Toronto·CBC Investigates

Chinese students say mother-daughter homestay hosts bilking newcomers in B.C. and Ontario

A group of students from China and their parents say they're trying to recoup thousands of dollars from a family of homestay providers in Canada who promised a level of service they didn't deliver.

Room and board was supposed to include seafood and stir-fries, not hot dogs and leftovers, families say

Photo of food students got (left) compared with photos of food advertised on the homestay's now-defunct website (right). (Submitted by Jin Yi/www.cahomestay.com)

Several Chinese international students are warning others about a pair of homestay providers thousands of kilometres apart who they allege are taking advantage of young newcomers moving to Canada for high school. 

CBC News has spoken with seven students from China and their parents who allege the mother-daughter pair lied about the living conditions in their homes in Toronto and Burnaby, B.C., and broke the terms of their room-and-board contracts.

The students described similar experiences of moving into a situation that was not as advertised, including seeing their hosts eat steak after feeding the teens hot dogs and leftovers and discovering that what they had been told would be a short walk to and from school would actually take hours each day.

Many of the students are now trying to recoup thousands of dollars after moving out early.

"I want my money back, and I don't want any other students to go through what my daughter did," said Li Limei, the mother of a teenager who lived at the homestay in Toronto. 

'I regret it so much'

In the summer of 2018, Li started scouring the internet for housing for her 15-year-old daughter, Angel An, who was to start Grade 10 at Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School in Toronto that fall. 

"I wanted Angel to get a head start at a Canadian high school," Li said in Mandarin, during a video interview on the WeChat app from her home in Beijing. She hoped finishing high school in Toronto would boost her child's chances of getting accepted into a Canadian university.

Angel was preparing to join the annual influx of tens of thousands of Chinese students to Canada whose parents share that hope.

In 2019, there were almost 70,000 Chinese international students of elementary school, high school and university age in Canada — up by about 10,000 from five years ago, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

The sharp increase has fuelled the business of housing students.

Li easily found housing for Angel through WeChat, a popular place for Chinese families, homestay providers and settlement agencies that help people find homestays to make connections. She said a woman named Fiona Liu saw her post to the homestay group and offered to host Angel. 

Li said she made it clear she did not want her teen daughter sharing a house with male students and the home had to be pet-free because of her daughter's allergies to cats and dogs. 

"Fiona promised she only accepts girls, that there were no male students," said Li. 

The contract Li signed stipulated there would be no pets. 

International students are asking for a refund on their rent and deposit after moving out of their homestays early. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Li was satisfied when she got a first-hand look inside the detached three-storey house when she helped Angel move in August 2018. 

CBC News reviewed Li's rental agreement, which showed she paid $20,800 for a year's rent before Angel moved in.

I regret it so much.- Limei Li 

Within a month, Angel called her mother to say Liu had a dog and a male student had moved in. 

Li immediately contacted the homestay provider saying her daughter couldn't live with male students or dogs. She said Liu didn't listen and even brought home a second dog a few months later. 

Angel's mom said her daughter's asthma flared up and she developed allergic dermatitis.

Because of the stress of her living situation, Angel dropped out of school in May and moved back to China, four months before her homestay contract was up.

"I regret it so much," said Li. "It really affected my daughter." 

'I want my money back'

Li has since been trying to get about $8,000 in rent and deposit money back because she argues Liu broke the terms of the contract. 

Despite trying to contact Liu multiple times, Li said the homeowner has not answered her.

"To this day, she hasn't returned my money," she said. 

CBC News reached out to Liu through email and phone calls, but she has not responded. On a visit to Liu's Toronto house in October, CBC spoke with several Chinese international students who confirmed she was hosting them.

Students say they stayed with Fiona Liu, left, and Tiff Lei, middle, and were promised living conditions the hosts did not live up to. Liu's husband, right, supposedly lives with Liu. (Instagram)

A teenage girl who had been living there for four months said her experience has been positive. However, her male housemate's room does not have a door. She said there's just a carpet hanging over it. 

On a subsequent visit to the house in December, a man who several students confirmed is Liu's husband, spoke with CBC News outside the house. He refused to identify himself or confirm whether Liu or any international students live there. 

But, when asked why Liu would allow male students into the house when she had said there would only be females, he said such an arrangement would be nonsensical in the real world. 

"Can you segregate men and women on the TTC, for example?" he said in Mandarin, referring to Toronto's public transit system. 

Photos didn't match reality

The seven families with whom CBC spoke found accommodation for their children either with Liu in Toronto or with her daughter, Tiff Lei, in Burnaby, B.C.

All seven have attempted to get refunds — that add up to about $40,000 — but they allege the pair either stall, send cheques that bounce or don't respond at all.

CBC News tried to call, email and text Lei about the allegations. The calls went to voice mail each time. A response to a text said it was the wrong number, even though the families verified the number belongs to Lei. 

Oswald Li lived with Tiff Lei in Burnaby, B.C. for six months before living conditions prompted him to move out. He's still studying in the city. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

Oswald Li, 19, said he's trying to get back his $1,400 damage deposit from Lei. He and another Chinese student lived with her in Burnaby for six months before moving out in February 2019. 

He described the experience as a "nightmare." He said he was promised three nutritious meals a day but was often fed beef jerky, french fries and hot dogs. He said much of the food wasn't fresh. Sometimes, after he finished eating, he would see Lei enjoying a steak for dinner, he said. 

Photos on a now-defunct website advertising the homestays in Toronto and Burnaby showed photos of chicken, cake and crab.

When asked about the quality of the food, the man at the Toronto home told CBC News, "You can't eat seafood every day."

After he moved out, Oswald Li said Lei gave him a cheque equalling the amount of his damage deposit. He said it bounced.

"It was frustrating," he said. 

The parents, children and settlement agencies with whom CBC News spoke found each other by chance on WeChat and soon discovered they'd had similar experiences dealing with the same two people in Canada. 

They discovered Liu went by different names in her communication with different families. To Li Limei, she was "Fiona Liu" or "Liu Jia." To others, she was "Gao Ling Qian." 

CBC News confirmed through property records that both properties in Ontario and B.C. are owned by the same family. 

'They lied to them'

The director of a Beijing-based agency that helped settle Oswald Li and some other students in Canada told CBC News he feels betrayed by both the mother and daughter, with whom he placed students.

"I feel angry, really, really angry. The students are young, and [Liu and Lei] lied to them," said Li Peng, director of CAEL Education Consulting, from his office in Beijing. 

He said Lei gave the families an address of a home closer to the students' school, but when they arrived in Burnaby, the teens were taken to a homestay farther away. 

In Toronto, Liu told some students their home was a five- to 15-minute walk to their schools. When they arrived, they realized the walk was closer to 90 minutes. 

All the students CBC News spoke with moved out early but not all have returned to China.

Li Peng said his company and another settlement agency based in Shijiazhuang, China, that also worked with Lei in Burnaby, reimbursed the students themselves.

He said he got back $9,000 from Liu after suggesting he would send friends of his to her house to collect.

Both companies say they are still owed thousands of dollars.

"We trusted [them]," he said. "It was our mistake."

Alone in Canada

Some of the parents who spoke with CBC News are considering legal action, but say it's tough because they live in China and are not able to navigate Canada's legal system from there. 

Li Peng said the family took advantage of young students who are alone in the country and don't have a support network or knowledge of how the legal system works. 

"They don't have any other relatives in Canada," he said. "They don't know how to protect themselves." 

About the Author

Lisa Xing is a journalist by trade and a historian by degree. She's also a creative writer, photographer and traveller. Email her at Lisa.Xing@cbc.ca.

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