Toronto’s changing Chinatown: who is it for?

It's not as polished as Yorkville, as trendy as West Queen West or as flashy as Yonge and Dundas – but as families unite in Chinatown to celebrate Lunar New Year's Eve and mark the arrival of the Year of the Rooster January 28, I'm reminded not only of the sounds and smells of home, but of who I am.


When Craig Wong lived in Paris in his early 20s, he felt deeply homesick. He was there to cook for renowned chef Alain Ducasse after attending culinary school at Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon. On his days off, he’d wander the 13th arrondissement of the capital, where Chinatown is located. 

The Scarborough-raised chef, after spending most of his waking hours cooking high-end French food, missed the flavours of home, the ones that reminded him of Toronto’s Chinatown: the cacophony of Chinese dialects weaving in and out of erhu music, the sight of roasted pork glistening in restaurant windows and the scent of dried mushrooms and tea leaves floating from herbal shops. Paris didn’t cut it.

“It was the shittiest Chinatown I’d ever seen,” he recalls, seated at a table at the recently opened Jackpot Chicken Rice, his trendy new casual restaurant on Spadina. “The way they treated Chinese food was really bad.”

As for many Canadians of Chinese heritage, many of Wong’s formative memories are deeply rooted in the stretch of Spadina around Dundas. He can point to the grocery stores and restaurants he used to frequent with family, and the house his dad lived in for a short time on Baldwin. 

As a teen, Wong would skip school with Ivy Lam, his high school sweetheart and now wife, and end up at the “banh mi shop with the green sign” located, coincidentally, in exactly the same space that Jackpot now occupies. 

In the 1980s, the Chinatown at Spadina and Dundas looked remarkably similar to today’s. Its residents, however, were different – mostly Taishanese people from China’s southern Guangdong province, to which Wong traces his family lineage. Today the dominant Chinese population is Fujianese. Toronto’s other Chinatown at Broadview and Gerrard had, and has, a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese. Both districts grew out of the Chinatown that ran along Elizabeth Street in the Ward, a so-called slum populated by immigrants including European Jews, Italians, African-Americans and Chinese settlers following the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. 

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Tanja-Tiziana

They set up small businesses, mostly hand laundries. As Chinese migration picked up in the 1940s, clan associations started to form locally and across Canada. 

According to David Chuenyan Lai, an expert on Chinese communities in North America, these clans acted as settlement agencies, providing housing, food, clothing and useful information, such as how to ride the streetcar, for new arrivals. Chinatown became an essential hub for immigrants, as well as a reminder of home.

Construction of Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square in the 1960s pushed residents out. Some ventured east of the Don River to Gerrard, but many more moved to Spadina. As mass migration from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China began in the 1980s, other areas of the GTA like Markham and Richmond Hill built up large Chinese populations. In Agincourt, where Wong grew up, most of the students at his high school came from Chinese backgrounds.

Wong was born in Canada, but his parents came from Jamaica. He was raised on his grandmother’s cooking – a fusion of Jamaican and Chinese that would later be reflected at his restaurant Patois. On weekends, when Wong’s father took him downtown for baseball or hockey games, the whole family would gather for dinner afterwards in Chinatown.

“We always ordered the same thing: double lobsters cooked with scallions and ginger,” he says with a grin. Wong incorporated his own version of the dish on the menu at Patois. “I wanted to put my spin on what I remembered, to share my memories and reinterpret them.”

A fire in June 2016 forced Patois to close. Wong opened Jackpot Chicken Rice in the fall while awaiting reconstruction. He says friends and family were initially concerned about his decision to set up shop in Chinatown, believing the community was too insular.

“I don’t see that. I see Chinatown as a hub,” Wong says. “It’s a very open market. We see people from all around the neighbourhood and outside of it, too.”

To be sure, across the street from Jackpot is Peoples Eatery, a hip cocktail bar with a menu that spans Jewish, European and pan-Asian cuisines. Down the street, Eric Chong and Alvin Leung own R&D, another modern restaurant reflecting the diversity of the neighbourhood.

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Michelle da Silva

Tony Yu, chair of the Chinatown BIA, is excited to see a younger generation of business owners inject new life into the Spadina strip. He says change from the outside has been integral to Chinatown’s growth since its beginnings. New immigrants set up small shops and restaurants when they arrive, but their adult children aren’t always eager to take over the family business. 

“They move out, and that makes room for another wave,” Yu says. 

In recent years, that’s meant local businesses that aren’t necessarily Chinese or Chinese-owned – for example, the smattering of Vietnamese and Korean restaurants in the area. Next to the decades-old Dragon City Mall on the southwest corner of Spadina and Dundas, Markham-based Ideal Developments is putting the finishing touches on a mid-rise condo. At street level, the building will house commercial tenants. 

While rising real estate costs have forced many long-time residents out, Yu has managed to stay in Chinatown for more than 30 years. The traditional Chinese doctor, who specializes in herbal medicine and acupuncture, moved from Hong Kong to Toronto with his family in 1981. When he arrived, he experienced culture shock not only in his new country, but in Chinatown as well. 

