By Dania Ali
A canopy of red lanterns hung above, in rows, not yet lit. Stalls were being set up slowly on the streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong and there was a quiet buzz in the night air. The city was soon to be enveloped in red and gold. The Chinese New Year’s preparations were underway, but Sally Chau was preparing for her own beginning. There was no time for a celebration. She was busy packing away all of her belongings as well as those of her two children.
“I remember feeling scared of leaving home. But it is something I had to do. It was for my son and my daughter.” They were four and 10 years old at the time.
The subways were always packed with dense crowds. The square buildings were tightly jammed together with people crammed inside 500-square-foot homes. These were troubles Chau was leaving behind.
Although, what really pushed her to leave was the fear.
The year was 1994 and she remembers it clearly, how she couldn’t speak out against the forthcoming takeover of Hong Kong by the Chinese government. Her voice, her opinions, her feeling of liberty had been snatched and replaced with a forced compliance. She felt a steady, growing fear. Suddenly, it wasn’t just her future that seemed dark, it was her children’s too. To stop this gut-wrenching fright from becoming a generational tale, she made the bold move to flee the political turmoil.
She had to desert her home, her job, her life in Hong Kong.
Chau became one of the 1.8 million immigrants in Toronto who left their homes with a few belongings and the hopes of a better future. She now lives in the suburban Agincourt neighbourhood of Scarborough, and owns a small flower store that lies in the heart of the community. The store is one of her proudest triumphs, but her biggest accomplishment to date has been her children, and this is a fact she never forgets to mention in our talks.
“They are grown up now and have great jobs. My son works with Bombardier. He’s an aerospace engineer. My daughter is a graphic designer, and works in a very big company, and I now have a grandson.” Her face breaks into a smile she can’t contain. Every single time.
As she talks about her children she walks around her store, no bigger than a standard studio apartment, and glances at the bamboo arrangements for this Chinese New Year. The shelves placed on each wall are bursting with sunflowers, roses and white lilies, each adding to the fragrant aroma in the air.
Chau likes to have the arrangements out in the front, rather than in the back where her studio is, so that customers can see her work displayed. When she takes orders, she often asks in-depth details, like why the flowers are needed and who they are for. She uses expressive hand gestures and sketches some potential choices for the event. There is a sort of light in her eyes that comes to life when she starts sharing ideas about her flowers. It is the same light that is there when she speaks about her children. An experience at Sunflower and Gifts, her store, is an intimate one and Chau makes sure of it. In fact, we had to reschedule four times to meet up because she often insisted to go with a customer and see their vision for a venue.
She speaks from behind her desk, her petite frame looking a little engulfed by her work chair, about some of the perils of living in Toronto.
“Here, [the] government moves like a turtle. Slow, slow, slow.”
The issue of traffic is not one she has managed to escape in her move across the world. The mosaic of cars aligned bumper to bumper, during rush hour, is an image Chau is tired of seeing. Commuters in both Hong Kong and Toronto have faced traffic problems, but for Chau, they are both an example of incompetent governance. Something she has become all too familiar with.
Chau’s ribbon collection mounted on a wall in her store. She uses a diverse set of colours and tapes to cater for all sorts of venues. (JRN 273/Dania Ali).
A few plant pots sit on Chau’s work studio desk in the back of the store, where all of the behind-the-scenes work takes place. (JRN 273/Dania Ali)
An array of plants sitting on a shelf at Chau’s flower shop, in Scarborough on Jan. 7, 2019. (JRN 273/Dania Ali)
It sometimes makes her wonder whether what she left behind is much different from what she experiences now.
Chau left Hong Kong amid drastic electoral reform, when the British were leaving and the Chinese decided to step in. She, too, decided to leave; the uncertainty in not knowing where her future lay was enough for her to go. When she first moved here she saw different faces, but with a similar story to hers. In 2016, the 5,925 Chinese immigrants were the highest ethnic immigrant minority residing in Agincourt. That was followed by the 1,265 from Hong Kong. Just like Chau, they had left their homes behind, but she has found a new, smaller community which keeps her from missing it.
“The culture in Canada is totally different. Here, there are people from all over the world. In Hong Kong, it is mostly a Chinese culture, but here there are people from Italy, India, Egypt, Greece, Saudi Arabia. It is multicultural here,” she says while watering some of the white lilies.
Toronto welcomed more immigrants than any other city in Canada, during the late 1990s. Many people, just like Chau, had to grasp how to speak in a completely foreign language. They had to find a way to make a home in this new city. Chau speaks in a hesitating, slightly broken English but she takes comfort in knowing that the people around her are in a similar place.
“A community is made up of the people in it, so diversity and community cannot be separated. They are like strands woven into a tapestry,” explains Laura Benglian, the volunteer and outreach co-ordinator at the Agincourt Community Services Association. She meets with newcomers on a daily basis and finds that they all have one thing in common. Despite their differences in culture, they all want the same thing: a better future for their children.
On her desk, Chau has a simple black frame with her son and grandson sitting together on a bench. She gets up from her chair and goes to her studio where all the behind-the-scenes work takes place. There is a small window where just enough sunlight gets through. She nestles into the chair, puts on her square glasses and a slightly washed out apron. The frown on her forehead reappears as she begins picking apart the sunflowers, those are her favourite. She places them next to some tulips and starts snipping. Her hands move with the precision of a ballet dancer, each step purposeful and seemingly effortless.
“I opened this store two years ago, because I wanted to have something for myself,” she says as she finds a ribbon to tie the flowers.
The afternoon sun starts to set and the white winter light turns into a shade of burnt orange. Chau sets her tools down, her gaze locked on the sunset.
“I remember I was afraid of my government, in Hong Kong. I wanted my children to have more freedom. I wanted my children to have a better education. That is why I [came] to this country.”
150 pizzas in three hours
Big Brothers Gourmet Pizza delivers fresh pizzas to local schools every Thursday and Friday. On this hectic day, coincidently, they received three orders from three different schools so they were pushed for time. Marshall, or ‘Yousef’ as he prefers, is the owner of the joint and says he makes it a point to deliver the pizzas himself to ensure that they get a quality service. In the video below he explains what sets his pizzas apart from the other seven competing ones in the area, and how his team works to make 150 pizzas in just three hours.