No longer just hewers of wood and drawers of water

This generation of young professionals is shattering stereotypes about what it means to be a resource worker


When Vancouver-born lawyer Tai Cheng was in Beijing working for a Vancouver firm, the last thing he expected was to get a job offer from a Chinese company wanting him to move back to B.C.

But that’s what happened when Cheng was approached by the Fulida Group, a major Chinese producer of viscose, the raw material that goes into rayon.

It was 2012, Cheng was studying Chinese law at Beijing University, and Fulida was considering its first overseas investment in the resources sector. It had its eye on the Neucel dissolving sulfite pulp mill at Port Alice, a remote community on northern Vancouver Island. The mill had a chequered past. It had been in and out of receivership and at one point had been stripped of its assets by unscrupulous American owners. But the product that it made – the raw material for producing rayon – was in high demand. Fulida wanted an in-house lawyer, someone young, who could speak Mandarin, who had practiced law in Vancouver, and had some experience. Cheng, who was with Borden Ladner Gervais at the time, fit the bill.

At a time when resources-rich British Columbia has caught the attention of Asia’s manufacturing economies, professionals like Tai Cheng are living in what could be called the best of times. They have the professional qualifications and the language skills that are in high demand by Asian companies, eager to invest their wealth in natural resources here – resources that we often take for granted.

“Initially I didn't want to go. I was very happy where I was and I provided them with a number of candidates that I thought would meet their profile.”

But Fulida, one of China’s largest manufacturers of textiles, would not give up. After meeting several times with the Fulida chairman, Cheng accepted the offer to return home and represent the company here. His wife helped convince him. She missed Vancouver, particularly the city’s clean air.

Cheng had gone to Beijing in 2010 not just to represent his law firm, but to get his Masters degree at Beijing University and to learn Mandarin. He had accomplished those three goals.

He came back to Vancouver in 2012 as vice-president of Fulida Canada and vice-president of community and government affairs for Neucel.

“It shows that you don’t know where opportunity lies,” he said of his overseas experience.

Cheng’s story is not unique but it illustrates the changing face of the B.C. resources sector as the province looks across the Pacific for new markets. New in-bound investment is a natural product of the B.C. outreach. And these companies all need people on the ground in B.C. to represent them. Asian investors are becoming more sophisticated about their overseas purchases, Cheng said. They are hiring not only accountants and lawyers, but people familiar with local issues, with a background in public relations, government relations and First Nations relations. British Columbians are the best people to fill those roles.

“There are many people in Vancouver with similar skills to myself, who are of Asian descent, are born in Canada, and yet retain much of their cultural heritage as well as their Canadian upbringing,” Cheng said in an interview at Fulida's office in south Richmond.

“Even now Fulida is looking to do further investing in British Columbia. We are looking at hiring people and we are looking for Canadians who have either Mandarin language ability or have spent time working in Asia. You would be surprised, but there are many candidates. We put up a posting and we received over 60 applications from Canadians who were qualified, people who have graduated from the University of British Columbia or SFU, or people from Ontario.”

Fulida is also investing capital in its Port Alice mill, to ensure it remains competitive. But its economic impact is not just in resource communities. It takes services and supplies, mostly from Vancouver, to run a pulp mill. Cheng said Fulida chose its south Richmond location, a business park near the Steveston Highway, because of its easy access to Seaspan's Tilbury shipping terminal across the river. That's where locally procured supplies and chemicals leave Vancouver for Port Alice, as well as where barges loaded with pulp destined for the North American market arrive. Dollar-for dollar, Fulida's economic impact in the Lower Mainland likely rivals its impact in Port Alice. Cheng can see it with his own eyes.

At 34 years of age, Cheng  breaks the stereotype of people in the resources sector as being rough hewers of wood and drawers of water. He is urban, at the top of his chosen profession, and equally comfortable in both Asian and North American cultures. His is the modern face of Vancouver. His wife, a lawyer as well, is of Korean descent; they have two young daughters and are active in community organizations. Cheng is involved with the Chinese immigrant aid agency SUCCESS and is on the advisory council of Resource Works. English is the language at home. His parents are Cantonese. He learned that language growing up.

He is well aware of the ambivalence in this province over Asian investment and, seeing it through both a Canadian and Chinese lense, is able to address it head-on. He knows the money is welcome. At Port Alice, for example, the millworkers knew no British Columbia firm would come to their rescue. He hears concerns over the temporary foreign worker issue, concerns he shares himself when, like other Canadians, he sees and reads glaring examples  in the news. And he knows that, although the Port Alice workforce welcomed new owners whom they perceived to have deep pockets, they were concerned about being replaced themselves. That’s where Cheng’s Canadian side plays an important role in bridging the cultural gap.

“There is always going to be some feeling of hesitation and doubt when new owners come in, whether they are Chinese or not,” he said. “The name of the company may change and management may change, but it is the same people who are living there. It’s generations of people who have lived in the area and worked at the mill.

“There was some fear, not that the company would be sold, or things would change; there was a fear about temporary foreign workers, HD Mining was in the news and there was a fear that we would fire everyone and hire Chinese workers. That’s unfounded. That type of business will not do well here in British Columbia. It won’t be appetizing for business owners or the Canadian public.”

Fulida did bring in eight or nine people like himself, Canadians of Chinese descent, which did not go unnoticed in the town, he said. He sees it from both sides and can understand it.

“In a remote community, visibly, when you see a few more Chinese people walking the streets, there may be that perception that there are many more than there actually are in the town. Out of a workforce of 400 people, we have maybe eight or nine who are Chinese people, but that eight or nine were not there before.”

Issues of ethnicity aside, Cheng believes British Columbia is on the cusp of new opportunity in its resources sector that he believes should be welcomed. Asia’s manufacturing economies need this province’s resources, but B.C. is not the only option. We are competing with Australia, the United States, Norway and Russia in the forestry and energy sectors, he said.

Cheng witnessed the emergence of Asia during his first few years as a lawyer. When he joined Borden Ladner Gervais in the early 2000s, the big push in trade was for cross-border deals with the United States.

“The border was very porous at that time for imports and exports. A lot of the focus then was trying to create tax-efficient structures for investment between the United States and Canada – understanding both U.S. law and Canadian law.

Cheng noticed a big shift, however, after the financial crisis of 2008, when the flow of European and American money into Canada started to dry up.

“I definitely saw a lot of lawyers joining Asian Pacific practices. You could hear about Chinese, Japanese and Korean groups in Canada looking for assets.”

And today, with Fulida interested in expanding its Canadian investment portfolio, Cheng is leading their search for new opportunities. He is in the unique position of being equally at home in both Asian and North American cultures and he talks easily about the buzz that acquisition-hungry companies are creating as they tour operations here.

“My work takes me from Vancouver to Calgary, looking for natural resources and you see the same players, you see the same people around. When you talk to them, you know there is a buzz, especially if you are in LNG or forestry.

“You will see it at a potential project asset. Just as you are leaving, a bus or other type of large vehicle will pull in with another group of people who are looking as well. It bodes well for British Columbia.”

Gordon Hamilton is an award-winning writer and freelance journalist specializing in the resources sector. Much of his career was spent at The Vancouver Sun, where, from 1993 to 2013, he was the forestry reporter, writing about the politics, environmental clashes and social issues surrounding resource use. He tells his stories through the people whose lives are touched by our resource economy.

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