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Canada Chinese kick off new year with fundraising ball for new seniors' residences

Tonight's dazzling Dragon Ball -- an evening of food, dance and high-spending auctions -- was born by chance.

Over lunch with a friend in 1987, Toronto doctor Joseph Wong was brooding about how to raise funds for a nursing home for Chinese seniors.

Individual donations lagged behind construction costs, and the pressure was on to attract big donations from the Chinese community, which at the time considered charity a culturally taboo topic.

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Over lunch, Dr. Wong's friend, Frank Hsu, recalled that in Melbourne, Australia, a ball to celebrate Chinese New Year was the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Chinese community.

"I started to plan the first ball right there in the restaurant," said Dr. Wong.

From this chance beginning, Toronto's Dragon Ball has become the city's second-largest fundraiser, after the Brazilian Ball. Tonight's gala, to be held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, coincides with the start of a most auspicious Chinese year, the year of the dragon.

The black-tie affair features ice sculptures, fireworks, dancing dragons, jazz music played on traditional Chinese instruments and a banquet of four separate feasts.

But it's also an occasion to raise an expected $1.3-million, as attendees who paid $330 a ticket bid on cars and condominiums up for grabs in a silent auction during the evening.

Glitz aside, the Dragon Ball is a metaphor for the changing cultural values of the Chinese community and its growing influence in multicultural Toronto.

While traditional Chinese custom assumes that families look after their parents and grandparents at home, the reality of Canadian society is that many of these seniors were sent to hospitals and nursing homes without any cultural supports.

"We loved the myth, but the truth was that it was extremely difficult to look after aging parents at home," said Toronto lawyer Susan Eng, a former chairwoman of the Toronto Police Services Board and one of the early organizers of the Dragon Ball.

"We had to show there was no shame in recognizing a truth," she said.

The solution was to build a Cadillac version of a nursing home. "We did not want to just build a seniors' residence," Ms. Eng recalled. "We wanted the very best, so that it would be a home away from home."

The success of the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care, which opened in 1994 in the heart of the Chinese community in north Scarborough, is recognized as a model for seniors' care, and there is now a 1,000-person waiting list.

Three similar seniors' residences are now planned in the Toronto region. The provincial government will provide some funding, but $25-million must be raised by the Yee Hong Community Wellness Foundation.

Over the years, the Dragon Ball has become a canny mixture of Chinese culture and Western marketing.

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"The Chinese community likes to get their money's worth," said Ms. Eng, recalling how organizers went all-out to get donations of furs, jewellery and trips to Hong Kong for the silent auction.

"We wanted people to be willing to shell out $5,000, $10,000 or $20,000 in one night while sitting there," she said.

About half of those who attend the ball are non-Chinese, said Stanley Kwan, this year's chief organizer. "They get to learn about Chinese New Year, the 12 animals [of the Chinese calendar]and the food we eat," he said.

It now draws the city's corporate and political elite as well as such national headliners as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Politicians were only recently allowed to make speeches at the event.

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