VANCOUVER (Reuters) - When Liu Chuang landed in Vancouver in 2013, he noticed that most of the Chinese immigrants he met were heavily invested in residential real estate and hungry to diversify.
Flipping houses didn’t appeal to the 39-year-old entrepreneur, who is launching a Vancouver-based tech incubator to help his Chinese-born friends invest in local start-ups.
“The Chinese I know ... they’ve already bought quite a few houses, they really don’t want to buy any more,” said Liu, who was also born in China and co-founded venture capital firm Nextplay Ventures. “Now they want to invest in technology or other industries that can give a good return on investment.”
Liu represents what real estate agents, lawyers and immigration consultants say is a transformative shift in where wealthy Asian individuals and families, primarily from mainland China, place their money in British Columbia, the West Coast province.
Vancouver has been a top destination for Asian immigrants for decades, helping make it Canada’s most expensive housing market and one consistently ranked as North America’s least affordable. Houses and luxury condos in the Vancouver area have been the investment of choice for both well-heeled new arrivals and China-based investors putting money abroad.
But with the Vancouver market looking pricey, many of these investors are seeking other opportunities. They range from hotels and golf courses targeting Chinese tourists to berry farms, mineral water sources, and wineries that export to Asia.
“The days of parking capital in five houses in Vancouver have passed,” said Richard Kurland, a local immigration lawyer.
While provincial agencies and industry associations contacted by Reuters do not collect figures for foreign investment in commercial property, there are threads of data that support the anecdotal evidence.
Hotel sales to buyers with ties to China increased to four in 2014 from just one in 2011, according to sales information provided to Reuters by global hotel consulting firm HVS. And reports of rising demand for wineries and farms has coincided with a 60 percent jump in the value of British Columbia wine exports to China from 2010 through 2013, and a doubling in the value of agricultural food exports to China in that same period.
Those servicing the new wave says Chinese investors are also looking to put down roots and build a local business for their children, with British Columbia’s mild climate and clean air increasingly seen as more desirable than China’s pollution-hit cities.
This marks a shift from a tradition among many wealthy families who had lived in Canada just long enough to secure citizenship, and to put their kids through school, before returning to Asia.
The recent rise in demand for commercial land, tourism properties, and even entire villages has coincided with China President Xi Jinping’s “Operation Fox Hunt,” which aims to nab allegedly corrupt officials who have moved abroad and to seize their assets.
The corruption crackdown has even legitimate business people concerned about the future and looking to diversify their holdings, say those serving this community
“It has to do with the perceived political climate in China,” said Alice Chen, managing director at SKY Capital Group, which advises wealthy Chinese on acquisition opportunities.
“Economic and political policies can change at any minute, which affects their businesses, so they see Canada as the more stable environment.”
The recent hotel deals were mostly in the C$15 million to C$30 million range, said Carrie Russell, managing director for Canada with HVS. Chinese buyers are also seeking to acquire expensive luxury hotels, though they have not been as successful in winning the bidding for those, she said.
Chinese groups are also looking to crack into property development, seeking land to build condos or major mixed-use projects, said David Goodman, a real estate agent with HQ Commercial.
“Over the last three or four years, they were dipping their feet in. Now they are really setting up shop,” he said.
These investors are also looking outside of coastal Vancouver to agribusiness and tourism opportunities in British Columbia’s interior and remote north, such as the ghost town of Bradian, which sold to a group of Chinese investors in December. They plan to turn it into a mini Whistler-style resort for everything from skiing to snowmobiling and fishing.
Among the most popular investments are wineries, which appeal to buyers looking for a lifestyle business that can be passed on to the next generation, said Christa Frosch, an agent with Sotheby’s International Realty Canada.
In 2009 there was just one Chinese-owned winery in British Columbia, said Frosch. But now she estimates about 10 percent of the province’s 230 licensed wineries are owned by people with ties to mainland China.
Chinese ownership has risen in tandem with trade, and now roughly 90 percent of the province’s wine exports go to China.
Some investors are eyeing another luxury export - spring water.
Immigration consultant Alex Liao said he has clients looking to spend at least C$20 million to buy a well and set up a bottling plant to export mountain water to China, where the economic boom has also meant higher pollution.
“One of my clients is exporting - I cannot believe it - 200 container loads of mineral water from B.C. to China every single month,” said Liao. “Lots of people, right now, are buying wells.”
Julie Wei, a residential agent with Macdonald Realty who now also helps clients find commercial opportunities, says the desire to buy a Canadian business is motivated in some cases by children who have spent years in Vancouver and no longer want to return to China.
That’s what happened to Ben Bi, who came to Canada for university and ended up staying. Backed by his family’s real estate business in China, Bi has bought a tract of land and is designing a high-end multi-home development.
The project is the first of many the 34-year-old hopes to tackle, as he looks to shift more of the focus of the family business to Canada from China. His parents first resisted the plan, but changed their minds after learning more about Vancouver.
“They actually want to see the next generation, and even the generation after me, have a better life,” he said.
Additional reporting by Solarina Ho in Toronto; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Martin Howell