JOHN Chan can get everything he's looking for at his local mall. There's lots of choi-sum and other fresh vegetables, a couple of herbalists, a fish market and plenty of noisy restaurants that serve dim-sum and stay open late into the night. The signs are written in Chinese characters and the shopkeepers and waiters speak Chinese too. It's just like Hong Kong. But Chan is a long way from Hong Kong. He lives in Markham, a sprawling suburban town just north of Canada's largest city, Toronto. And while Chan and other new arrivals from Hong Kong take comfort in the familiarity of the mall, it and others like it have become a focal point for an uncomfortable conflict. The arrival of tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants in less than a decade is testing the leadership of several communities and the tolerance of both the established residents and the newcomers. Canadians pride themselves on their tolerance. While the United States has encouraged its new citizens to step into the social melting pot and become part of the dominant culture as quickly as possible, Canada has made cultural diversity part of the national fabric. Multi-culturalism is an official federal government policy. But the sheer numbers of new Chinese immigrants is creating social pressures. There are 800,000 Chinese Canadians. Almost a quarter-million of them live in the lower mainland area of British Columbia, particularly around Vancouver. Another 350,000 live in the Toronto area. While many have been there 25 or 30 years, the biggest wave began in the mid-1980s. Last year alone, an estimated 45,000 Chinese arrived in Canada, with most of them settling in the Chinese enclaves outside Toronto and Vancouver. But it's not numbers alone that made them different. Canada is a country built on immigration, but vast numbers of the new Chinese immigrants don't follow the familiar pattern of those who arrived before them. 'This is one of the first times that the immigrant population hasn't followed the usual pattern of living downtown and suffering for a generation before moving up,' says Jeff Holec, a public affairs officer in Markham. 'They have arrived already capable of participating in middle class life.' That arrival of a large population of well-off immigrants continuing to follow their old ways caused some grumbling in places like Markham, where Chinese now make up an estimated 15 per cent of the population of 161,000. Some areas are almost completely Chinese, leaving some established residents feeling like foreigners in their own town. But the complaints found a voice this summer when Deputy Mayor Carole Bell publicly complained about the growing number of what have become known as Asian theme malls. These condominium-style shopping malls with a large number of small stores and restaurants are the norm in places like Hong Kong. But Canadian cities are used to malls with one or two huge retail stores anchoring a number of smaller shops, usually chain stores. Bell complained that the growing number of Chinese malls used predominantly Chinese signs and catered mostly to Chinese customers and were driving away people who had lived in Markham for years; including, she said, many pillars of the community. The remarks caused outrage among many Chinese who accused Bell of racism. But the deputy mayor hasn't backed down. A few days ago she told a Toronto newspaper that the issue of the malls was causing unrest in the community. Bell is not without her supporters. Many people have complained publicly that the Chinese malls often did not give service in English and that they felt unwelcome if they did venture in. But earlier this week, a community group demanded that the Markham council distance itself from Bell's remarks. So far Markham Mayor Don Cousens has avoided doing so. But he says he has privately told her he takes 'exception to the conclusions drawn . . . in the article'. Cousens has formed an advisory committee to look into the problem. Its final report isn't due until next June. But Markham isn't the only city to feel the impact. Next door in the suburban city of Richmond Hill, Chinese malls are also at the centre of a debate involving the new arrivals. Richmond Hill was the fastest-growing city in Canada until a few years ago. Its Chinese population has also mushroomed, from about 1,000 in 1986 to an estimated 20,000 this year. That's close to a fifth of the total town population. Richmond Hill had one Asian mall - although town officials don't use that term - but when applications came up for city approval to build two more, the town got worried. The applications were frozen while the town studied the impact the malls could have on the town. The Hong Kong-style malls 'were a different kind of beast', says Mayor William Bell. He says the study confirmed what the town had feared: that the malls, with their large numbers of employees and different shopping patterns, would cause huge problems with parking, traffic and noise. The town demanded both projects be scaled down. The developers refused to cut back as much as the town wanted and the matter is now before a provincial tribunal. The decision has prompted accusations of racism, but William Bell says it's strictly a planning issue. 