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Worlds apart

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Chinese Toronto is gradually turning its attention toward local affairs, Ms. Yang says, but electing more tribunes to office will "take time." Politics, Ms. Chow notes dryly, is not a career path Chinese parents recommend to their children.

"We don't do politics," Ms. Yang jokes, "we fundraise."

Just don't say that to Joseph Wong, whose tireless volunteer work has made him the most venerated leader of the Chinese community in Toronto. "I am not a fundraiser," the normally unflappable physician says, bristling at the mention of the word. "I am somebody who works to make change."

Nor will he admit even to being a "leader" -- let alone Mr. Ling's dreaded "King Chinaman" -- only someone who has "done enough community work to be recognized as somebody very active."

But none can deny the results of that activity, beginning with a decade-long campaign to make the United Way more ethnically inclusive and now focusing on the construction of the "culturally and linguistically appropriate" Yee Hong nursing homes.

The idea for Yee Hong originated 30 years ago when Dr. Wong first encountered Chinese seniors in downtown nursing homes, "left to wither and die in isolation," he says, many of whom "asked me to help them kill themselves." Today, Yee Hong operates four large-scale facilities throughout Greater Toronto and is diversifying to provide the same culturally appropriate care to seniors of different ethnicities.

As an activist, Dr. Wong helped to found the Chinese Canadian National Council 24 years ago in response to a CTV documentary, Campus Giveaway, that alleged foreign students from China were monopolizing prestigious professional faculties in Canadian universities -- even though none of those faculties admitted foreign students and all those identified as interlopers were, in fact, Canadian.

Today, he counts the apology his group elicited as a landmark in the history of the local Chinese community. "They totally admitted the mistake with no reservations," he says. "This is another reason I respect Canadians."

But who will fight for the same trophies today? Despite his own success, Dr. Wong still laments the lack of Chinese political representation, noting that the community "is not nearly as successful" as other ethnic groups in that respect. "This is where I would like to see some changes," he says.

So does Susan Eng, the Toronto-born Yee Hong board member who is better known from her 1990s career as the crusading (some would say obnoxious) chair of the Toronto Police Services Board.

To her, the community's failure to make any headway in its demands for head-tax reparations -- or even an apology for the tax and other racist policies historically directed at Chinese immigrants -- epitomizes its political impotence. "Why is it that the same people who started the CCNC 25 years ago have to come out now, dust off our placards and humiliate ourselves in public in order to deal with the head-tax issue?" she asks. "There's an entire generation of people not doing that. Why is that?"

One reason, of course, is that such assaults are historic. But another reason, according to Ms. Eng, is that new immigrants, especially the affluent ones, resist identification with their poverty-stricken predecessors. "It's really jarring for those of us who try to get support for issues that affect the Chinese community," Ms. Eng says. "The ethic isn't there. . . . I would argue that they are so capitalistic in the purest form they figure they can buy influence by showing up at fundraisers for politicians."

As both Ms. Eng and Ms. Wong-Tam point out, however, the Chinese community is glad to have the activists on standby. "The next time an Edmond Yu gets shot with a dozen bullets in the back of a [bus], they're going to want to see us there," Ms. Wong-Tam declares, referring to the 1997 police shooting of a mentally ill Chinese Canadian riding the TTC. "When something like that happens, you see the community galvanize. You see that these are not complacent people, they've been reading, they know when an injustice has taken place."

And although the local Chinese community is probably more diverse in its outlook and makeup than any other ethnic group in Toronto, its fundamental unity is assured. As Ms. Eng says, "It never washes off."

The Greater Toronto Area has the highest number of ethnic Chinese in Canada. They make up 10 per cent of the area's population

Ten or 15 years ago, it was rare to hear the Mandarin dialect spoken in Toronto. But according to 2001 census data, Mandarin speakers now outnumber Cantonese speakers.

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