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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 11: One long billboard to tolerance

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 30, 2003

There is a school of thought that if you want to see what it means to be Canadian, all you have to do is walk up and down Bloor Street in Toronto. There are, depending who you talk to, anything from 80 to 135 languages spoken on the street. It has a United Nations of cultures, a collection of fugitive pieces, historical ironies and exotic hybrids. Eritrean, Italian and Ethiopian restaurants stand side by side, there is an Indo-Japanese sari shop and the oldest mosque in Canada is in a converted Anglican church in a Ukrainian neighbourhood.

Bloor Street is a long billboard to tolerance, a panoramic route to the mythology of a Canada for all.

This notion of Canada as multiculture was constructed on the idea of the ethnic mosaic. But is the new Canada still a mosaic — or a melting pot where new generations of Canadians are being integrated into a nascent idea of the country? How have the children of immigrants negotiated the spaces between their roots and their identity as Canadians?

I walked up and down Bloor, talking to these Canadians, to see how they are living out the myths of multiculturalism.

To walk east along Bloor is to trace the narrative of an old story unfolding with new characters. The distance from the tough neighbourhoods around Lansdowne Street in the west, to the institutional ghetto of downtown Toronto near Yonge Street, is a measure of the range of what it means to be a new Canadian in the 21st century.

Any journey on Bloor Street still begins on another continent, and this one starts in Seoul, South Korea, where a fiercely proud Torontonian was born 21 years ago. Ryan Cha was 10 years old when his family immigrated to Canada. These days, between studying hotel management, Cha runs Webfusion, an Internet café at Bloor and Dundas Street West.

It's something of a surprise to find a Korean business at this juncture of the street. Koreatown is concentrated further east, where almost every other store between Christie and Bathurst is an Internet café — the new variety stores of Toronto. The block is a facsimile of the most technologically advanced culture in the world.

"I hang out there once in a while. Personally I don't like it too much," Mr. Cha said in the small reception area looking out onto a Greek restaurant on the north side of Bloor. He speaks with the conviction of a young man who knows his mind.

"There's too many Internet cafés," he said, explaining what led to him locate his business away from the home comforts of Koreatown. "If you go to those cafés all their windows are written in Korean, so it makes it difficult for the non-Korean to understand what the operating system is all about."

He looked instead at the cheap rents — and close proximity to a high school — at Dundas and Bloor, and decided to reach out to a market beyond Toronto's 80,000 Koreans.

"Koreans are welcome to come here, obviously, but I am trying to look for as large a market as possible, not only one certain market."

The dynamics that created Toronto's Koreatown are much the same as those behind immigrant ghettoes the world over. Language is the first.

"The reason why a lot of people stick with the Korean community is that people that just came from Korea, they can't speak English very well, so they don't know how to do business," Mr. Cha said.

And without collateral to get bank loans, immigrant communities turn inwards. Credit unions and churches often provide financing, networks and markets. Some Korean businesses are still financed by a family-based loan scheme known as Geh.

Geh was "very popular in the pioneering days of Korea immigration into North America but with growing affluence amongst second-generation children, [there is] little need for it now," said a community member who doesn't want his name used, Koreans being generally unwilling to talk about the scheme.

But I gather it is still popular in the newer Korean churches, centering on small groups, usually no more than 10 people, often born in the same district in Korea.

The scheme's tight bonds seem a reflection of the intimacy of Koreatown. But that intimacy also contributed to Mr. Cha's decision to expand his horizons beyond its saturated markets.

"What happens with Korean communities is it's so small," he explained. "If you have a Korean friend, I probably know one of them or know his parents or my parents know his parents.

"See, what happens is as soon as one person hears that the business is doing well, they put another one right beside it. When Koreans come here they don't be creative or try to create new ideas, they stick to what they know or what Korean culture in Toronto knows. The stereotype is that Koreans own all the convenience stores, smoke shops, dry cleaning, laundromats, Internet cafés, Coffee Time, etcetera. Slowly by slowly it's changing.

"I wouldn't complain if we had a huge community just like the Chinese community. They can afford to compete with one another. We can't. Next thing you know a competitor goes bankrupt and that's when they learn."

Mr. Cha clearly lives a second-generation dilemma: While his immigrant identity roots him, Canada has pulled him to other parts of Bloor Street.

"I'm proud to be Korean but I'm proud to be Canadian as well," he said, outlining the neighbourhoods of his bicultural personality. "I am bilingual; I speak both Korean and English. At home I speak generally Korean because they [my parents] have trouble with English, but with my friends and my older brother I speak English."

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