Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am

The day Madellina Lau Mo-ping started a new life in Canada, she was confronted by hairy chests.

'That was my first day in Toronto, as well as the only night I cried,' says Lau, a friend of whose arranged for her to live for free for three months in a bachelor's apartment building. It was the late 1980s and Lau was trying to establish a home for her two children, Carolyn, 16, and Patrick, 11.

Lau was born and raised in Hong Kong and had had no intention of leaving Mei Foo, where she lived, until her ex-husband suggested he take their children to live with him and his new family in Australia. Lau, now 65, initially agreed to transfer custody but then had second thoughts. If her ex-husband could move, so could she.

She chose Canada but her lack of a profession meant she didn't qualify for immigration - so she cheated. She submitted an application claiming she was an executive secretary and bluffed her way through the interview.

'[The immigration officer] absolutely believed that I was a secretary, [even without] a certificate or testimonials: I dressed like a secretary, talked like a secretary and showed him my immigration files, systemically composed like a secretary would,' Lau says. 'He was impressed.'

With landing papers in hand, Lau offered her children a choice: Canada or Australia. They followed her to Toronto, where Lau had found a job in telemarketing for an air-duct cleaning company.

Despite being yelled and sworn at over the phone she kept at it, quickly cornering the Chinese-speaking market and achieving high sales. Yet she still wasn't making enough money to support her children.

Lau realised she had to set up her own business - and the only one she could think of that required no major investment was a real-estate agency. With a dictionary open next to her textbooks, Lau studied for a licence. She soon cornered another market in the Toronto area.

'I took listings from Western people and sold to new Hong Kong immigrants, who loved Western style. I requested an exclusive week with purchasers, and within that week I knocked on doors, going house to house asking if they wanted to sell,' she says. 'I double-ended most deals.'

She credits her success in Canada to a simple philosophy: 'Never give up. Brain clicks fast.'

That strength of character was needed in November 2006, when Carolyn (pictured left, with Lau) was diagnosed with leukemia and needed a bone-marrow transplant. Lau found it disturbing that Caucasians made up 82 per cent of registrants in a global database for stem-cell matches while only 4 per cent were Chinese. Carolyn's supporters worked hard to raise awareness of stem-cell research among the Chinese-Canadian population, in hopes of finding a donor.

'People know about blood donations but are not as educated about stem-cell donations,' Lau says. 'Older generations consider blood cancer a death sentence.'

Although the campaign prompted thousands of Chinese in Canada and the United States to sign up to the bone-marrow registry, no match was found for Carolyn, and she died last April, aged 37.

'Leukemia is only one of the things that happened in her life,' Lau says. 'We are very grateful to the Canadian government for its health care system. Canada is a country that listens.'

Lau is grateful her daughter had the opportunity to live abroad. Ten years after emigrating, Lau brought her children back to Hong Kong for a visit.

'We all felt like we were home,' says Lau. 'I told my children we are blessed to live in two countries.'