Miu-Chung Yan, Sean Lauer, Ching Man Lam and Sherman Chan

Publication date:

Last Reviewed: 01-08-2013

Return Migrant or Diaspora: An Exploratory Study of New Generation Chinese-Canadian Youth Working in Hong Kong

Source: Metropolis Working Paper Series: No. 12-13: SEPTEMBER 2012

The research question of this paper asks: Is the search for better economic opportunity the motivation of their relocation to Hong Kong? If so, then why did they choose Hong Kong instead of other countries such as the USA, which is geographically closer to their family? How do they perceive their connections with Hong Kong and Canada?


The circular movement of migrants between their homeland and adopted country has problematized the previous understanding of the linear pattern of return migration. However, the concept of circular migration tends to apply to migrants whose movement is made possible due to their extensive pre-migration connections with their homeland. In this paper, we report findings of a study on a group of new generation Chinese-Canadian youth working in Hong Kong. Although, like many return migrants, this group of young people decided to move to Hong Kong largely for economic reasons, they do not position themselves as return migrants. Instead, they have kept a strong Canadian identity by keeping a unique friendship circle and perceiving Canada as a home that they will one day return to. We highlight in this paper some implications of their experience on transnational migration studies and
government policies. Return migration, once overlooked in research on migration, has become a growing concern in the field.

As late as 1980, Gmelch (1980) observed that studies on international migration were largely based on an assumption of a one-way movement of migrants from the developing world to industrialized countries. The idea of return migration in Gmelch’s day was still in its infancy. The sporadic studies on return migrants tended to focus on a small group of migrants returning to their rural hometown where they started their migration journey. Today, scholars face far more complex migration patterns caused by a set of intertwined factors (e.g., Hatton and Williamson 2008; Sassen 1998, 2007): demographic crisis of many industrial countries, rationalization of immigration policy, technological improvement in communication and transportation, and a flexible flow of economic and human capitals at a global level, just to name a few.

Immigrants no longer move linearly from one country (underdeveloped) and settle in another country (developed) for good. Instead, researchers find a circular pattern as migrants commonly move between countries of origin and settlement (e.g., Ley and Kobayashi 2005; Ong 1999). Very often, the circular movement has been understood and explained by the concept of transnationalism, which is described by Basch, Glick-Schiller, and Blanc-Szanton (1994, p. 6) as a process through which immigrants strategically “forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement.” This is also a strategic process to meet certain economic (e.g., Ong 1999) and human capital (e.g., Kang 2012) accumulation needs of the migrants, which are closely tied to the specific tasks of different stages in the life cycle (Kobayashi and Preston 2007; Lauer and Wong 2010; Ley and Kobayashi 2005).

In the circular migration process, the idea of return migrants becomes problematic, as Ley and Kobayashi (2005) note. One of the major problems is their political identity, particularly for countries like Canada, which officially recognize dual citizenship of its members. Does returning to the “old” home country, where they were originally from, make the transnational migrants a returnee to the “old” home country, or a diaspora of the “new” home country to which they are still politically and socially connected? The Asian Pacific Foundation estimates 2.7 million Canadians are living abroad (Zhang 2009). Among them, many returned to the countries from which they first migrated to Canada. For instance, it is estimated that one-third of male immigrants who arrived in Canada at the age of 25 to 45 left Canada within 20 years of arriving (Michalowski and Tran 2009). The back and forth movement between the “old” and “new” home countries becomes a continuous journey for many transnational migrants.

Among all immigrant groups in Canada, the transnational migration patterns of Hong Kong Chinese have always been of particular interest. The Chinese immigrant community in Canada experienced a vast influx of immigrants (over 380,000) from Hong Kong from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s (Ley and Kobayashi 2005). Since then, the Hong Kong Chinese have become a major subject of transnational migration studies in Canada. They first generated the “astronaut family” and “satellite kids” phenomenon (Tsang, Irving, Alaggia, Chau, and Benjamin 2003; Waters 2005). Young families with small children migrated to Canada to seek political stability and a better education for their children. In these families, the breadwinner, usually the father, commuted transnationally between Canada and Hong Kong while the mother stayed behind to take care of the children. In some situations, both parents may spend most of their time in Hong Kong while their children are under the
care of other relatives, friends, or by themselves in Canada.

Although migration decisions are always complicated, the primary motivation for Hong Kong Chinese to move to Canada is the political stability of Canadian citizenship and providing a better education for their children (Ley and Kobayashi 2005). However, the unfavourable economic conditions that most immigrants face in Canada have encouraged the return of many Hong Kong Chinese from Canada, not only the “astronaut families”. China’s improved political stability and blooming economy have drawn a significant number of Hong Kong Chinese immigrants back to their “old” home, where they have strong human and social capital connections to the local labour market. Unsurprisingly, they constitute the majority of the so-called Canadian diaspora in Hong Kong (Kunz and Zhang n.d.). It is conservatively estimated8 MBC: Return Migrant or Diaspora that there are close to 300,000 Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong, 67% were born in Hong Kong, and 83% hold dual citizenship. A vast majority returned to Hong Kong after 1997 (Zhang and DeGolyer 2011). Indeed, consistently found in different studies, economic and job opportunities have been the dominant reason for the decision to move back to Hong Kong (e.g., Ley and Kobayashi 2005; Salaff and Arent 2004; Zhang and DeGolyer 2011).

File 1: Return Migrant or Diaspora (.pdf)

Theme: Immigration Trends, Economic & Job Market Integration

Region: Canada, International

Subject Group: Immigrants