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Toronto author talks growing up in a 70s subdivision, covert racism and the perennial downtown vs. suburbs debate
When Carrianne Leung moved from Hong Kong to Canada in the mid-1970s, she remembers watching a whole neighbourhood being built from scratch. During their first year in Canada, Leung and her family would make weekly trips from their rented apartment in Etobicoke to the construction site of their future home in Scarborough.
When their house was finished a year later, it was one of a new batch of cookie-cutter houses in a neatly organized subdivision, where chain-linked fences divided lawns and large picture windows allowed neighbours to spy on each other from the safety of their living rooms.
Leung captures this era of Scarborough in her new book, That Time I Loved You (HarperCollins Canada). It’s a beautiful collection of heartwarming, funny short stories that explore the inner lives of the people who make up the subdivision, like June and Josie, two Chinese middle-schoolers who come of age in Scarborough and through one another Darren, a comic-book-loving young Black boy who realizes too young the cruelties of racism and Mrs. Da Silva, a Portuguese immigrant trying to find her footing in a big new city.
Over the past year, Scarborough and the Toronto suburbs in general have been the muse and backdrop to some of the city’s most exciting arts and culture, whether through literature like David Chariandy’s Brother and Catherine Hernandez’s Scarborough, or films like Joyce Wong’s Wexford Plaza. Last year, Nuit Blanche announced the 2018 festival would expand to Scarborough due partially to community demand. The suburbs, often mischaracterized as devoid of art, are exciting cultural spaces some downtowners are just starting to notice.
“I love that Scarborough is having its day,” says Leung over the phone from her Dundas West condo.
We spoke about her coming of age in Scarborough, finding a lifeline in Chinatown as an adolescent, and the everlasting debate between downtown vs. the suburbs.
What were your first impressions of Scarborough?
My family and I watched the whole neighbourhood spring up. We were so excited to have a house. Coming from Hong Kong, where we were always apartment dwellers, to this bounty of land was really quite something. Scarborough was still predominantly white when we moved, but there were a handful of new immigrants like us. We gravitated toward each other.
As kids, were you drawn to each other because you were all immigrants?
Absolutely. We were clearly outsiders and growing up in the 70s with Trudeaumania and [the Canadian Multiculturalism Act], multiculturalism was really inflected in all our cultural life. This was when we had lots of “multiculturalism” days at school where you had to bring in your fried rice so everyone could try it. That kind of “Let’s get to know each other!” And yet there was always this covert and overt racism underlying everything. I wanted to write the book during the time before we had the language to talk about race, about queerness, about sexual violence and all these things we didn’t have access to talk about. I was interested in what that meant and what that felt like.
When were you were young, did you feel that kind of covert racism?
Oh yes. There’s a scene in [my first book] The Wondrous Woo that was real. I was with my mother at a food court and these white teenaged boys were screaming at us to get out of country and calling us chinks. Those kinds of things were pretty normal when I was growing up.
How did you deal with that when you were young?
Quite honestly, I think I learned a lot of self-hate. But then I began to hang out in Chinatown and I think that was really awesome for me to counterbalance some of that self-hate and that experience of always being in whiteness. I found this pipeline to more Chinese people downtown and it felt like “Whoa, there’s this whole world of folks that seems so secure with their Chineseness,” which was appealing. My parents would often say not to go downtown because they didn’t want me to be influenced by these “poorer folks,” and yet that was also my salvation, going out and seeing people who looked like me.
You explain in the book that even when the suburbs were just beginning to form, there was this always this divide between how people in the suburbs perceived people downtown and vice versa.
I live downtown now, but I’m loud and proud about being from Scarborough. I really have a problem with how maligned the suburbs are, especially from Torontonians who never go there. There’s a lot of complexity about the suburbs that most downtowners don’t get, and that really bothers me. Right now, the suburbs are where folks of colour and new immigrants live. It’s the reverse of what the United States has with their white flight to the suburbs. In Canada, the white flight is back downtown. This was very tangible when I was growing up. [I remember] the first Chinese mall being built in Scarborough, and the resistance from the white neighbours was astounding. They mounted an overtly racist campaign against the construction of this mall. I definitely saw the white flight back downtown during that time.
Do you often find yourself defending Scarborough or the suburbs to downtowners?
I totally do! The suburbs are much more complex than people assume – it’s not that everybody lives in monster homes and it’s all sprawling. It’s interesting when people talk about the suburbs in these broad strokes. A lot of poor folks have been pushed out to the suburbs because it’s impossible to live in [downtown] Toronto any more.
[At the same time], there’s also the trend of tourism to the suburbs because really great food exists there. There’s this level of “Oh, we’re such connoisseurs of culture, so we’re going to drive up to Markham and eat these hand-pulled noodles” or “We’re going to the huge Middle Eastern supermarket.”
Right now, it also feels like there are a lot of people making art celebrating the rich cultural spaces of Scarborough.
I was joking with David [Chariandy] and Catherine [Hernandez] that we should get matching satin jackets to wear at all the lit festivals to represent Scarborough. It makes me so happy that this place is being documented and narrated. Because it’s such a rich place that’s always in flux, the Scarborough I write about doesn’t exist any more and I think the stories that are going to come out of Scarborough from younger generations of writers and artists are going to be completely different and exciting.
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