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She appears, on the surface, to be as sweet as the Chinese New Year's candy she is hawking on East Pender Street in the heart of Vancouver's bustling Chinatown.

Liang Qiong smiles when discussing the weather. She giggles when talking about her grandchildren. But the sugar dissolves when the topic of same-sex marriage comes up.

"To me," she says, "it is wrong to see a man with another man. I definitely disagree that it should be called 'marriage.' Marriage is for producing children."

So hard-line is this soft-spoken 57-year-old shopkeeper, in fact, that she suggests that those who would make such mockery of a sacred institution deserve punishment akin to that once dished out to adulterers in her native province of Guangdong - that they be tied in bamboo cages and drowned in the river.

People like Mrs.Qiong are at the heart of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's strategy of gaining support from traditional Liberal voters by enlisting ethnic communities to fight the federal government's same-sex legislation.

"I am certain," says Mrs. Qiong, who makes it clear she could never support the Liberals on same-sex marriage, "that more than 90 per cent of Chinese would agree with me."

Mr. Harper's tactics stem, in part, from a survey conducted by the Conservative Party before last month's Victoria caucus meeting. According to party sources, the poll, which did not include Quebec voters, found that the governing Liberals were supported by 31 per cent of decided voters compared with 28 per cent for the Tories.

More importantly, however, pollsters asked how many of those voters would consider leaving the Liberal Party if it supported same-sex marriage.

What they found startled them.

A full six percentage points of Liberal supporters said they would consider exiting their party. By contrast, Tory support dropped by only two percentage points when supporters were asked whether they would drift away should the caucus oppose the bill.

Party officials concluded that the six-percentage-point drop for the Liberals was probably made up of small-c ethnic supporters, and decided at that point to begin running controversial newspaper ads opposing gay marriage.

"We're the only ones who win under that calculation," said one Conservative member of Parliament, who asked not to be identified by name.

Struggling for years to find a way to crack into the immigrant voting marketplace, Mr. Harper and the party now believe they see a ready-made opportunity. Aside from the advertisements, which ask readers "Where do you draw the line?" the party leader began actively making his case at multicultural events, like at a Sikh meeting in Toronto a week ago.

According to a senior party organizer, Conservatives believe they have potentially tapped into a well-spring of insecurity among ethnic groups, some of whose members feel the Liberal bill will force their clergy to perform same-sex marriage. Even if the same-sex issue is forgotten by the time the next election rolls around, the strategist says, the Conservatives figure that at least some members of the multicultural communities will remember Mr. Harper reached out to them.

Mr. Harper has always argued that his long-term plan is to build a conservative majority in Canada, and tapping into ethnic support is crucial.

But the gambit has caused distress within his own party, some of whose members say Mr. Harper is wrongly assuming that ethnic groups are a monolithic bloc against same-sex marriage.

"I think this method he's using could be seen as offensive," said Leslie Soobrian, an East Indian from Guyana who, in 2004, ran as a party candidate in Toronto's York West riding. "And it could give rise to division within the party."

Mr. Soobrian, who said he actually supports civil marriage for gays and traditional marriage for opposite-sex couples, said the ad campaign is too stark for Torontonians and urban Canada in general, and he expects it will cost the party votes in cities.

"I'm afraid in the next election the NDP might beat us in the popular vote here."

Liberals see Mr. Harper's strategy as ludicrous, but at the same time are gleeful, saying it will help to cement an attitude about the Conservative Party that was born with its predecessor, the Reform Party: that the Conservatives are anti-gay and that Mr. Harper is doctrinaire.

Non-Conservative strategists contend that the Tories need to find their way back to the political centre after a failed election campaign that ultimately painted them as too ideological, and Mr. Harper hasn't shown that he's willing to go there.

"I think this has served to entrench a preconceived notion about the party and about Harper," a senior Liberal organizer said.

"When I, as Joe Citizen, need to find a prime minister who needs to have an open mind, he's not the guy I'll be looking for."

Liberals also argue that many immigrants, who consider themselves underdogs within Canadian society, are extremely supportive of the Charter of Rights because it protects them from discrimination. Many Sikhs, for example, are fond of the Charter because its existence allows Sikh RCMP officers to wear turbans on duty.

Finally, the senior Liberal argues that anyone who professes to know why immigrants vote the way they do is probably misinformed.

"I can't imagine they have better intelligence than we do and ours is not that good."

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It is clear that there are huge differences of opinion over same-sex marriage within most ethnic communities.

In Vancouver's Chinatown, Andy Eng, 21, and Cherry Lam, 18, two students walking along East Pender, are adamantly against any notion that "marriage" could mean a relationship between two people of the same sex.

"It goes against the traditional values of marriage," said Mr. Eng, who emigrated from Mainland China five years ago.

"It's disgusting," added Ms. Lam, a native of Hong Kong. "I totally disagree with it."

And yet, a short distance away in the very ethnic suburb of Richmond - 342,000 people in the Greater Vancouver Area claim Chinese heritage - other students hold precisely the opposite opinion.

