Laurie Chong

Character Study

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East meets west: the cultural evolution of Toronto's three Chinese dailies

On October 11, 1995, Toronto’s Sing Tao newspaper changed the face of mainstream Canadian journalism forever. At a lavish event held on the Board of Trade floor inside First Canadian Place, a large crowd ate hors d’oeuvres, drank from an open bar and applauded when the editor of one of the country’s premier publications took the microphone. “This is a proud day for Maclean’s,” Robert Lewis said as he welcomed everybody to the launch of Maclean’s Chinese edition, a groundbreaking joint venture between the magazine and Sing Tao.
Chinese-language print journalism-Canada’s largest and fastest growing ethnic media-has flourished over the past few years. When Sing Tao began in Toronto in 1978, it had no competition. Founded in Hong Kong in 1938, Sing Tao opened its first North American edition in 1964 in San Francisco and now operates 13 others, including Vancouver (in 1983) and overseas in Paris, London and Sydney, Australia. In the mid-’80s, a few other Chinese dailies tested the Toronto market. Only one, the Taiwan-based World Journal, set up shop (in 1987). Although Chinese characters are universal, the papers cater to different audiences. Sing Tao appeals to readers from Hong Kong and Southern China, where the Cantonese dialect is predominant. The Journal, which started up in Vancouver in 1992, attracts those from Taiwan or northern China, where the majority speak Mandarin, China’s official language.

Three years ago, a third paper arrived in Toronto and Vancouver when the Hong Kong daily Ming Pao launched its first North American edition. Throughout its 37-year history, Ming Pao has catered to the wealthy, educated elite, and so it quickly attracted the attention of educated, affluent Hong Kong immigrants. With the coming repatriation of Hong Kong to China in July 1997, thousands have immigrated to Vancouver and Toronto. Between 1981 and 1991, Hong Kong was the number one source of new immigrants to Canada; China was third.

Together, the new arrivals form a huge market. In the Toronto area, for instance, 100,000 Chinese-language newspapers are sold daily. Weekend readership is even higher. None are audited, so the following circulation figures are estimates from a variety of sources: Sing Tao is the largest, with approximately 40,000. Ming Pao is second, with about 35,000 readers. The Journal is third with 25,000.

The first papers saw their primary role as informing readers about their mother countries. But now, with competition and reader demands for local content, the papers have evolved. In addition, they are sometimes uncertain as to how to react when their own community makes the news in the mainstream press. One such news story concerned Carole Bell, deputy mayor of Markham, an affluent suburb north of Toronto. At a Council meeting in June 1995, Bell said the influx of Chinese residents moving into her city was causing the “backbone” (Caucasian) community to flee. In response, Sing Tao,Ming Pao and World Journal each published a series of articles that chronicled such subsequent events as Bell’s refusal to apologize; Mayor Don Cousens’ refusal to condemn his deputy; and a petition signed by 12 Greater Toronto Area mayors that denounced Bell’s comments. But none of the three Chinese papers condemned her on the editorial page. Why? Because they don’t have editorials-just one of the details I found out when I visited the Toronto offices of the three publications.

At Sing Tao, it is a quiet autumn night. Most of the reporters have gone home and there is only a small team of translators and editors left. Inside the spacious building are rows of new computers, “The recession didn’t affect our paper,” says editor-in-chief Tony Ku.

Sing Tao has come a long way from its original 12-page format and five workers. Since 1992, the paper has almost doubled its staff to 100, 25 of whom work in editorial. Today, the 108-page paper is published seven days a week at a new $6 million high-tech plant-a marked improvement from when it was printed in New York and shipped north by Greyhound bus at dawn.

“There was a time when people only cared about the restaurant business and their old communities. Now the community structure is totally different,” Ku says, As an example, he tells me about a recent story on the Chinese community and its participation in the United Way walk-a-thon. “[Our readers] are active not only in the Chinese community, but they also want to help mainstream society,” he adds.

