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A world away from happiness

IT is New Year's dinner in a Japanese restaurant in Toronto. Almost every table is occupied by a traditional Chinese family where a husband, wife and their children are enjoying good food together. Except one table.

A trained eye tells immediately that the single largest table is occupied by the middle-aged wives of Hong Kong astronauts - men who work most of the time in Hong Kong and fly back to see their families in Toronto when they can.

But this group of women, 10 of them, are the unlucky ones. There is an unspoken rule that astronauts should come home for holidays.

''Kenneth is working very long hours in Beijing for his Hong Kong company. He does not even take Sundays off while making money to support us in Toronto,'' one woman confided.

In Toronto, you can see the wives of astronauts all over the place. But one street in suburban Richmond Hill is especially identified by local residents as their home.

''You might laugh at me. But I drove back and forth a few times to check if the houses have men. I can't find any,'' said local resident Mrs Lily Chan.

No one has the statistics on the total numbers of astronauts. Neither the Canadian nor Hong Kong government keep that kind of information. It is a sensitive question.

Canadian immigration law states clearly that a landed immigrant who has not been granted citizenship must not stay out of the country more than half of the year. But most astronauts not granted citizenship stay in Asia, especially Hong Kong and China, longer than Canadian law permits.

Wives are fighting the severe winter alone, waiting for their husbands and keeping the family running. A typical family comprises one woman and one or two near-teenage children.

However, there's no time for self-pity. ''Once we have come to this country, our husbands return to Hong Kong to make more money [without the consent of the Canadian Government].

''We have to start doing man's work like cutting grass in the summer and shovelling snow in winter. So, we call ourselves 'brothers' instead of 'sisters','' said one 45-year-old Chinese woman, Mrs Wong.

She is one of the founders of the ''Ten Brothers'' in Toronto, a voluntary social support network for astronauts' wives. It started with 10 members. Now there are 60.

The Ten Brothers are there to help in an emergency and to organise parties at their homes, playing mahjong or singing karaoke. But that stops when the men come back.

''It's like love in the Pacific. You won't disturb your 'brother' when her husband comes home. You know,'' said Mrs Wong. ''But, you need to organise a party or call your 'brother' on her birthday when her husband is not in town.'' Among the top worries, home break-ins and credit card thefts rank the highest among the Chinese wives. And then there are the fears that their husbands might be having an affair. The Ten Brothers can help here too.

''The name of Ten Brothers was copied from the idea of an old Chinese movie Ten Brothers in which a different brother is good at one particular thing,'' said Mrs Wong.

There are rumours in the local Chinese community that the Toronto women use those traits to supervise the activities of husbands in Hong Kong.

Irene So, former director of the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong, is a pioneer among the wives of astronauts. She came to Toronto 12 years ago, and her husband is practising endocrinology in Hong Kong.

Mrs So, one of the Ten Brothers' new members, said trust was the key for her successful, long distance marriage.

''I believe in mutual faith. I stay in Canada most of the time and I would not phone up my husband in Hong Kong for the purpose of checking up on him. If he decided to do bad things, he would do them anyway. Why shouldn't I trust him?'' Mrs So, mother of three sons, flies back to see her husband every couple of months.

Cassandra Lui, wife of an astronaut, adopts another attitude. The former import and export underwriter for a Hong Kong company simply doesn't think about the possibility.

''If he decides to lie to me, I hope he will hide the whole thing for the rest of my life. I don't want to know. Since I believe our marriage is fine, I don't spend time speculating on the question.' A 28-year-old bank clerk in downtown Toronto is one of the unlucky ones. She does not belong to the Ten Brothers or any social club.

Her marriage went sour when she found out her husband was having an affair with a wealthy Hong Kong woman who promised to give him money to start his business. She flew back to the territory in an attempt to save the marriage but returned to Canada withdivorce papers in her hand.

Despite the sad stories, most women interviewed want to re-build their relationships and fit into Canadian society.

''Emigration is like a new born baby. You need to re-adjust to the society. You need somebody to help you bring you up. You need new friends,'' said Mrs Lui.