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Chinese moved by Montreal

The Gazette
It's close to midnight early in July and I'm just arriving home when I see two furtive figures come round my corner, struggling with an 8-foot desk. Thieves? No - Moving Day stragglers.

For weeks I've seen people hunched under couches and dishwashers, but none as tired as this young couple when they drop their load on the sidewalk. The young woman looks exhausted so I offer to help - I've had my own Moving Day nightmares.

They turn out to be recent arrivals from China, and their desk turns out to be very heavy. They've carried it two blocks and become stuck in the middle of St. Urbain St. traffic with cars whizzing by on either side.

"We are new at this," says the young man. "In China, people don't move much. Most of us live in state housing and stay in the same home forever. But here people move all the time - and they all do it at the same time. It is very unusual."

They still have two blocks to go. We carry the desk short distances, then stop to rest, so there's lots of time to chat.

Both seem to be in their late 20s and speak good English. Talking to them is a porthole into a new, fast-growing Montreal community.

Her name is Wenyue and she came from Shanghai last year to study computers at McGill. She's also enrolled in a government French program and keeps asking me for translations, like: "How do you say 'very heavy desk' in French?"

"In six months, I will learn to speak it well," she says. "This is very important so I can make Montreal my home. I don't want to move again, except maybe to a bigger apartment upstairs."

His name is Bing ("but you can call me Bob") and he was an architect in Beijing. He's come here to live with Wenyue and earn his master's degree, and though he's just arrived, he's already surprised by the gentle pace.

"People here seem easy and relaxed about life," says Bing, who is outside of China for the first time. "They don't take work so seriously like we do at home. I like this attitude."

After the move, over a beer, they tell me they know many Chinese who've recently come to Montreal, as China's government loosens the exit rules. They say most are young and educated; in fact, one has just set up a Montreal Web site for the newcomers.

Wenyue promises to have him call - and the next day, he invites me out for noodle soup in Chinatown. His name is Jian ("but just call me Jim") and he's a 36-year-old dynamo with a thousand ideas in the agenda on his Palm Pilot.

He arrived from China a few months ago, but he's already made himself a virtual expert on our city. He has created a fancy Web site, in Chinese - www.sinoquebec.com - that's a Lonely Immigrant's Guide to life in our town.

It tells you everything from how to apply for a social-insurance number, to how to get on the Internet, to the cheapest way to visit Toronto (an Indian group runs a shuttle van for $25 a head).

"My site also explains how to immigrate to Quebec. It is becoming very popular in China and many people are finding out all about Montreal on it," he says proudly. "I am the Chinese gateway to Montreal."

Jian's personal history isn't what you'd expect from a new immigrant from a communist country. He came here to escape rampant capitalist development. He had a good mid-level government management job in the new industrial zone of Shenzen, a boomtown of shiny high-rises and construction that I visited last year.

"My life was good by Chinese standards: I had my own house, car and cell phone. But the fast pace of growth in China means we neglect what you call personal lifestyle.

"Pollution is so bad you cannot even see the sun, and water out of the tap is contaminated. You smell construction everywhere - and many young Chinese like me want more quality of life. This is what Quebec offers - it is clean and healthy.

"Here, I have no cell phone and I must live more cheaply. Many people think we come here to make money, but the truth is we come to get away from it. In China today, there is too much growth to live."

Jian says Montreal is a fast-growing choice for many Chinese because Quebec's government makes it easy for foreign students to get loans and medicare. In fact, according to Quebec immigration authorities, about 3,000 people a year are arriving from China (including Hong Kong), making Chinese the biggest immigrant group to Quebec in the last few years.

Jian thinks they can change Montreal as they have Toronto and Vancouver - but the big question is whether they will stay in Montreal or use it as a gateway to go elsewhere. Jian's Web guide does its part to keep them here, offering daily news and a guide to "colourful Montreal" and its events, like this week's comedy festival (which, by the way, is a fabulous outdoor show that's taken over several blocks, jazz-festival style, near lower St. Denis St.).

"Montreal is a very romantic city," says Jian, who has traveled all over Europe on Chinese delegations. "You have the mountain, street life and so many festivals.
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2000-7-15 -04:00
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