Ling Zhang smiled, brown eyes crinkling at the corners as she poured tea into delicate cups in the recently expanded New China restaurant.
“Chinese tea,” her husband David Liu said from his seat across the table. “Hot, hot.”
Liu and Zhang are the new co-owners of the central Nanaimo business, taking it over with another family last year through the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program and transforming it from a takeout joint into a restaurant they hope will be known as a place of food and culture. Intricate silk-thread paintings, woven so fine they look like printed posters, hang on the walls and cups, vases and miniatures of Chinese costumes line a wooden case Liu built himself.
Eventually he’ll write descriptions so people know what each piece is and what it’s for, he said through a translator.
Liu, a real estate developer who’s also in China’s steel and material trade, and Zhang decided to move to Canada for their daughter, a business student at Toronto’s York University, but it’s the Harbour City they want to make their home for its reasonable size, friendly people and potential to develop, Liu said.
The transition to Canadian immigrant entrepreneur hasn’t been without challenges, however, and the couple is not alone.
Nanaimo has seen increased interest from foreign buyers in the B.C. PNP business immigration stream, with applications increasing from 135 in 2010 to 1,085 last year, statistics from the province show.
Investment and business immigration from China alone has grown and is quite noticeable, according to Kim Smythe, chief executive officer of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce.
But business leaders like Smythe also note that new foreign owners also face hurdles around the nuances of western business culture, different customs and language. For some who have bought homes and businesses as they wait for immigration status, there’s uncertainty about the future.
Liu, who is waiting for an immigration nomination, straddles business worlds in China and Canada, unwilling to give up his work overseas in case his application is rejected. He’s also faced issues with contractors when he expanded his restaurant, who didn’t match his expectations for work, and can’t currently speak English to his customers.
He’d like to see a business association or government office with those who can speak Mandarin, and inform people about business practices and regulations and act as a bridge between people.
“Ultimately if a business wants to run successful it’s still really up to their effort and their ability, but without help to start to run a business properly, whatever effort they put, or whatever capability they have, they are not going to [be successful],” said Liu, through a translator.
Earlier this year, Smythe was contacted by members of the Chinese business and cultural communities looking for help, with questions around dealing with customers, fitting into the community and promotion.
With business immigrants addressing business succession in the community, he believes we owe them a debt to succeed.
“Help us not fail is really what they’re asking to do because a lot of them are getting quite desperate,” he said, adding he believes it has to do with differences in business culture and that the chamber and Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association have to look harder at how to facilitate the comfortable settlement of people into the business community.
Jolynn Green, executive director for Community Futures Central Island, suggests a newcomers’ program for new business owners from any country, to talk about bylaws, what happens in business in Canada and how they can be supported in their transition.
A year ago, Green met with business organizations from Qualicum Beach, Parksville and Nanaimo to talk about concerns and issues like cultural differences that are seen as an impediment for new business owners.
Chinese business owners, for example, might not interact with customers in the same way Canadian business owners have and without the transferred relationship, people go to other places where they feel they can connect, she said.
“That’s hard on a new business owner because they rely on the cash flow from the previous owner, right, to make the business successful for them and to have clients,” she said.
“There’s a short transition period, maybe it’s a week or two. Well a week or two is not, I don’t think, a long enough period for someone to actually understand how to run and operate a business and to form relationships and those types of things.”
New Dog’s Ear owner Yiming Ding, is waiting for residency with his wife Sophia Sun and nine-year-old daughter, Maria. He came to Nanaimo after research showed him this is the city his favourite singer Diana Krall came from, and is looking for a better life.
They are “happy and excited,” he said, but know they face the challenge of running a new business. While the former marketing manager feels there’s a common theory in running businesses, he also said it’s a different kind of customer and there will be challenges in getting into the business society here. But he also wants Canadians to know his business.
“I shall learn how to introduce myself in a Canadian way,” he said, smiling.
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