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In a corner of Halifax's historic south end, Mandarin signs have started to sprout up: They appoint dumpling and dessert restaurants, bubble tea cafes, rental housing and a barbershop.

They are the early signs of a fledgling Chinatown.

It's very small, and as with Chinatowns elsewhere it's not all Chinese — some of the smattering of businesses specialize in Korean barbecue, Vietnamese pho or Indian groceries. Compared to big-city Chinatowns, it's a blip on the urban landscape.

But for a city more accustomed to Irish pubs and fish and chips, this tiny pocket of businesses around where Barrington Street turns sharply into Inglis Street tells the story of a steady flow of newcomers to Halifax from China.

Halifax, a busy port city of about 400,000 and home to several universities, has long had a small Chinese population. What's changing is the number of Chinese immigrants choosing to make it their permanent home.

As more stay — rather than returning to China or moving west to Toronto or Vancouver — a critical mass of Chinese ex-pats is slowly forming, potentially encouraging others to put down roots.

"It's more busy than before," said Mai Duong, co-owner of Ca-Hoa Grocery, a family-owned Asian retailer that has been selling fresh produce and packaged foods on the corner of Victoria Road and Queen Street since 1981.

"There are still a lot of Chinese students, but now more families too."

Under fluorescent lights and colourful paper lanterns, Ca-Hoa's shelves are stocked with large bags of rice, bamboo steamers and teapots, as well as the basic ingredients of Chinese cooking like soy and oyster sauce, rice vinegar, and dried chili peppers.

Ca-Hoa describes itself as "Halifax's Original Asian Grocery," but there are now at least a half-dozen in the port city.

The aging province desperately needs the newcomers. From 2011 to 2016, the number of people aged 15 to 64 dropped precipitously in Atlantic Canada, while the proportion of seniors increased sharply, Statistics Canada 2016 census data showed.

Nova Scotia is aggressively trying to tackle its population crunch by attracting skilled workers, and calls China a "key market" for both immigration and trade.

It appears to be paying off. In 2016, Nova Scotia opened its doors to 5,485 newcomers — a 61 per cent increase over the year before and the single highest jump since the end of the Second World War, according to figures compiled by the province from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

China is the top source of international students to Nova Scotia, and the third biggest source of immigrants overall, according to the provincial government.

Most of those newcomers appear to be settling in the provincial capital. Halifax had a record population boom in 2016, with the city’s per capita population growth outpacing Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and, just barely, Toronto, according to Statistics Canada figures.

The figures appear to back up anecdotal evidence of a growing Chinese population, and a potential little Chinatown.

"It seems there is a bit of cluster there around Queen Street and at the bottom of Victoria Road around Inglis and Barrington," said Waye Mason, Halifax's deputy mayor and the local councillor for the area.

"There are a lot of international students from Southeast Asian countries and certainly Chinese students that seem less interested in Victorian flats, and the larger apartment buildings in that area seem to be more attractive to them."

Still, while Mason said he has noticed more businesses with Chinese signs and heard chatter about a growing population, he said he has no solid data to back up those casual observations.

Yet there are other signs that seem to support the notion that more Chinese natives are putting down roots in Halifax.

New companies catering to Chinese newcomers have popped up across Halifax, in addition to the cluster near downtown, while established businesses like real estate firms and car dealerships are hiring Mandarin speakers to better serve the burgeoning population.

Halifax Public Libraries said Chinese newcomers made up a third of the participants in its English conversation groups last fall, and circulation of Chinese language books is always high.

The EduNova Co-Operative, which runs various programs for international students, said the number of Chinese students looking to study and stay in Nova Scotia has increased. Chinese students now make up nearly half the 133 students participating in the organization's programs, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the city's English-Mandarin newspaper, Dakai Maritimes, has seen its circulation jump to 35,000, up from 5,000 when it was launched five years ago.

Meng Zhao, founder and editor-in-chief, started the paper after graduating from Mount Saint Vincent University to help bridge the gap between Chinese newcomers and locals.

"It can be isolating when you first arrive in a new community," she said. "It's starting to change now, but when I moved here the Chinese population was quite small and I wanted to connect them to each other and the larger community."

While working long hours on the newspaper — which has since partnered with the Chronicle Herald, the province's biggest daily — Zhao and her husband started a family and now have a one-year-old and a three-year-old.

"Being a parent is challenging on its own no matter what country you're in, but when you're away from your family and culture it can be hard," she said.

Zhao joined a WeChat group on social media for new Chinese moms living in Halifax, which she said now has close to 400 members.

They share advice and offer support online, and also meet up for play dates at local libraries and parks to talk about the experience of raising a family in Nova Scotia.

"I've been here long enough to integrate into the local culture and lifestyle, but for some who don't speak the language fluently or have support it's really difficult," Zhao said. "We help each other out."

Yao Chen moved to Halifax in 2008 to study at Saint Mary's University.

Many of his friends moved to Toronto upon graduating, but Chen stayed in Halifax and recently became a real estate agent with Viewpoint Realty.

While he said there are ways to encourage more Chinese graduates to settle here — including improving immigrants' ability to bring their parents — he said the city's real estate investment opportunities go a long way to making the city attractive to foreigners.

"The real estate market in Halifax hasn't been as appealing as other cities like Toronto or Vancouver," Chen said. "But that was before other governments introduced foreign buyer taxes."

Since then, Chen said Chinese newcomers are starting to recognize that properties in Halifax are more affordable and the quality of life better than in bigger cities.

"I think Chinese immigrants are starting to see that there are good opportunities here," agreed Ran Jin, another newcomer from China who recently moved from Shanghai and is now a sales consultant with Halifax's Land Rover dealership.

"It's a small city and the population still needs to grow, but there are more options here now for newcomers."

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