Chinese Businesswoman Finds Freedom And Success in Vancouver's Rubbish

Starting with a lot of gumption, Emmie Leung, an immigrant from Hong Kong, has built a multimillion-dollar recycling empire in Canada

LEANING against a large bale of shredded newspapers, Emmie Leung, the undisputed ``Garbage Queen of Vancouver,'' poses for a photographer.

``Should I turn this way, or that? What would look better?'' she asks with a chuckle, clearly amused at the strange twist of fame that requires her to pose repeatedly in front of a pile of rubbish.

Ms. Leung, a divorced mother of two girls, has become nationally known as the unstoppable force behind a $15 million (Canadian: US$11 million) recycling company - International Paper Industries Ltd. - started 18 years ago, before most Canadians had even heard of recycling.

Lately, the accolades bestowed upon Leung have multiplied as fast as, well, old newspapers. In 1992, she was hailed as Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. Last year, she was among only a dozen Canadians featured in the annual ``Honor Roll'' of Maclean's magazine, the national news weekly. It honors Canadians doing extraordinary work ``away from the spotlight,'' the editors said.

But well before the applause, Leung, like most successful entrepreneurs, went through a long, hard slog before achieving her goals. And she had the added challenge of being a foreigner.

She arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba fresh from Hong Kong in the winter of 1972, shocked at the bitter cold but determined to get an education - at first - she dreamed of working for a big company. She was only 21 and knew little English. It had not yet dawned on her to start her own business.

A first job

Her first job after graduating from the University of Winnipeg with a Bachelor's degree in business administration was as a temporary worker at a large company. From the start, she found herself finding new ways to do things and taking charge - not qualities her employers desired. Both she and they were unhappy, she says.

``After I graduated and determined to be a successful woman, I looked for a job, because I have to have a future,'' she says. ``Unfortunately, in 1975, a woman, an Oriental, broken English, a manager.'' She rolls her eyes. ``I think my ego was too big - and people weren't willing to accept me.''

Soon she was on the phone to relatives in Hong Kong, complaining about her predicament. Her father, a traditionalist, wanted her to come home. But she refused.

``What got me into recycling was my determination, when I was small, that I wanted to be independent,'' she says. ``In China women stay home and look after the family and depend on the husband to provide everything. I didn't want that. I had to stand up on my own.''

Leung saw Canada as a land of opportunity - a place where she felt she could succeed free of the gender stereotyping of her homeland. It was her desire for freedom that originally led her to Canada, she says.

She credits her brother with first suggesting that she start up a recycling company. ``My family was in recycling,'' she says. ``I said to myself, `That is where my interest is. Nobody [here in Canada] had this business yet.' I confess, I did not have the vision [that recycling would be a wave of the future.] I did it by default. No employers wanted me.''

By this time, Leung had become a Canadian citizen. After surveying the market, she determined that Vancouver was the place to set up her recycling shop based on the vast amounts of paper Canadians were throwing away. She knew that in her Asian homeland demand for natural resources, paper included, was insatiable.

She examined transportation costs and knew she could make a profit shipping paper to Asia's Pacific Rim. That was in 1976, and Leung was 25 years old.

Starting with $15,000, two employees, and a van, she made the mistake of giving about half of her cash to one supplier. He promptly absconded with the money. It was a discouraging point at which she thought the venture would fail. But she started over.

``It's in my nature, when I have made up my mind, nothing can intimidate it,'' Leung says. ``I was determined to make a success.''

For the first few years her company was really a trading company in raw materials, purchasing paper in bales where she could get it, and shipping it across the Pacific. But at that time supplies were scarce.

She started looking for a way to bolster volume. Before long, she had convinced local politicians to let her supply homes in a few communities with blue bags to hold old newspapers. That was in 1982, and it was Canada's first successful municipal curb-side recycling effort.

Today, Leung's company employs more than 100 people at five collection centers that annually process more than 100,000 tons of paper, plastic, and metal for shipment to wherever she can get the best price.

Materials are collected from more than a million people living in almost two dozen communities across the Vancouver area. The future of recycling, she says, lies in finding markets for ``wet'' or organic kitchen waste.

The main lesson

But the main lesson that sticks with her today, aside from her beloved recycling business, which she says she truly enjoys, is the freedom to be herself.

``I always looked forward to Western-style living, gender equality - that is the prime factor that motivated me,'' she says. ``The freedom. That's what I love most about Canada.''

* Last in a series of articles from Canada's western provinces.

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