Why Chinatown is so important to Toronto

Artist Linda Zhang is examining the past and possible futures of Chinatown with board games, speculative fiction and 3D scanning


What is the future of Chinatown in Toronto?

To understand that, it helps to look at the past and how we choose to preserve it. Embedded in the history and architecture of Chinatowns across North America is community resilience.

That’s why, for artist Linda Zhang, Chinatowns are areas worth preserving and also projecting into the future. A professor at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design in the Faculty of Community & Design, she’s spent the last few years doing 3D scanning of buildings in Toronto’s Chinatown East. She’s turned those scans into ChinaTOwn, an interactive multi-player board game that puts players into a dialogue about what’s worth preserving and what the city’s Chinatowns should look like in the future.

It was on display earlier this year, including a large-scale 3D printed installation of Chinatown East Gate, at Vancouver’s Griffin Art Project as part of an exhibit called Whose Chinatown?, a collection of projects by Chinese Canadian artists about Chinatowns throughout the continent.

The project was originally slated for Myseum of Toronto’s Intersections festival in 2020 before it was postponed by COVID. Instead, she led a series of writing workshops called Imagining Chinatown In 2050. For this year’s Myseum Intersections festival (which runs April 1 to June 30), she’s building those 11 speculative visions of Chinatown into VR worlds based on her 3D models.

On Sunday, May 23 at 4 pm, the ChinaTOwn virtual exhibition launches, delving into conceptual installations designed and built by students from the Ryerson School of Interior Design that tell the untold and forgotten stories of Toronto’s Chinatowns. Then on Thursday, May 27, there’s the Future Heritage(s) of Toronto’s Chinatowns Symposium – a discussion of the past, present and possible futures of Chinatowns.

Here, Zhang talks to us about why Chinatown is such an important area of resilience and resistance, both the two in Toronto and the many across the country. It’s become the site of rising anti-Asian racism during COVID and dealt with ever-present spectres of gentrification and displacement.

More people are paying attention to anti-Asian racism since the recent murders in Atlanta, but as Zhang tell us, delving into Chinatown – its history of immigration and displacement and also its literal architecture – shows that none of this is actually new. It’s been going on for a century.

What drew you towards Chinatown as a subject?

In many ways, the history of Toronto Chinatown architecture is a socioeconomic and cultural heritage of Chinese and Asian people in Canada. We often take for granted how Chinatown looks or how our culture is being represented. I’m a licensed architect, and when you look at the architecture more closely and the long legacy of exclusion from indigent society, it’s also a larger story of how the community has continuously, strategically organized not only to persist, but to be able to carve out a space for lives to be lived. Spaces of love and joy.

You spent a lot of time collecting these 3D scans of Chinatown East without knowing exactly what you were going to do with them. Why did you choose to turn them into this interactive board game?

It’s really a way to encourage people to have a dialogue together, as well as for people to talk about the history of these sites.

The way that the game is set up, it’s made from 3D scans of every building in Chinatown East, which is about 99 buildings, but each game board only has 10-12 pieces. It’s a multiplayer game, at least two players per game, which means that in order to decide which of the pieces that you will incorporate, you have to negotiate what you choose to preserve.

In the field of architecture, when it comes to deeming what is worth preserving and what gets to be kept and what gets expropriated instead, these are usually decisions that are being made at an institutional level by the city, by international organizations like UNESCO or by local heritage and preservation boards. They’re generally not decisions that are being made by community members. So the often intangible heritages or community ways of life are things that almost never get chosen to be preserved.

Why is Chinatown an area that is in particular need of preservation? What’s the game meant to reveal about that process?

One of the standard ways we preserve things currently in architecture is 3D scanning. So if a site is deemed worthy of the effort to record it, it gets 3D scanned. But this is something that largely is not accessible yet to regular people, mostly just due to resources and cost. So part of the game is literally putting 3D prints of these buildings from 3D scans into the hands of the players, very literally putting it in the hands of people.

When they finish playing the game, there’s a docent who teaches the players how to use a 3D scanner and how to 3D scan the game that they’ve finished playing, which is, in a sense, their vision for the future of Chinatown. 

Afterwards, I’m taking all of the 3D scan futures and I’m casting them in porcelain, which makes them precious. The game board itself is made a larger scale installation of the East Chinatown gate made from a 3D scan. So when you’re finished the game, you add the pieces to the gate. It’s a sort of monolithic, easily digestible, often tokenizing representation of what Chinatown is, which is also what we think of when we think about Chinatown.