It wasn’t always so. Chinese immigrants, like all new immigrants, faced discrimination and a language barrier, so they had no choice but to keep to themselves. But now readers want more from the papers-more about the community in which they live. The paper’s partnership with Maclean’s stemmed from the Chinese community’s need of a “reliable and informed” source of Canadian news.

Like the staff at Ming Pao and the Journal, most of Sing Tao’s editorial workers are journalism graduates, educated abroad. Ku says staff are encouraged to report from the perspective of a Chinese-Canadian, “We always educate our readers,” he says. “When you come to Canada, you have to live peacefully with people from different backgrounds.” While the paper has no editorials, it does have a commentary column called “People’s Talk,” which runs Monday to Saturday. In this space, senior editorial staffers write about issues such as the referendum. However, there were surprisingly few comments about Bell. The ones that did run basically stated that she was out of line given her position. In addition, the paper ran several stories about how hurt the community felt by her comments. Still, Ku insists the paper remained impartial: “It’s important not to take sides. Readers need to know the facts of an event to make their own mind up. Our challenge is to cover mainstream and Chinese society using only facts.”

The Ming Pao office is tucked away in Scarborough, far from traffic and noise. News editor Vivian Chong and I sit in an impressive boardroom. From its start-up in 1993, Chong tells me, the paper made local news coverage its top priority. “We want readers to know what is happening in the Canadian community. Because many are new immigrants, they have to establish and get familiar with local issues. For example, our Queen’s Park reporter focuses on ridings with a high concentration of Chinese residents.”

There are 15 editors and reporters, 140 staff in total. Translators work on Canadian Press and Reuters wire stories. Editorial content takes up 35 percent of the paper’s usual 92 pages. Ming Pao has become famous for its three weekly, glitzy and colourful magazine supplements, which entice some Sing Tao and Journal readers to jump ship. Among them are: the Ming Pao Property Gold Pages, a real estate buyer’s guide which includes analyses of the property market, stories on mortgages, Canadian real estate law and interior design (its editorial-ad ratio is 20:80) and a monthly Chinese-language edition of Toronto Life.

Chong sees Ming Pao’s Tuesday bilingual Public Forum page as a promising project. Non-Chinese people are encouraged to write in, expressing views about such stories as Carole Bell, whose comments hit Ming Pao readers especially hard since they’re largely the people moving in to Markham. Comments on the Forum page were tougher than those of the paper’s writers. “While I do not personally see Ms. Bell’s comments as necessarily racist, I have no doubt that they give comfort to some with racist views,” wrote one reader. The paper’s own commentary on Bell basically consisted of two overly diplomatic articles written by deputy chief editor Calvin Wong, who writes under a pseudonym. The paper, however, did run a Toronto Star editorial on Bell. “Chinese media looked to the mainstream press for guidance,” says award-winning Star reporter Tony Wong, “when it should have been the leader on this issue.” But Wong also praised the papers for their progressiveness: “It would be a disservice to say the papers are merely ethnic papers because issues covered are very mainstream. Beyond the Carole Bell matter, the papers are aggressively covering city hall and Queen’s Park. Comprehensive work is done with limited resources and they’ve become an influential voice outside the constraints of the Chinese community.” Among those listening, says Wong, are politicians, and even the police. Following one shooting incident at a Chinatown restaurant earlier this year, police had articles from Sing Tao translated and were quick to give their response to what they thought were critical portrayals. Markham Mayor Don Cousens was also incensed over Ming Pao articles that he believed showed him in a negative light. At one point, he refused to talk to the paper.

On the subject of Cousens’ deputy Mayor, Chong would only say: “Carole Bell’s comments have some validity. Some may not feel comfortable with a lot of Chinese immigrants moving in, like intruders. But she did not address it in an appropriate way, as a publicly elected official.”

