Canada's Chinese Speakers on a Roll As Numbers Rise

Third after English, French

RIDE the subway in Toronto at rush hour and you'll probably hear more Chinese than English. Visit suburbs in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the real estate signs on lawns might be in Chinese, not English.

"In Toronto, if you speak only Chinese you can get along," say Jeannie Lee of Toronto, who was born in Hong Kong but has lived in Canada most of her life.

Chinese has become the third-most-spoken language in Canada after English and French, according to statistics from the 1996 census released this month.

A huge increase in immigrants from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan since the 1980s has pushed Chinese ahead of Italian, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. The census found that between 1991 and 1996, the number of people who reported Chinese as their mother tongue increased by 42 percent to 736,000 people, representing 2.6 percent of Canada's 28 million population. This is a big jump since 1971 when Chinese speakers were only 0.4 percent of the population.

In the United States, where the welcome mat for immigrants has been less generous, use of Chinese ranked fifth in the 1990 census. And Chinese speakers were 0.54 percent of the population.

"The numbers were not a surprise to me," says Ms. Lee, a popular television anchor in Toronto who can speak in all three of the country's top languages, which is a bit of a rarity. Her family moved to Montreal when she was five years old and she studied subjects in both English and French at school while speaking Cantonese at home.

Growing up in Montreal, she was almost always the only Chinese person in her class at school. Montreal's Chinese community is much smaller than those in Canada's largest cities, Toronto and Vancouver.

Choice of two cities

Most ethnic Chinese immigrating to Canada choose to go the two English-speaking cities because of the economic opportunities and the already established Chinese communities.

"In Montreal, I was an oddity. It felt very different when I moved to Toronto," Lee says.

"There are little things such as the way people treat you in stores. Many of them [sales staff] think all Chinese people are the new rich from Hong Kong."

Although Vancouver has the reputation of being the most Chinese city in Canada, the title actually goes to Toronto, where the Chinese-speaking population, according to the latest census, is 294,872.

But since Greater Toronto has more than three times the population, Vancouver has more of a Chinese feel to it.

There has been some friction between the new Chinese immigrants and Canadians who were born in the country. Some of the long-term Canadians complain about the size of the properties built by Hong Kong migrants in Vancouver and Toronto's residential neighborhoods, calling them "monster homes."

The Chinese community feels such concerns are almost always overstated. North of Toronto, in Markham, a controversy involving the Chinese community broke out two years ago. Local real estate agents were selling property in one land development to Chinese people only, causing angry confrontations at the Markham city hall. Some complained about all-Chinese signs in a mall in Markham.

But Alex Chiu, a local councilor, says people were exaggerating the situation. "There was always English along with the Chinese on signs. It was just a perception."

Mr. Chiu's family fled China following the Communist revolution in 1949 and moved to Canada after living in the Philippines for a few years. He hopes the angry confrontations at city hall in 1995, and the media frenzy that accompanied it, will never happen again.

"We have a race-relations committee, and as soon as something like that happens, we react right away," Chiu says.

Canada's new wealthy

The Chinese community across Canada is prosperous. Many arrive from Hong Kong with a financial nest egg that, translated into the weak Canadian dollar, gives them sizable assets in their new country.

Others have worked their way from poverty to middle-class comfort.

Lee, the television anchor who lives with her husband near Toronto, is proud of her achievements and those of Chinese immigrants as a whole.

"It still astounds me, the quantum leap I have made in my own life, starting as a child of poor immigrants in Montreal," says Lee, who started working in high school as a supermarket cashier and paid her own way through college.

"Chinese people work hard," she says.

"There's a real sense of shame if a Chinese person goes on welfare."

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