Xam Yu Seafood Restaurant, Toronto, 2016, a photo graph by Morris Lum.
Courtesy of the artist

Xam Yu Seafood Restaurant, Toronto, 2016, a photograph by Morris Lum, is on display at Griffin Art Projects in Vancouver.

What do you mean by “tokenizing”? Do you think the aesthetics of Chinatown create a stereotypical view of Chinese culture in Toronto?

Well my piece in particular, though it is based on Chinatown East [in Toronto], it really is a story about every Chinatown.

The history of Chinatown architecture is often traced back to San Francisco, and if you delve deeper into that story, it actually reveals a lot about Chinatowns today across North America. In 1906, there was an earthquake that basically levelled San Francisco Chinatown. Instead of offering support to rebuild, the city saw it as an opportunity to redevelop what they saw as a blighted, dangerous, corruption-filled neighbourhood – not unlike how Chinatown is being portrayed during COVID in Toronto.

The city wanted to replace [Chinatown] with Daniel Burnham’s 1905 plan of San Francisco, which is also known as the City Beautiful movement. It was all white buildings with uniform height, style and colour. In that time, of course, neither Chinatowns nor Chinese Americans really fit into this uniform model. And so the San Francisco Chinese community had to mobilize to prevent its eviction.

They hired a team of white architects to construct a new narrative for Chinatown, basically a Chinatown white Americans would also love. None of the architects had ever actually been to China and there were very few photographs of Chinese architecture in 1906, let alone modern Chinese architecture. So they drew inspiration from a pavilion at the World Expo.

Right before the Expo, the United States actually extended the Chinese Exclusion Act (on a similar timeline to Canada), preventing Chinese immigration to the U.S. So a group of Chinese Americans put up the money for this pavilion to correct the prejudice that (and this is basically a direct quote) that they were morally corrupt, that they took opium, that they were prostitutes and spread infectious diseases. The architecture of the pavilion was strategically made with stereotypical food and easily digestible architecture for mass consumption. It was orientialization, but it was also an act of community resilience.

How did this influence Toronto’s Chinatown?

The aesthetics of San Francisco’s Chinatown went to influence Chinatowns from then on. And the story is uncannily similar for almost every single Chinatown across North America. There’s this constant displacement of Chinatown to make something more “beautiful.” That whole legacy is still continuing today, and it’s often unknowingly adopted into well-intended preservation guidelines and city bylaws.

In Toronto, two years before San Francisco’s earthquake, we had our own great fire. It levelled what was the first Chinese settlement in Toronto, which was on York Street, south of Wellington. That community wasn’t big enough yet to mobilize, and where that community was is now Union Station. They moved to what we now know as Old Chinatown, which then also gets expropriated in 1947 to make way for New City Hall. And now we have Chinatown East and Chinatown West, but they’re also facing gentrification.

This project was originally supposed to be a part of Myseum of Toronto’s Intersections festival last year. Since then, COVID has brought a lot of eyes towards anti-Asian sentiment in Toronto, and the recent murders in Atlanta just showed how dire that racism is across the continent. How have those events influenced what you’re doing with these projects?

Well, if you talk to anyone from the community, we’ve been saying the same thing the whole time. It’s like nobody will talk about it until something really horrible happens. Even before COVID, we were talking about racism and displacement and how that impacts the community. Those are the same things that we saw in San Francisco a century ago, the same things that happened in Toronto during COVID, and that was predictable because the same thing happened during SARS [in 2003].

Something I learned during this project and all the hundreds of conversations that come from playing the game and writing the stories, is that Chinatown was born out of a resistance. It’s resisting city planning goals or rapidly advancing technology or gentrification or sentiments of “cleaning up Chinatown.” And it continues to be a resistance.

It’s this amazing example of an ethno-cultural community that actually got to be allowed to occupy space in a city. There are very, very few examples of that that are so pervasive across North America.

I think today a lot of people are asking “Is Chinatown still necessary?” because immigration patterns have changed and a lot of newly arrived folks are moving to the suburbs first. But for me, Chinatown is a symbolic representation of having a place in the city, and I think it serves a very important purpose. It’s a space for a community to live and to thrive. It’s a space of empowerment and resilience.

As long as it serves that purpose, it will continue to exist and evolve in dialogue with the heterogenous communities that live there.

@trapunski

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