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Worlds apart

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"They were used to dealing with non-English-speaking restaurant owners," Mr. Ling says. "All of a sudden, they are confronted with this group of rich, educated Chinese. They couldn't understand it and preferred not to deal with it."

Investors, he adds, "go to places where people welcome them, not to where people shit on them."

Pushed away by their encounters with invisible walls and pulled back home by the lure of huge returns in mainland China, most of the Hong Kong investors who brought $2-billion a year to Toronto throughout the 1980s are now long gone, according to Mr. Ling.

And the Mandarin-speaking mainland immigrants who have replaced them, while educated, are poor. Recent immigrants of all ethnicities earn an average of 57 per cent of what native-born Torontonians do, the lowest share of any urban immigrant group in the country, according to a recent Statistics Canada study. They are better educated than ever before, but unlike immigrants of previous generations, according to Statscan and other researchers, recent newcomers are having a much harder time closing the yawning income gap.

As counsel to several international and Canadian banks serving the needs of the local Chinese community, Mr. Ling estimates that the average assets per household among Chinese migrants settling in Toronto has dropped to $50,000 from $2-million in the 1980s.

Typical of those who have left are the directors of Hong Kong's huge Shui On Property Group, who sold two large hotels in Toronto not long before building the landmark Xintiandi mixed-use complex in downtown Shanghai.

Affluent Chinese Canadians have a choice, according to Mr. Ling. "They can stay here, pay 54 per cent of their income in tax and remain hampered by the invisible door, or they can go back home to join their families and pay 20-per-cent tax."

As a patriotic Canadian who takes pride in once having berated Jean Chrétien in fluent French, Mr. Ling regrets that the choice is often easy. "At the risk of insulting other Chinese Canadians," he says, "I would say that our brightest and most entrepreneurial Chinese Canadians are not living and working in Canada today."

One of those most at risk of being insulted is one of Mr. Ling's clients, Henry Wu, owner of the Metropolitan Hotel on Chestnut Street and the newer SoHo Metropolitan on Wellington Street. As one Hong Kong investor who came to stay, Mr. Wu sees no invisible doors and questions the need for a unified Chinese voice in local affairs. "Ninety-eight per cent of the time, I see myself as a Canadian running a Canadian business and participating in the Toronto community," says Mr. Wu, who abandoned doctoral studies in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to run his family's hotel business in Toronto 11 years ago.

But he acknowledges that many ethnic Chinese operating businesses across North America are facing tough times. Of 20 Chinese friends with whom he attended university in North America, Mr. Wu says, he is the only one who remains here.

At the grassroots level, he says, the Chinese are seamlessly integrated into local society. "Are there as many business leaders who have successfully crossed over? That I'm not sure about."

By contrast, there is little doubt about what is happening to the most recent Chinese immigrants, mainlanders who have come here after years of study, often equipped with professional credentials, having left good jobs back home, and who are now struggling to survive at the lowest level of local society.

"I know some people who are professors, but they are working in bakeries or as labourers in the underground economy," says Mary Yang, host of a popular current-events show on Chinese-language Fairchild Radio. Everybody else in the local Chinese community, she adds, tells the same story about friends and relatives.

The Geng suicide struck a chord, she says, because so many people can identify with his despair. "There are a lot of frustrated immigrants in Toronto," she admits, counting herself one of the "lucky ones" who was able to bring her experience to bear in a new country.

To Kristyn Wong-Tam, president of the Toronto chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council, the alienation and isolation experienced by the most recent immigrants raise unsettling memories of the fate of the earliest Chinese immigrants to Canada.

"They have three degrees from Shanghai, they're dentists, they're doctors, they're engineers or chemists and now they're washing dishes in Chinatown," she says. "They feel they've been sold this bill of goods." Promising human lives are being wasted in Toronto; non-English-speaking professionals, Ms. Wong-Tam says frankly, are "a failed class."

In that light, the election of Mr. Wong in Markham "is a really great encouragement for the whole Chinese society," Ms. Yang says. And for his part, the new MPP reports success in highlighting the inadequacy of official measures to help settle new immigrants in Canada -- albeit in a provincial caucus that has no jurisdiction over such matters. "Oftentimes caucus members are not averse to these ideas," Mr. Wong reports. "It's just that nobody has brought them up before."

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