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Vietnamese herbalists Bill Ly and Lisa Thi in the Vancouver ridding of Vancouver South March 29, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Vietnamese herbalists Bill Ly and Lisa Thi in the Vancouver ridding of Vancouver South March 29, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Economy trumps all in culturally diverse Vancouver South Add to ...

Business is slow at Thien Dia Nhan Natural Herbs and Medicine these days. Demand for its exotic array of pills, fungi and powders to cure what ails you is shrinking.

Bill Ly and wife Lisa Thi have run their shop on this humming stretch of Fraser Street in the riding of Vancouver South for 18 years. They blame the economy for the downturn. "If people don't have money, they don't spend it," Mr. Ly says.

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But the 69-year-old has something special he wants to show a visitor, and it's not among the shelves of bottles, with their neat, handwritten, English identification labels (Burns Fat, Bad Breath, Liver Cleans, Sperm). In the back is a series of small watercolours painted by Mr. Ly during his time in a refugee camp, including a chilling portrait of a flimsy, wave-tossed craft that carried him from Vietnam in the 1980s.

"Fifty people on that boat. If the waves go too high, we all drown," Mr. Ly recounts. "Eight days. No food. No water. If it didn't rain, we die." Price of the perilous passage: four ounces of gold. Compared to that, the store's recent slowdown doesn't count for much. "I am very lucky," Mr. Ly says.

The story of the Vietnamese couple, how they made it to Canada and began their new life, is at the heart of this diverse, culturally rich riding, where immigrants comprise 60 per cent of the population.

This demographic has made the contest for Vancouver South one of the most hotly contested in the country, particularly targeted by the Tories because of the slim, 20-vote margin the winning Liberals held in 2008. As the race unfolds, it is sure to be a bellwether for the major parties' professed strategy of attracting visible minorities.

Vancouver South is an area where immigrants have flocked for decades, where a better life beckons and dreams are realized or dashed. Look no further than the three main party candidates, each an immigrant, each with reminders that not all experiences along the way are happy ones.

Liberal incumbent Ujjal Dosanjh came from the Punjab, working his way from a sawmill green chain to premier of the province, the first South Asian to hold such a post in Canada. But not that far from his campaign office is the parking lot where he was savagely beaten in 1985 after speaking out against Sikh extremism. "I still think about it, whenever I drive by," he says.

Conservative Wai Young, born in Hong Kong and back for another run at Mr. Dosanjh, grew up in an ordinary stucco house two blocks from Killarney High School on the riding's east side. "We were the only Chinese family on the block. Boys threw rocks at me," Ms. Young recalls. "That sort of racism never leaves you."

Meena Wong of the NDP remembers her parents in China being attacked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, while she took refuge with a neighbour. She was eight years old. "The fear I felt inside me that day is still vivid," Ms. Wong says.

But, like so many others, the three persevered and succeeded.

Nowhere is the riding's ethnic tapestry reflected more than on a two-block stretch of Fraser Street, where the herb shop sits. Instead of an enclave dominated by one particular group, as often happens when newcomers arrive, cultures are jumbled together in a vibrant mélange of commerce.

At the Polo Market, South Asians, Caucasians, Chinese, Filipinos and Vietnamese poke and prod the produce set out in open-air stalls.

Elsewhere, there is the State Bank of India, the Filipino Alk-O-Bar, Dhaliwal Sweets, Ho Yuen Kee Restaurant, Pho Hong, a takeout featuring "Taiwanese Street Food … and Frozen Dim Sum," a pizza joint, a sushi place, Punjab Meat Shop, Mama Mia Gelato - all vying, cheek by jowl, for business.

Sam Grimes, a self-employed painter from Liverpool, sits at a table in the Dhoom Restaurant and Bar, washing down his plate of curry with a glass of beer. "This is the real Canada," he enthuses. "A real mix."

In his small, one-person store, 74-year-old tailor Ben Kwan, a 1980 arrival from Hong Kong, says Punjabis make up 70 per cent of his business.

Across the street at Fraser Barbeque and Fresh Meat, the ethnic Chinese staff says sales come mostly from "Filipinos and white people. Only 30 per cent Chinese."

Despite the large immigrant population, however, the number one issue on voters' minds is the same here as in the rest of Canada: the economy. Money, or lack of it, is the great cultural unifier.

Says Mr. Ly: "I want the economy to improve. If people have money, they will come to buy."

Over on Main Street, where many stores have shut in the once-bustling Punjabi Market, Vinoo Natalwala gazes around his empty bangle shop. "I keep seeing on TV that the recession is over, that business is improving. Well, where is it?" he wonders.

Yet crime remains on voters' minds too, especially in the large, more conservative Chinese-Canadian community.

"Break-ins, break-ins, break-ins," says provincial MLA Kash Heed, once the district's police superintendent. "That's what you hear. It's the fear that doesn't go away."

And, of course, there's immigration. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney were both in the riding this week, hammering home their parties' immigration policies.

Not everyone is a fan of the Conservatives' high-profile bid for the ethnic vote. Amid rows of brightly coloured bolts of cloth at Rokko Sarees and Fabric, a Fraser Street institution for 40 years, co-director Jaspreet Khurana questions the strategy. "We need immigration to build up the country, but I don't think they should go target just one group. They should be dealing with all the public for votes."

There is one more issue in Vancouver South. It cuts across all ethnic lines, and has resonated, without result, since the 1990s.

While there are eight seniors' centres on Vancouver's more affluent west side, Vancouver South's estimated 25,000 seniors have none. Lorna Gibbs has spearheaded the drive for a local seniors' centre seemingly forever. The city has promised $2.5-million. The province and Ottawa continue to say no.

Ms. Gibbs says she will make the rounds once more during the current campaign. But she's weary of it all.

"I've done this every election," she says. "What good does it do? I expect, if we ever do get our seniors' centre, they will carry the box of my ashes over the threshold."

Follow on Twitter: @rodmickleburgh

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