Skip navigation

Worlds apart

When Chinese immigrants arrive here, life in their new city often appears strikingly familiar. But, as JOHN BARBER finds, 'invisible walls' prevent many newcomers from fully integrating into the mainstream.

Globe and Mail Update

''How many obnoxious Chinamen have you met, other than myself?'' Richard Ling asks, deliberately using the old racist epithet to drive home his point -- not only that he is obnoxious, a matter of pride to the outspoken Bay Street lawyer, but also that there are far too few Chinese Torontonians like him.

The typical spokesman for the Chinese community "is always the person who is non-confrontational and doesn't have a lot to say," Mr. Ling complains, adding that the mainstream establishment likes it that way. "They would rather look for King Chinaman the gatekeeper than deal with the rest of us as individuals."

But the result of the traditional quiescence, according to both Mr. Ling and several like-minded iconoclasts, is an anodyne image of the local Chinese community as universally successful, self-sufficient and settled down. In fact, he says, the "invisible walls" that confront all immigrant communities still separate local Chinese from the mainstream. And increasingly, he and other activists warn, such barriers disguise the reality of a community beset by serious challenges.

Most of the overseas capital that floated the buoyant immigration from pre-1997 Hong Kong has disappeared from Toronto and gone back to work in the new China, sucking purchasing power out of the local Chinese community and making times tough for the remaining immigrant entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, the educated mainland Chinese migrants who have recently replaced the departed Hong Kongers are falling into low-wage job ghettos as confining as any known since the days of the notorious head tax and exclusion acts, putting their degrees to work washing dishes and watching their dreams slip away. And it's time, the obnoxious minority contends, that more people started talking about it.

There was no such talk this side of the invisible wall when Geng Chaohui, an unemployed engineer with two young children, jumped from the balcony of his 12th-floor Scarborough apartment last summer in despair over his failure to find work in Canada.

Nor did the non-Chinese world notice when Tony Wong, freshman MPP from Markham, held a dinner to raise funds for the education of Mr. Geng's two daughters -- one three years old, one six months.

Although it raised $30,000, the event also served to remind that Mr. Wong is all alone in highlighting such issues: He's Ontario's only Chinese-Canadian MPP -- the only Chinese representative from Ontario sitting in any Canadian legislature, for that matter.

"At least I'm here," Mr. Wong says, acknowledging the difficulty of representing more than 400,000 citizens from the back benches of the governing Liberal Party. "There's a big difference between one and zero."

The same arithmetic occurs on the local level: Olivia Chow is the only person of Chinese descent among the 44 members of Toronto City Council, and Alex Chiu is alone among 12 councillors in Markham, where half the population is ethnic Chinese. There are no sitting Chinese politicians in either Richmond Hill or Mississauga, suburbs with heavy concentrations of ethnic Chinese citizens.

In comparison with other ethnic and visible-minority groups, the largest of them all -- with more than 400,000 members, making up 10 per cent of the total population of Greater Toronto -- is astoundingly underrepresented in local politics. Here, the walls are invisible but palpable.

The community's enduring political isolation partly reflects Chinese culture and the foreignness of Western political conventions, according to Ms. Chow. "There's a very distinct, Eastern-versus-Western division on what democracy and political culture is all about," she says.

One result is the community's resistance to practising the "identity politics" that has traditionally enabled minority groups to gain a share of power. Ms. Chow knows that well: She narrowly lost her bid to enter the House of Commons last June when she failed to carry the city's traditional Chinatown, the heart of the Trinity-Spadina riding, which voted solidly for Liberal incumbent Tony Ianno.

Ms. Chow blames her loss partly on support that Mr. Ianno enjoyed from conservative pro-Beijing community groups, claiming that they turned against her when she presided at a memorial event for victims of the Tiananmen massacre.

But ideology is not all that suppresses Chinese voices. Mr. Ling, who describes himself as an Attila the Hun right-winger but nonetheless admires Ms. Chow's mouthiness on behalf of socialist causes, expresses equal scorn for the "don't rock the boat" mentality typical of those who claim to represent the Chinese community. "Unless the Chinese community is able to produce captains of industry and finance, it will never be truly represented," says Mr. Ling, who came to Canada from Hong Kong as a 17-year-old student in the 1960s. But rather than producing such leaders, he adds, Toronto is driving them away.

For Mr. Ling, one "defining moment" occurred when he attempted to organize a fundraiser for former provincial Liberal Party leader Lyn McLeod on behalf of the most influential Hong Kong investors then residing in Toronto, only to be told that the leader would not attend and the party would dissociate itself from the effort.

Recommend this article? 0 votes

Back to top