Chong does say that an editorial stand on the Bell controversy was needed, but then admits that the main reason Ming Pao does not have editorials (its parent paper does) is the lack of staff to write them. “We don’t want to write editorials in a loose way,” she says. “If we were to write, it would have to be in an analytical, comprehensive manner. Because much of our staff is not very familiar with the issues, a lot of time has to go into research for editorials. Right now, no one has that kind of time.” So at the moment, Chong’s paper is trying to help readers familiarize themselves with Canada.

“Our paper is trying to bring readers out to see the world and show that you have your role here, which is completely different from your role in your home country, One way is to enhance political participation and community involvement. See, the Chinese are quite politically low-profile people,” Chong adds, noting that China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have traditionally had non-democratic governments.

The World Journal is a two-minute drive east from Sing Tao, but its appearance couldn’t be more different than its predecessor in the city. Inside are peeling walls, cluttered desks and a generally run-down ambiance. “Our supporting staff is 3,000 worldwide,” says editor-in-chief Louis Chiu. “Our parent paper is very strong. In fact, we are the largest [Chinese paper] in North America.”

The Journal, like its Cantonese counterparts, is trying to cover more local news. Chiu shows me the day’s front page as proof: lead stories include Jacques Parizeau’s resignation and a rise in the Canadian dollar. Canadian news accounts for 30 percent of the paper’s editorial content (it subscribes to Canadian Press). The Journal is a satellite paper, with only 60 workers, 14 in editorial. Much of the news content comes directly from its New York and Taipei headquarters. Although its local news content is lower than its competitors, Chiu says he’s satisfied.

“I think proportionately it’s about right-now.” He offers no other explanation, but to emphasize his point, he tells me the paper yesterday carried four pages about the referendum. But what Chiu didn’t admit was that his paper can’t afford more pages for local news because it’s only getting a fraction of the advertising dollars his competitors are. Advertisers prefer to deal with aesthetically pleasing papers like Ming Pao, which has lots of colour and reaches a richer audience.

“The majority of Chinese in Toronto are from Hong Kong and speak ‘Hong Kongese,'” explains Chiu. “They are used to their own style and language. So some aren’t familiar with our presentation. The Cantonese have their own slang and writing style-almost their own language. The Journal is more traditionally Chinese, more purebred.” Chiu is referring to the distinction between Mandarin and Cantonese, which goes back dynasties. The Mandarin-speaking north has been the traditional home of the ruling class in China; people from there tend to opt for literary, rather than colloquial, writing. Colloquial writing has only gained acceptance in the last century, as the scholar-official class regarded folk and vernacular literature as beneath them.

The Journal published many articles on the Bell affair, but Chiu doesn’t say much about them. Instead, he says he was pleased with The Toronto Star’s coverage because it allowed mainstream society to become more aware of a Chinese-Canadian issue. Chiu’s only other comment on Bell was that people need to improve relations around them to further avoid such conflicts.

The paper often runs the editorials its Taiwan parent prints. Of the three Toronto papers, the Journal is the least independent from its base abroad. This is one reason the future of Chiu’s paper is questionable. Also, it has no plans to pair up with any mainstream publications or upgrade facilities.

“The Journal is the weakest editorially of the three papers for local content,” says Tony Wong. “But their coverage of Taiwan and China-one of their main mandates-is done extensively and in a comprehensive manner. Despite that they’re the smallest Toronto paper, it belies the fact that they are a huge conglomerate with vast resources.”

The long-term future of Toronto’s three Chinese-language papers is uncertain. Their continued prosperity depends in large measure on what happens to Hong Kong under China’s rule after 1997. If China follows its traditional policies, emigration from Hong Kong will be severely curtailed-and the wave of newcomers will end. In addition, many Chinese immigrants are fluent in English-it’s taught in Hong Kong schools-so a Chinese-language paper may not be essential over the long-term.

Chinese characters are peculiar. One character can have multiple meanings depending on what others are written with it. The characters ming and sing together mean “movie star.” Although the papers are enjoying this kind of status in Toronto now, I wonder where they will be a generation from now. But I suppose, like Hollywood’s people, they are enjoying success while they can.


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