Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

How Green Is Your Alley?

Montrealer Sandra Lee starts an eco-revolution in Chinatown, one person at a time.

It was a bright Sunday afternoon at the Chinese Family Service building in Montreal’s Chinatown. An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning documentary featuring Al Gore, was set to screen, with Chinese subtitles, in less than five minutes. A few people trickled in and sat down. Sandra Lee looked around at the half-empty roof. Turning around, she picked up a pile of leaflets from a nearby table and thrust them into the hands of idling volunteers. “Quick! Go give these to people and get them to come,” she said.

Winging it is part of the routine for upstart environmental group Green Life, founded earlier this year by Lee, a McGill graduate. Her mission is to raise environmental awareness in the local Chinese community, not just by translating green into Chinese, but by drawing from the unique experiences, cultural values and global connections of Montreal’s immigrants.

Lee is not your typical environmentalist. Born in Hong Kong, she moved with her family to Toronto when she was ten years old, eventually making her way to Montreal where she studied marketing and anthropology. Although her environmental awakening came early—she was shocked as a child to learn that Hong Kong’s landfills would “be there forever”—it wasn’t until university that she decided to act. “I took a course called Ecological Anthropology [about the relationship between people and the environment.] I realized I needed to take action. It’s not just abstract. It affects the whole entire culture.

Lee’s first encounter with environmental groups, however, left her unsatisfied. “I felt I didn’t fit into the whole green movement. I looked around and I was the only minority. I didn’t relate to the outdoorsy culture, the whole camping and North Face thing. That’s when I decided to go back into my own community.”

Working with the Chinese community meant a change in focus, away from big-picture issues like climate change, towards more practical, concrete action. “I don’t like dealing with bureaucracy or politics. I fall asleep with that,” she says. “I believe that individual efforts do matter. If one person stops using plastic bags, how many bags will that save over a lifetime?”

So Lee has set her sights on Chinatown, a lively neighbourhood that is notoriously difficult to keep clean, thanks to a high density of businesses and apartments and a near-total lack of back alleys and space for garbage. Few businesses recycle; many dispose of their trash by piling it onto the street. Lee is trying to solve this problem by working with the local Éco-quartier to implement a comprehensive recycling program. She is also trying to convince Chinatown consumers to use cloth bags and avoid Styrofoam containers.

Many of Chinatown’s bigger businesses have been receptive to Lee’s message. After all, a reputation for filth is never good for business. Some business owners are also worried that Chinatown’s waste-management issues affect perceptions of Chinese Montreal as a whole. “I can feel it when I speak to people who aren’t part of the Chinese community,” says Lee.

But there are even larger issues at stake, like the green movement’s ambivalent relationship with multiculturalism. All too often, its messages are blunt and culturally insensitive. The relentless campaign against shark fin soup, for instance, seems innocuous to people of European descent but is considered a cultural affront by many Chinese. It doesn’t help that the environmental movement is, as a whole, blindingly white, reinforcing the impression among some visible minorities that it is condescending and Eurocentric. “Eco-apartheid” is how the Toronto Star put it in a recent article on the matter.

Lee says that a whole new approach is needed to sell green issues to Canada’s ethnic minorities. “I’ve learned to really tone down talking about the problems because they don’t like to hear anything too negative, especially during festivities or business. It’s considered bad luck.” Instead, she points to positive changes that are occurring in Hong Kong and China, like the Chinese government’s recent decision to impose a “green tax” on disposable chopsticks, a move that will reduce deforestation and save millions of trees per year.

Part of the challenge is to deal with the naturally conservative attitude of many immigrants. Ting Kwan Hung, the Chinese Family Service’s volunteer coordinator, works closely with many recent arrivals to Montreal. “In China, they can only afford an apartment. Here they can afford a house. There’s no guilt to consuming more,” he says. Add that to North America’s standard welcome mat of suburban sprawl, big-box shopping and boundless waste and many immigrants are understandably reluctant to alter their new way of life. “If you cannot maintain the quality of life they won’t listen to you,” says Hung.

Another obstacle to spreading the green message is the fragmented nature of Montreal’s Chinese community, which is divided along ethnic, cultural and linguistic lines. Should pamphlets be written in simplified Chinese—the standard script of mainland China—or traditional Chinese, as used in Hong Kong and Taiwan? Choosing one over the other could reveal a bias that might be off-putting to a large segment of Chinese Montrealers. “Unconsciously, people will put a political spin on it,” explains Hung.

Lee has faced personal hurdles, too: environmental activism is hardly lucrative. In addition to running Green Life, she works two part-time jobs and is enrolled in a French course that eats up twenty hours a week. To make matters worse, she faces constant pressure from her mom to return to Toronto and find a stable job. “Job security is very important to her. She’s not a risk-taker herself. Doing grassroots activism is still a very new concept in the Chinese community.”

Still, it’s the potential of Lee’s work that keeps her going. Along with Green Life, she is trying to establish an umbrella organization, the Multicultural Movement for the Environment, which would unite environmental groups in different ethnic communities. Already, Lee has made connections with Latin American and African activists and she has found a willing partner in an NGO that addresses green issues in the Muslim community.

Lee is convinced that the future of environmentalism can be found in an approach that is both grassroots and global. “New arrivals are very important stakeholders in the green movement. They have access to an international network that local environmentalists don’t have.” Many immigrants come from places that are much harder hit by climate change and environmental degradation than Canada, says Lee. “I think it’s about time for us to share models, share solutions and share ideas.”

Of course, before that happens, Lee needs to first make inroads to the Chinese community. If the screening of An Inconvenient Truth was any indication, she is well on her way. Although the turnout was modest—about eighteen people—the reaction was positive. “I knew something about it but I didn’t know it was so urgent,” said Jacques Liu, who arrived here from Shenzhen less than a year ago. Mary Zhang, a neuroscience student at McGill, was already convinced. “I’ve tried to explain the science of climate change to my mom [in China]. She doesn’t like it when I preach but even she can see the changes in Sichuan. The droughts come earlier every year.”

Some members of a Chinatown women’s group were also in the audience. The film was so persuasive they started plotting ways to mount another screening for the elderly. Lee was happy. “One person at a time,” she said.