“At the time, there were five or six grocery stores, but they all spoke Taishanese, so I had a hard time communicating,” he recalls from the BIA’s headquarters, perched above a cellphone accessories store on Spadina. The food was also different from the Cantonese fare he was used to.

Yu joined the Chinese Freemasons of Canada and in 2014 was elected chair of the Chinatown BIA. Along with assisting local businesses and organizing events like the Toronto Chinatown Festival each summer, the BIA is responsible for developing public projects in conjunction with the city.

This month, construction begins on Huron Square on the north side of Dundas West and Huron. The public space will feature traditional Chinese architecture as well as lanterns displaying animals from the Chinese zodiac. There will be a statue of a qilin, a mythical Asian creature that’s part dragon, lion, fish and deer, meant to bring good luck. The $1.5 million project should be completed in time for Canada Day. Yu sees it as a valuable investment that’s both an attraction for tourists and a place for Chinese elders to practise tai chi. 

“We’re trying to build up Chinatown with a symbol for the Chinese community,” he says. 

A traditional Chinatown welcome gate – similar to gates in Vancouver, Victoria and San Francisco – with a grand arch, ornamental columns and elaborately painted tiles is also in the works for Spadina at Sullivan. Yu is hopeful the $6 million it will cost can be raised so it can be built by 2018.

For the immediate future, the BIA is organizing a two-day celebration at Chinatown Centre to welcome the Year of the Rooster on January 28. In addition to the regular lineup of local politicians wishing revellers “Gong hey fat choy” and handing out lucky red envelopes stuffed with chocolate coins, there will be lion dancers, ceremonial drums, kung-fu demonstrations and musical performances.

Across Chinatown, families will reunite for Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner at restaurants and at home, as their ancestors have done for centuries in China. A whole steamed fish to symbolize prosperity will grace their tables, and noodles emblematic of a long life will be consumed by all.

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Tanja-Tiziana

As I walked along Spadina recently, ducking into produce shops and Chinese bakeries, stopping for a bowl of congee – my version of comfort food – and trying to piece together the bits of Cantonese and Mandarin my memory holds on to, I thought of all the ways a place can make these simple tasks meaningful. 

Growing up in Vancouver, I’d accompany my parents to Chinatown on weekends for groceries, coerced by the promise of a warm barbecue pork-filled bun. Back then, the chaos of Chinatown was unappealing, and it’s setting in one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods felt almost shameful. Despite my parents’ abilities to comfortably navigate the shops and restaurants, my biracial identity rendered me confused and feeling like an outsider.

Kevin Huang, executive director of Hua Foundation, a Vancouver nonprofit that helps Chinese Canadian youth connect with their heritage in meaningful ways, says many young Chinese have historically had a hard time exploring their roots until later in life. 

He didn’t begin exploring his hybrid Taiwanese-Canadian identity until his early 20s. Now, he sees folks from their late teens to mid-30s coming to Hua Foundation to participate in cooking classes, workshops and local environmental initiatives.

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Tanja-Tiziana

“So many of us who grew up here have some internal battles of who we are and what being Chinese Canadian means,” Huang says. “That’s shifting as we gain more visibility in shows like Fresh Off The Boat and Kim’s Convenience, but there’s still room for localized history, and that’s sort of the purpose of Chinatown.”

The sense of familiarity I experience when exploring Chinatowns in every city I’ve lived in and visited informs my identity. As with Wong and Yu and millions of others, the smells and sounds not only remind me of home, but of who I am.

The distinctiveness of Chinatown is that it’s historical as much as it is in flux, rooted in a tradition that gets rebuilt with each new generation. It’s not as clean as Yorkville or as trendy as West Queen West or as flashy as Yonge and Dundas, but there’s something about it you can’t get anywhere else in Toronto. It’s what Wong missed most while living in Paris.

“I used to be ashamed of my background, but now I own it, I embrace it and I feel good about it,” he says. “Chinatown reflects that.

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Photography by Tanja-Tiziana

A brief history of Chinese immigration in Canada

Chinese workers arrived on the West Coast starting in 1788, doing backbreaking, low-waged labour for the fur trade and later for the Fraser Valley gold rushes and Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s. 

Racist white workers resented them because they worked for less, but the Chinese were making more money than they could earn back home. 

Chinese people were segregated from the rest of society and not allowed to vote, and white Canadians viewed their communities as ghettos. 

The head tax, a fixed sum paid by each Chinese person entering Canada, was designed to discourage them from immigrating, and from 1923 to 1947 Chinese migration was banned completely, preventing family reunification and retarding the community’s economic progress.

During World War II, more than 600 Chinese-Canadians were permitted entry to serve as soldiers, and in 1947 the government changed its tune, reinstating immigration and granting the right to vote. 

By the 60s, Chinatowns had lost their ghetto stigma and were integrated into city planning and eventually preserved with heritage status. 


