Canada will issue 14,000 temporary visas to French people between the ages of 18 and 35, most of them on working holidays. Many choose to live in Montreal, and especially on the Plateau Mont-Royal, where French accents have become common enough to elicit half-joking exclamations like the one above. According to the French consulate, there could be as many as 100,000 French citizens living in Montreal.

In today’s La Presse, Émilie Côté takes a look at the growing community of young French émigrés on the Plateau. Many of the people she encountered say they want to stay in Montreal long-term, but finding permanent employment has been difficult. There’s also some lingering prejudice against “les maudits Français,” though some admit that the animosity could be well-deserved, considering that French people “have a chauvinistic streak” and are “notorious whiners.” In any case, the French influx is beginning to reshape the social fabric of the Plateau in some potentially fascinating ways.

Though Montreal is unique in that it is the only large, economically-developed French-speaking city outside Europe, it is not the only place with a growing French community. More and more French people are moving to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver; a number of American cities, including Boston, San Francisco and New York, have been popular destinations for quite some time now. According to the French magazine Les Echos, there are 210,000 French expatriates in Canada, 175,000 in the United States and 158,000 in the United Kingdom. But here’s a surprise: the country with the absolute largest number of French expats is China, with 252,000.


December 15th, 2008

The Errant Canadians

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

It’s fun to see Jean-Paul Riopelle, now considered to have been of Canada’s foremost artists, described as a “young abstract painter” in Les Canadiens errants, a 1956 National Film Board documentary. He describes the open atmosphere of Paris as being particularly conducive to the creation of art. Implicitly, of course, he is referring to the atmosphere back home in Quebec, which was decidedly hostile to any sort of innovative thinking. In 1948, when Riopelle joined fifteen other artists and intellectuals in publishing the Refus global, a manifesto against the conservative Quebec establishment of the era, he was essentially chased out of town. He moved to Paris in 1949 and he continued to split his time between France and Canada until the 1990s.

Canada has always been a country of immigrants but what isn’t as widely known is that it has been, for just as long, a country of emigrants. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigration and a high birth rate were the only things preventing Canada from losing population as hundreds of thousands of people left for better economic prospects in the United States. Throughout its history, many of its luminaries have found it more worthwhile to live abroad — Mordecai Richler in London, Leonard Cohen in Greece, Mavis Gallant and Anne Hébert in Paris, just to name a few. Even today, an estimated two million Canadians live outside of Canada.

What interests me about this is how the expatriate experience has informed the Canadian identity. Unfortunately, the film above doesn’t really offer much in that regard, dwelling mainly on the surface of why such talented people decided to leave Canada for Paris and London. Unlike immigrants, who leave their countries to join family abroad or to pursue better educational or economic opportunities elsewhere, expats tend to come from positions of relative privilege. For them, moving abroad is a lifestyle choice more than anything else. That has been my experience in Hong Kong, at least, and from what what I can glean in Les Canadiens errants, it was true in 1950s Europe, too.

April 2nd, 2007

Why Is Canada Ignoring Its Vast Diaspora?

Posted in Canada, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Lan Kwai Fong

Canada Day celebrations in Hong Kong. Photo by Eric Fung

Last summer, when the “new government of Canada” (as it insists on calling itself) was forced to evacuate 50,000 Canadian citizens from Lebanon, there was a sudden and unexpected focus on the vast numbers of Canadians living overseas. Many of them are former immigrants who returned to their homeland after years or even decades in Canada. In particular, many are in Asia. This is especially evident in Hong Kong, where the pop culture is dominated by a completely disproportionate number of born-and-bred Canadians (Christy Chung, Karena Lam and Nicolas Tse, to name a few) and Hong Konger who now live in Canada (Eric Tseng, for example).

“An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Canadians make up [Hong Kong]’s single largest contingent of foreign passport holders and Canada’s largest diaspora outside the U.S.,” writes Andrea Mendel-Campbell in this week’s edition of Maclean’s. “Their ranks read like a who’s who of Hong Kong’s rich and powerful: from Victor Li, scion of Li Ka-shing, one of the world’s richest men, to the family of fellow real estate and jewellery tycoon, Cheng Yu-Tung.”

Over the past thirty years, immigration to Canada has created a transnational web of economic and social connections. Recently, many Chinese immigrants who grew up in Canada have left to make their fortunes in Hong Kong and China, drawn by a booming economy and pushed away by a deeply conservative business environment at home. On the whole, an estimated 2.7 million Canadians live abroad, making it the world’s fourth-largest group of expatriate citizens. Yet the Canadian government and business establishment remains wary—perhaps even ignorant—of the potential represented by these overseas Canadians. Why?