'The developer and some people supporting the application tend to say that if you don't give us everything we want, you're racist, and I really resent that,' he says. Jane Pepino is a lawyer representing the developer. She avoids using the racism label, but she believes that's an ingredient. 'It seems that the [development] standards are targeted solely at malls that serve Chinese shoppers and Chinese needs,' she says. But the issue is not so clear. Even some Chinese disagree with her. Peter Leung is the vice-president of a neighbourhood ratepayers association that has strongly pushed the town to limit Asian malls. Leung, who has lived in Richmond Hill almost nine years, represents a largely Chinese community. 'We just don't want these types of malls,' he says. 'We want quality malls that will fit into the neighbourhood.' The saga of Chinese malls is also a familiar one to Greg Halsey-Brandt. He's the mayor of Richmond, a suburban city just outside Vancouver, British Columbia. Richmond has attracted the largest number of Chinese immigrants on the west coast to the point that more than a third of the 145,000 residents are Chinese. And it has four major Chinese malls, built over the past five years or so. 'We have been through all of that,' he says. Halsey-Brandt says the malls are more accepted and market forces are taking care of many of the problems. But he says he's not surprised there have been conflicts in places like Markham or his own city. He blames it on the federal government's immigration policy which failed to ease the introduction of new Canadians. 'There were too many immigrants in too short a period of time and they all went to the same place,' he says. 'That makes it hard to adjust for both sides.' The mayor says the only way to make the change smoother is to work hard at helping Chinese and established Canadians understand each other. The city plans Western-style cultural events in Chinese malls and Chinese events in Western-style malls. Community groups are encouraged to plan events that will help the two sides get to know one another. Halsey-Brandt says it's an issue that has to be handled sensitively by the Chinese side as well. 'Racism is a very sensitive issue,' he says. 'There are people who will drive it for their own reasons. If they get hold of the agenda, they'll destroy your community.' The formula isn't always successful. Earlier this summer, a newspaper article detailed what it called the 'White Flight', the movement of many white families out of Richmond to an almost exclusively white suburb farther out from Vancouver, an area so white it's been dubbed 'Little Rhodesia'. It's the kind of thing that annoys Vancouver city councillor Maggie Ip. 'No one says anything about the great prosperity these [Chinese] immigrants have brought to the city over the last five years,' she says. But the kinds of programmes the Richmond mayor is trying is the trend that Dr Ken Ng approves of. Ng is the Chairman of the Federation of Chinese Canadians in Markham and has been vocal in the debate over Carole Bell's remarks. He says if malls are limited because of legitimate planning concerns that's one thing. But limiting malls because they're predominantly Asian in character 'is systematic discrimination'. But Ng doesn't believe charges and counter-charges is the way to settle things. Both long-time residents and newcomers have to make accommodations, he says. Ng, who has lived in Canada for 30 years, says the newcomers will eventually adapt to their new surroundings and take on more Canadian ways. But the huge number of newcomers has made the adjustment period more painful and it's up to political leaders and community leaders to make sure it goes smoothly. 'Integration takes time and during that critical period, leadership is vital,' he says. Ng's federation is doing its part. Members teach newcomers the basics of doing business in Markham and give Canadians companies pointers about dealing with the Chinese. They also have a number of social programmes and work with other multi-cultural organisations. But the issue continues to attract attention, especially in the Canadian Chinese media. Vivian Chong, news editor of the Eastern edition of Ming Pao, a Chinese daily, said: 'There is a polarisation in these communities.' She says the issue, particularly the controversy over Carole Bell's comments, appeared on the front page of the newspaper 18 times in a month. When the paper conducted a straw poll of reader opinion on the Markham affair, some 700 readers phoned in their opinion. Close to 70 per cent condemned the Bell incident as racist. But people like Ken Ng hope it's a temporary symptom. 'People are integrating, but not by force. It's by choice,' Ng says. 'Give them time. It's not going to happen overnight.'