Chinese clan associations a cultural tradition

Chinese clans date back to the early 20th century in Canada, when Chinese immigrants first began arriving on our shores. They were based on common Chinese surnames, and most Chinese immigrants in Canada belonged to one of a few large clans. 

The associations that emerged from these clans sprang from the idea that Chinese who shared the same surname may have had a common ancestor and thus belonged to the same clan, in the broad sense of the word, even if they weren’t directly related.

These hubs provided social services (including health services and financial loans), as well as a place for newcomers to practise cultural traditions. The associations collected dues from their members, and many had counterparts in China.

Many clan associations are still operational today. However, most function more as cultural and social groups than service agencies: members march in Chinese New Year parades, organize political fundraisers and host mah-jong nights for seniors. 

Two of the largest clan associations in Canada are the Wong Association and Lee’s Benevolent Association.

Wong Association (Wong Kung Har Wun Sun Association)

Established in 1912 in Toronto’s original Chinatown in the Ward, the association was located in a building near Bay and Dundas, helping thousands of newcomers settle into the city. The organization ceased operations from the early 1920s to late 1940s when Chinese immigration was banned by the Canadian government, but re-emerged in the early 1950s.

The association’s offices moved to its current location near Spadina and Dundas in 1988. 

In 2011, the Wong Association became the only Chinese clan to receive an official coat of arms from the Canadian Heraldic Authority of the Governor General of Canada. The coat includes a fenghuang, a Chinese phoenix, a panda bear and polar bear, and is inscribed with the motto “In family we unite.” It can be seen on a plaque outside 301 Spadina.

Lee’s Benevolent Association of Canada

The Lee Association was founded in Vancouver in 1954, setting up in the four-storey Vanport Hotel at Main and George. The building was eventually sold to finance the purchase of its current location on Pender Street.

The clan has been heavily involved in the local real estate market since its formation, receiving donations from Lees across the country to help purchase a number of properties in Vancouver’s Chinatown. 

The group hosts regular community dinners, sponsors kung-fu clubs and organizes a ladies’ choir. Its annual spring festival takes place in March.

Compiled by Michelle da Silva


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Lineage of Canada’s biggest Chinatowns 

Vancouver

The second-largest Chinatown in North America after San Francisco’s began in the 1880s, when about 1,000 Chinese people settled on streets then known as Shanghai and Canton Alleys (near the intersection of Carrall and Pender). 

In 1903, the Sam Kee Company bought a nearby lot that shrank by 8 metres when the city widened Pender Street. They set up shop in the less than 2-metre-deep space anyway, and it’s now recognized as the world’s shallowest commercial space by the Guinness Book of World Records.

In 1907, a group called the Asian Exclusion League raided the neighbourhoods, attacking people and property. Thankfully, the League did not prevail: 43 per cent of Vancouver’s population is now of Asian heritage. 

Montreal

It’s not Canada’s biggest, but Montreal’s Chinatown could be the liveliest: it’s designated as a tourist area, so restaurants stay open late (and are packed to the gills during lobster season). 

From 1890 to 1920, many Jewish and Irish immigrants lived in Chinatown, looking for work. Hee Chong Lee started Wing Noodles Ltd. in 1897, making Chinese noodles and egg roll and won ton wrappers. By the 60s, the family-run business was also making the now-ubiquitous Wing’s fortune cookies. The company is housed in Chinatown’s oldest building, designed by François Dollier de Casson, who was also the architect behind the city’s Notre-Dame Basilica.

Victoria

Vancouver’s may be bigger, but Canada’s oldest Chinatown is in Victoria. It was the major port for travellers looking for work and had a much larger population than Vancouver’s in the early days. It was also the home of anti-racist activism. The city’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association protested the head taxes of the 1880s, and its Chinese Canadian Club fought back when the school board tried to segregate Chinese and white students. The Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association, established in 1903, was the first Chinese women’s political association anywhere.

Edmonton

Edmonton’s Chinatown was formed after smallpox broke out in Calgary’s Chinese community, causing some to head north.

There are technically two sections here: the Harbin Gate, the Gate of Happy Arrival, welcomes people to the older, southern side – much of which was demolished in 1981 for the Canada Place development. But businesses grew north of that area along 97 Street, carving out a Chinatown North that includes many Vietnamese businesses as well. The city of Edmonton is currently reviewing the district to “preserve Chinatown’s unique heritage while bringing new life to the community in its various forms.”

Calgary 

This Chinatown has moved three times. After the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1883, some Chinese workers headed to 8th Avenue (then called Stephen Avenue), setting up laundries and restaurants and working as housekeepers and coal miners. But the Great Fire of 1886 destroyed a section of that burgeoning Chinatown, and the community was forced to relocate. It pulled up stakes a third time, establishing along Centre Street in the northeast area of downtown to accommodate its growing population. Now, it’s home to a fierce and costly debate about new development: Manu Chugh Architect wants to build a 27-storey development at 3rd Avenue and 1st Street West, amending the 30-year-old Chinatown Area Redevelopment Plan.

Compiled by Kate Robertson

Don’t miss: 12 essential Chinatown restaurants in Toronto

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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