By DAVID PARKINSON
Saturday, January 20, 2018
JO JO ZHU
Along University Avenue a little north of downtown, among the cluster of assorted shops catering to the city's growing Chinese community, sits Yestoday Trading Ltd. - a jumble of specialty Chinese food, clothing and other miscellany tucked at the back of a weathered strip mall.
Behind the counter stands the cheerful, soft-spoken owner, 39-year-old Jo Jo Zhu.
Ms. Zhu came to Charlottetown from China with her husband and son (now five years old) a year and a half ago under the PNP entrepreneur stream. They started the business about seven months ago.
"Where we lived in China, in Beijing, it's very crowded. And the air pollution, everyone knows it. We cannot change the air pollution, so we wanted to move," she says. "I love it here. It's a very peaceful and beautiful city. Fresh air."
She's self-conscious about her English, but there's no time for classes. They take no days off: Work is 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. Some of the locals drop by the shop to bring her fresh-baked cookies. "It's very sweet. Everyone is so nice." She says that compared with Beijing, it's "really easy" to set up a business in Canada. But the biggest obstacle to their business is Charlottetown's small population - there's not a big customer base to draw on. They may have to get aggressive with marketing and promotion. "That's maybe the hard part."
The PNP rules require that new immigrants' businesses remain open for at least 12 months to get their full $200,000 deposit back from escrow, but she's not concerned about that. "We will stay here, for many years maybe."
When Windy Exantus told his family in 2015 that he was leaving the Bahamas to go to university, they were thinking maybe Florida or Ontario, where he has relatives. They never thought of the University of Prince Edward Island. Frankly, they'd never even heard of the place.
"In my household, when they hear Canada, they only know Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver - that's it," he says.
So what was the big draw to an obscure little university in a part of Canada that his family would have to hunt for on a map? The business major is honest - it was largely financial.
"The cost was the main attraction for me," he says. "Coming from a family that doesn't have a lot of money, it would be easier to survive in Charlottetown than to try to survive in Toronto. It was more manageable."
It has proven more manageable from a personal standpoint, too. The smallness of the city has made the experience of moving to a foreign country a lot less intimidating and impersonal.
"You see more familiar faces. Strangers care for you more here."
"When I was looking at my options, I felt like I had more of a chance, if I like it here, to stay here. It's more welcoming, accepting."
He's in his last semester at UPEI, after which he is considering law school at the University of New Brunswick, just a few
hours down the road. He's grown attached to this little pocket of the world.
"It feels like home."
Back in Beijing, Henry Yin's claim to fame was his movie-star boss: He was a web designer for action-film actor Jackie Chan. In Charlottetown, he has latched onto another star performer - selling real estate in the city's hot housing market.
"It's been awesome, [with] all the newcomers coming to PEI. I've been very busy," he says, noting that many apartment dwellers arriving here from China find they can afford to own a house here.
"It's a good opportunity for me."
The 38-year-old Mr. Yin moved to Charlottetown in 2014 with his wife and two young sons, now 4 and 7. Part of their reason for leaving Beijing was the unwieldy size of the city - which was part of the reason he gravitated toward much smaller Charlottetown.
"We looked at Toronto, but the houses are very expensive. And I don't like the big city - you waste so much time in traffic," he says. "Here, I'm only seven minutes from my home to my office. In 10 or 15 minutes, I can go everywhere.
"It's a beautiful island - fresh air, safe foods. That's very important for my family. The winter is a bit longer than in Beijing," he says. "But my kids love the snow."
PAM ARORA Pam Arora, 52, and her husband Joe, 55, already had two grown children and a well-established business in New Delhi selling handcrafted jewellery, when they decided to make the jump to Canada in 2015.
Pam describes it as a lifestyle decision.
"The quality of life in Delhi is becoming really bad ... there's a lot of air pollution, it's becoming very difficult to live there. There is development, but it's very chaotic," she says from their jewellery shop, Pam & Joe Handcrafted, in the heart of downtown Charlottetown.
"It was taking a toll on us. We wanted a better life for ourselves."
"People of Prince Edward Island are very nice. The air is pure, the sky is always blue. We love it here."
She adds that setting up the business in mid-2016 was relatively painless, compared with the bureaucratic complications entrepreneurs in India routinely face.
"It was very easy to get a [business] licence - no bribes required. In India, you have to bribe officers at every step."
But while the business has been building, it still isn't turning a profit. In a city where so much retail trade is driven by the big summer tourist season, the brass ring for their store would be to land a booth at the seaport, where the cruise ships come in. "We are trying very hard to secure a spot. I've been wait-listed for two years now," she says.
"Of course I want to stay here. But I cannot have my business running into losses [again] next year. Having a spot at the seaport is a very bright chance for me to come out of the losses.
"I have to keep my fingers crossed."
One of the big attractions to Charlottetown for Samia Alkouri and her family isn't one that even crosses the mind of most Canadians. It's a place her three kids won't be ducking bullets.
"My children [ages 15, 10 and 2] witnessed fighting and shooting in front of them," she says of their life in the countryside outside of Damascus, the capital of Syria, a country decimated by a sixyear civil war.
Her family came to Charlottetown as refugees in mid-2016, thanks to the sponsorship of a local church and with help from relatives who had arrived before them. They're part of a burgeoning Syrian community in Charlottetown; the city has taken in more than 300 refugees from the war-torn country in the past two years.
Ms. Alkouri spoke only a little English when she arrived, but she's improving fast - so much so that she now works at front reception at the PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada, greeting the steady flow of clients seeking help and information from the non-profit immigrant-settlement agency.
"I imagined that it would be so difficult for me, before I came here. But when I came here, I found everyone so welcoming," she says. "It's the perfect home for children and for me. I love it," she says.
"Everybody is nice with the children.
Jo Jo Zhu, seen in her store, Yestoday Trading Ltd., in PEI, on Thursday, says the biggest obstacle to the business is Charlottetown's small population.
NATHAN ROCHFORD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL