Letter from Toronto

Everyone I have met in Toronto so far said that I had brought the Hong Kong sun with me. It was cool and breezy the week before and the latest weather forecast promised a cooler week ahead. But this week has been phenomenal: hot, humid and high UV index. It was 36 degrees in the last two days and every day this week had registered a high of over 30 degrees. And I was hoping to cool off here.

Toronto is perhaps too much of a familiar city to the average person in Hong Kong. I reckon that everyone in Hong Kong would have a friend or relative living there. It could be and probably was the most popular destination for Hong Kong emigrants in the quarter of the century before Hong Kong was reunited with China. Many people had gone there loaded with cash which many of them were never too shy to display and spent, helping the Toronto economy on the one hand, but generating inflation and causing racial conflict on the other. In Unionville, for example, the indigenous residents were at one time so upset with the manner in which these new arrivals snatched up popular properties and prime sites that they had seen it fit to go to their local politicians for new legislation to curb such behaviour. In the end, money talked and everything walked, of course, and the people within the community now live in peace and harmony, although different groups would go to different churches for their Sunday worship, which is not a problem, for there are many churches around the place.

I had my first visit to Toronto in the mid Eighties. I was picked up at the airport by a friend who instantly took me to a restaurant for breakfast, a Chinese restaurant of course. As soon as I climbed out of his Mercedes, gazing at the blue sky and enjoying the comparatively clean air, somebody called out my name. I turned, and lo and behold, there was this colleague who had left Hong Kong six months before and on whom I spent some money for his farewell dinner at which he promised that he would make contact as soon as he settled down. He had just parked his expensive looking sedan and was going to the same restaurant to which my friend was about to take me. So we had breakfast together, exchanged telephone numbers and so on.

I recall that I did not have many chances to speak English during the whole week I was with this friend of the Eighties, which brings me to the present trip. It does seem that Chinese, or Cantonese in particular, is still the lingua franca in Toronto. I don’t know whether this is a good or bad thing, and I won’t discuss the matter now, for there are so many issues and angles involved.

What is interesting is the perception of the non-Chinese community here about Chinese in general and Hongkongers in particular. Let me elaborate. I went to a bridge game last night at the Japanese Club. I had run into a friend from the Seventies and he took me there. He introduced me to a number of regulars in the club, and here is the typical conversation which followed.

“This is John, from Hong Kong,” began my friend.

“Hi, I am Gillian, how are you,” said my new acquaintance.

“I am fine, thank you. It’s a pleasure meeting you,” I responded in an as-a-matter-of-fact manner.

“Oh, so you are from Hong Kong, and you speak English as well,” concluded the astonished Gillian.

Then there was this businessman of Dutch descent. On learning that I am from Hong Kong, he got across the room to ask for my email address and contact numbers so that he could be in touch with me when he would be in Hong Kong in November, for the first time.

It does seem that people from the rest of the world who are not seasoned travelers or businessmen could have a totally different perception of us: something our next Chief Executive would perhaps want to chew on.

Back to my friend who took me to the bridge game, we had not met for perhaps over 20 years. We were in the University roughly at the same time, in different faculties and we knew then that we both played bridge, though we had never played as partners. I did not know that he left Hong Kong for Toronto 11 years ago, which explained why we did not meet up when Rosita and I were here two years ago. Somehow, we caught up with each other and at the same time learnt that another friend of the same vintage had also been living here for some 30 years. I promised them both that I would make contact as soon as I arrived, which I did.

He arranged for a game of golf at his private club, Spring Lakes at Stouffville, and three of us had our first reunion in 30 years. It was hot, but we had a good time together, a very good time indeed.

After lunch, my friend suggested a bridge game. I checked with my host with whose family I had arranged to have dinner; and when they agreed to postpone it to Sunday, went for the game. We came third, which would result in my name being published in the local newspaper the next day, Saturday: fame at last.

Back to the whys and wherefores I am here, I have come here mainly to have a rest and to see friends, before I head off to Chicago for the Centenary Convention. In Toronto, I stayed in Rosita’s friend’s place, the same place we stayed the last time we were here. I am glad that I have been able to enjoy their hospitality to the fullest as we did last time. I did not feel sad at all, for we were very happy last time here. All the memories in the house were happy ones and we had a good time together, even though I was not able to spend as much time as I would like to with my hosts, for there were quite a few unscheduled events.

I have already mentioned the bridge game. Let me mention a few others to illustrate my point. First, I met another ex-colleague in a restaurant, in like manner and circumstance to the one that happened in the Eighties I described earlier. He had retired about 12 years ago and had not returned to Hong Kong since. Somehow, we lost each other’s telephone and address so that we could not even exchange Christmas cards after the first year he left, and I had the impression he was staying in the United States. He insisted that we met for lunch, which we did. Lunch led to coffee and some shopping. Then, a friend who went through thick and thin with me since our university days and who came here with his family in 1989 urged me to visit the Royal Ontario Museum or ROM. That took care of a good part of a day. After the visit, I developed some views on Canada in general and on how their government manages museums in particular, but I would not discuss them here. Lastly, I called up a friend who had spent most of his working life in Toronto until the early Nineties when he returned to Hong Kong to see his long lost friends and to make new ones. I am probably one of those in the latter category. He left Hong Kong again last year, feeling old – well, he is now 70 – and wanting to live in his big house over here. Again, he insisted lunch, which I could not turn down. There are others, but I would save them for some other time.

Overall, it was a very busy and tiring week, and I have yet to visit a number of good friends, including the family of my very good friend who passed away about three years ago, a few Wah Yan alumni and a few ex-colleagues who have settled here. I had left behind their addresses and telephone numbers on my desk the day I left home, in a hurry as usual. Worse, I did not even bring with me one business card. All these remind me once again that I need to learn to be slightly more organized, now that I am on my own. Nevertheless, I have my laptop and multi-purpose phone with me, to keep me connected with the world.

Tomorrow, I leave Toronto for Prince Edward Island, and I would talk to you from there.

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