THE view from the peak tram is stunning as you look out over the busy harbor, the business district is bristling with new office buildings, and expensive new homes and condominiums can be seen cropping up across the bay in the area known as the British Properties. A young Chinese couple holding hands shares the tram ride back down the mountain. A pleasant evening in Hong Kong? No, this is Vancouver, British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. The tram ride is to the top of Grouse Mountain, not Victoria Peak, and the young couple is more than likely a pair of recent immigrants from Hong Kong.
An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Hong Kong Chinese immigrated to Canada in 1988, and growing numbers are expected every year until 1997. That's when the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong reverts to mainland Chinese rule, ending the 99-year-lease agreement between China and Britain.
The coming change of government has caused many Hong Kong Chinese to take a serious look at their future and opt for a new life in the West rather than live in Hong Kong under the communists. They question the workability of Chinese senior leader Deng Xiaoping's proposed ``One Country, Two Systems,'' principle of government.
Under this system, Hong Kong would be allowed to continue as a center of free enterprise; to be a conduit for international funds coming into China. In essence, a captitalist system within a communist government.
Hong Kong has always been an easy place to make money, and in fact, since World War II, has emerged as the third largest financial center in the world (there are no minimum wage laws or unemployment insurance, no sales tax or import duties).
It's estimated there are 500 to 1,000 extremely wealthy families in Hong Kong, families who control hundreds of millions of dollars in United States figures. There's also a growing middle class.
But the designation ``middle class'' has a different meaning in Hong Kong than it does in North America. These are families with a net worth of between $5 million and $15 million, and they number in the tens of thousands.
It's these middle-class Chinese families who are most anxious to move their fortunes out of Hong Kong before the communists move in. Owning property in Canada has become an important form of insurance for them.
If you're from Hong Kong, and you want that kind of insurance, Andrea Eng is the person to see. She's a native of Vancouver from a Chinese family, a former Miss Canada, and a highly successful real estate broker. She sold close to $200 million worth of Vancouver property in 1988 alone, mostly to Hong Kong investors, and nearly all for cash.
``Traditionally, yes, they buy all cash,'' says Ms. Eng. ``We don't even question where their money comes from.'' She points out that with a maximum tax rate in Hong Kong of 15 percent to 17 percent, it's not difficult to figure out how much cash they can accumulate.
According to Eng, as important as the accumulation of wealth may seem, their families are more important to the Chinese. Business is seen not as an end in itself, but as a means of maintaining family stability. And it's that concern for family that has prompted the recent rash of Hong Kong Chinese immigration. But why Canada, and why Vancouver in particular?
For Danny Gaw, a recent Hong Kong immigrant who started a multimillion dollar food service business, Vancouver offers a better life style.
``The people, we find, are quite friendly,'' says Mr. Gaw, ``and it's quite accepted here for different races to work harmoniously together.'' He also cites the availability of fresh produce and seafood as further reasons to settle in Vancouver. ``We love to eat,'' he adds with a grin.
Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell points out that aside from the physical similarities between the two cities, there is a strong cultural link. ``We have a large proportion of our community who are already Canadians from a Chinese background,'' he says, ``and we've encouraged them to build on their traditions and to contribute to our city.''
All these obvious amenities are not lost on Hong Kong investors, who have pumped upward of $2 billion into the greater Vancouver real estate market since 1970 - about $500 million per year. A case in point is the recent sale of the entire Vancouver Expo 86 site, 205 acres of prime downtown waterfront property, to Li Ka-shing, a wealthy Hong Kong investor who paid $320 million for the land.
Mr. Li already has family living in Vancouver. His Concord Pacific Development Company plans to develop the site as condominium housing. The site, ironically, abuts the existing Chinatown district of Vancouver.
Back in her office, Eng points to a map of downtown Vancouver where she has colored in Hong Kong investments. As she reads off the names, one quickly realizes that these properties are not just grocery stores and apartment buildings.
``The New World Group of Hong Kong bought this,'' she points to the Holiday Inn, Harborside, ``and on either side of the Holiday Inn are two major office towers overlooking the waterfront, the Coopers & Librand Building and the Thorn, Ernst & Winney Building, both owned by offshore Chinese.''
She then points to Robson Street, Vancouver's prime retail area. ``You can see that the bulk of the activity is owned by Chinese, in fact probably 80 percent of the whole block.''
That's a big change from 100 years ago, when the first Chinese came to Vancouver to help build railroads and work in the mines. In contrast, it's now the educated and the wealthy who are leaving Hong Kong. They have the means, and they don't trust the central government in Peking to administrate the island colony effectively.
So for a Hong Kong family with the means to immigrate, Vancouver looks inviting. There's the underlying familiarity of British colonial influence, the tram ride to the top of Grouse Mountain, a busy harbor complete with annual dragon boat races, and a well-established Chinese community offering all the accustomed goods and services.
Although city officials play down the label, for thousands of Hong Kong Chinese looking for a secure future, Vancouver is indeed a new Hong Kong.