"I don't have a problem with it at all," said Joseph Moi, a 22-year-old college student shopping in the new Aberdeen Centre.

"Neither do I," said Wayne Chen, also 22.

"I don't have a problem with it personally," said Stephen Yeung, 23. "I'm a Christian and they seem to have a problem with it. They asked us to sign a petition, but I refused to."

The contrast between old Chinatown in the heart of the city and the new shopping centre in the suburbs, with its "dancing" fountain and BMW gear store, is dramatic.

Boniface C. Y. Lau, selling expensive Toronto condominiums at the Aberdeen Centre, says that people talk about the legislation but, "it's not a big deal. It's not a problem. It doesn't matter all that much.

"There are different Chinese cultures," the 50-year-old salesman said. "It depends on who you meet."

And this, says Zaixin Ma, the editor of the three-times-weekly Dawa Business Press, is what Stephen Harper may have failed to grasp about ethnic communities: They are no more consistent than those who see them as such.

Mr. Ma, 52, thinks that "over half" the Vancouver Chinese community would disagree with same-sex marriage, a figure perhaps not entirely out of step with the rest of the country in that a poll this week by SES Research found 46 per cent of Canadians opposed and 45 per cent in favour of same-sex couples having the right to marry.

"There are many Chinese groups that accept this," the newspaper editor said. "You simply cannot look at the Chinese community as one group."

The British Columbia Chinese community is, in fact, in a constant state of flux. Research done by David Lai, professor emeritus in the University of Victoria's geography department, shows that 10 and 20 years ago, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants came from Hong Kong, only to see immigration from Mainland China amount to 20 times the number coming from Hong Kong by 2001.

Mr. Ma, who grew up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, says that traditional Chinese, usually older immigrants, most often from Hong Kong, tend to be the group with the political connections in Canada.

"It seems [Mr. Harper]gets his ideas from the older Chinese immigrants," he said, "ones who have lived here for generations and have connections with the mainstream.

"There is a distance between what they say and what the other Chinese groups think."

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Suhail Abualsameed is a perfect example of how Mr. Harper's sweeping political generalizations can be open to debate.

At the right time, with the right man, Mr. Abualsameed says he might well consider marriage.

Lately, however, the 33-year-old Toronto man has been far too busy taking advantage of the opportunities that life in Canada have afforded him to think about where he will be years down the road, or with whom.

When he's not at home working at his graphic-design business, Mr. Abualsameed is at the University of Toronto, working on a Middle East peace project. When he's not there, he's at a local agency, running programs for young gay and lesbian newcomers to Canada. And, when he's not there, he helps out at Salaam, The Queer Muslim Community of Toronto.

Otherwise, he travels the country for the Dominion Institute, sharing the story of his passage to Canada from Jordan four years ago, in a bid to boost cross-cultural understanding.

Mr. Abualsameed's view of multicultural Canada could hardly differ more than the one put forth by Mr. Harper at the Feb. 4 Sikh gathering. There, the Conservative Leader called the Liberals' same-sex marriage bill "a threat to any Canadian who supports multiculturalism."

Mr. Harper drew criticism not only from within his own party, but from some of the very people he had hoped to attract.

"Mr. Harper is ignorant about immigration issues, and his statement reflects that ignorance," said Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress, a grassroots group with a membership in the hundreds. "What he's saying is that people can only be gay if they're white Anglo-Saxons."

While Mr. Fatah acknowledges that antipathy toward homosexuality is widespread in the Muslim-Canadian community, he says Mr. Harper makes a mistake in taking ethnic groups for granted.

"I think it's funny that someone like Harper would speak on behalf of gay people when he's not gay, and minorities when he's not part of them," Mr. Fatah said.

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Zaixin Ma, the Vancouver newspaper editor, says that many Chinese who arrived in recent years are "trying to find a new sense of who they are," and many are far more liberal-thinking than the previous generations who have more access to political power and the mainstream media.

"Personally," he said, "I cannot accept same-sex marriage, but I feel that if my community decides to accept it, then that's okay. It's not for me, and hopefully not for my family, but I would then accept it from other people."

Terry Lum, the 33-year-old head of the Community of Chinese Canadians, an organization that represents Chinese-Canadians under 40, is "neither against it nor for it," and thinks that this is the prevailing opinion of the younger Chinese community.

"There's a huge gap in the community," Mr. Lum said. "First of all there's the gap between the young and the old. But there's also a gap between the early immigrants and the late immigrants."

What bothers Mr. Lum, and others, is the presumption that there is this one huge community that speaks the same language and thinks along the same lines.

"You can say they're all Chinese if you like," said Mr. Lum, a fourth-generation Canadian. "But that's not much different, really, than me saying a Ukrainian who is here is the same as someone from England."

Where generalizations do hold true, Mr. Lum says, is that most members of the Chinese community are little different from other Canadians when they merely shrug their shoulders at an issue that doesn't particularly affect them.

"We do understand," he said with a sly smile, "what it means to be Canadian socially correct."

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