By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
I was in Toronto last week, reuniting with ‘sisters’ I had not seen for 42 years. It was surprising to see so many of my classmates from Hong Kong settled in that part of Canada.
Fourteen showed up for a sumptuous dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Husbands were not invited. Coming from an all-girls high school, we love to hang out by ourselves.
Initially, visiting Toronto made me yawn. I’ve been there before. The high airfare and costly hotels didn’t thrill me either. However, how can you say no when one of your sisters is battling cancer?
Unexpectedly, the trip turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Despite the three-hour time difference, I felt so relaxed that I slept eight to nine hours a day, a new record for me. Every night, I feasted with pals. Food is always a vital part of my travels.
A tale of two cities and Yo-Yo Ma
Lining Lake Ontario’s shore is the Toronto Music Garden, conceived by Yo-Yo Ma. So, why is this garden in Canada, and not the United States, as Ma is American?
The idea for the project actually originated in Boston, though it’s hard to tell from looking at it. Ma dreamed of a garden inspired by Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello next to Boston’s City Hall. However, an artist is never a politician. Simply embracing beauty and having a nice idea wasn’t enough to make it happen. The Boston City Council killed the project due to the perceived cost — $4.5 million.
Fortunately, Toronto heard about the controversy and wanted the garden for its city. Inspect carefully where the garden is, and you can guess why Toronto favored Ma’s idea. Behind the garden are some expensive condos, including waterfront Bathurst Quay, famous for its architecture. The city raised enough money through private and public sources.
Most musicians are inspired by nature. Ma visualized the garden as “a concert hall without walls.” He worked with garden designer Julie Moir to create it. Musical symbols were tastefully incorporated throughout the design. Aging trees, flower meadows, and meandering paths are reflections of six different movements of the music.
Strolling through every city’s waterfront is one of my favorite things to do. I have seen pictures of the city’s waterfront before the garden, which was very boring and lacked personality. The garden actually enhances the waterfront and functions as a hall for live concerts.
Tales of two countries
My family doesn’t travel to Canada unless we have reasons to. The last time we were in British Columbia was in summer 2008, attending a wedding. At the time, the poll for President Obama was 48 percent. I remember when my Canadian friend said, “What’s your country’s problem? Canadians favored Obama by 70 percent.”
America has a strange relationship with its neighbor. We are friendly toward each other, but we have not been on equal footing. Do we worship the Canadians? No. Do the Canadians look up to Americans? It’s a complicated question.
Read the daily Canadian newspapers and you will find news on Sarah Palin, Newt Gringrich, and the U.S. economy. Flip through the Seattle Times and there’s seldomly any news about Canada, although our state is touching the border.
These days, the tide has changed in Canada’s favor, except for the recent loss of the Stanley Cup to Boston. Canada’s unemployment has dropped to its lowest — 7.4 percent — while U.S. unemployment is close to 10 percent. One U.S. dollar is equal to 97 cents in Canada. I remember a few years ago the U.S. dollar was $1.50 Canadian and even then, I wasn’t so keen on visiting Canada.
Today, the real estate in Vancouver, B.C., has skyrocketed. My classmate describes how buyers outbid each other. In contrast, our housing prices have dropped 10 to 40 percent, with many houses left unsold in the market for three years.
“I can’t stand America,” said my disillusioned high school chum, who left America for Toronto when her husband was laid off. He found a job in Toronto quickly.
America has also become very conservative, fighting on issues like abortion, guns, and gay rights, instead of focusing on what’s important to the livelihood of the people like jobs, housing, and education, according to some of my American friends who have moved overseas.
“I don’t want to visit America,” said another high school friend. “I don’t want to be treated like a criminal,” referring to the finger printing that occurs when foreigners fly to the U.S.
I thought we are diverse, but compared to Canada, we are behind. The Canadians have a liberal immigration policy. Just go to Toronto and you’ll find foreign languages are spoken around every corner. In the suburbs, you will find Chinese and Indians breaking the glass ceilings in politics and private sectors. This trip made me realize that Americans should not underestimate its laid-back neighbor.
Food in Toronto
“Eat lobster when you are in Toronto,” my friend advised. “It is much cheaper than in Seattle.”
Toronto’s food is much more than lobsters, though my husband and I did have double lobster tails in Niagara Falls, we also had Thai rice noodles at Eaton Shopping Mall, dumplings at Din Tai Fung inside an Asian Mall, Vietnamese cuisine at the Pacific Mall, a Chinese dinner at the Emperor, dim sum at Pearl’s, and roasted goose in Chinatown.
Facing a sweeping view of Niagara Falls, we shared a lamb chop and a five-course, double lobster tail dinner for $99, which included escargot.
The Marriott Hotel gave us a $40 coupon. We ate everything and not a piece was left on the plate. Oh yes, even the rich chocolate cake. Our mistake was we had ordered too much food. No worry. The next day, while driving back to Toronto, the leftover lamb was our lunch.
Lets talk about Din Tai Fung, which also has a location in Bellevue. So far, I have dined in three of them, including Toronto and Shanghai. My verdict is that Shanghai’s dumplings are the best, and second place goes to Toronto. Bellevue is the most expensive among the three.
The standard for Chinese food is high in Toronto. The price is amazingly cheap. I don’t know how these restaurants survive. Have you eaten a roast piglet plate for a dollar? You cannot get it anywhere with that price. And the taste was decent in Toronto, even though it’s not as great as Vancouver, Hong Kong, or China.
Getting the best hotel experience
Have you ever been in a “green” hotel?
Well, we stayed at Toronto downtown Cosmopolitan, a feng shui hotel. Everything is placed or designed with the environment in mind. There was live bamboo on the kitchen counter, green tea shampoo, and a fountain inside a three-foot jar topped with 4-foot bamboos. A yoga mat was in the room.
The next one was the Marriott at the Niagara Falls for $205 a night. Our room had a 180-degree view of both American and Canadian waterfalls. As part of our package, we also got two free buffet breakfasts, a $40 dinner coupon, and a $40 spa coupon. The first two were great deals, we didn’t use the spa because we didn’t have the time. ♦
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.