China down

Neighbourhood future unclear as merchants dream of the suburbs

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The little Chinatown that could. It’s a slogan I could see someone using for a promotional campaign — if one wanted to cook one up — as I scan the packed crowds lining Gerrard Street east of Broadview Avenue.

It’s late September and I’m at Dragon Fest 2000, billed as the first festival ever held in Toronto’s East Chinatown, and faces young and old but mostly yellow are hungrily perusing the Chinese delicacies spread out at makeshift stalls for all to consume.

With the Cantonese opera singers and the lion dancers competing for audience attention, the place has the look and feel of a busy street in Hong Kong — frenetic and full of promise.

But that’s not necessarily what this tiny Asian enclave is really made of. Councillor Jack Layton is here to present $10,000 for the construction of an arched Chinese gateway across Gerrard to attract tourists. But, alas, it might be a case of too little too late — merchants in these congested downtown stores may be here in body, but their hearts and souls are already north of Steeles in the glorious burbs.

With the meccas of Markham, Scarborough and Richmond Hill beckoning, many Chinese residents here are counting the days till they can marshal the resources to vacate this dusty, teeming neighbourhood.

In its 30-year history, East Chinatown has already seen three distinct groups come through: Hong Kongers fleeing the riot-torn colony in the late 60s, ethnic Chinese leaving Vietnam in the late 70s and early 80s, and, finally, mainland Chinese mostly from urban centres in central and northern China.

When the Vietnamese moved in, they took over many of the stores and restaurants that had been left empty when Hong Kongers cashed their hard-earned savings in on new houses in the suburbs. In turn, many of the Vietnamese also headed north.

Since the mid-90s, immigrants from mainland China have been streaming in, bringing with them the Mandarin tongue and expectations that are determinedly high.

Relocate faster

“They’re very educated and come from professional backgrounds,” says immigrant services director Maisie Lo of the Woodgreen Community Centre. “They are likely to move up to the suburbs faster than previous Chinese immigrants once they become established, usually in the space of half a year to two years,” she says.

At Eastview Neighbourhood Services Centre, an east-end social service provider where 40 per cent of clients speak Mandarin, I talk to Tina, a recent immigrant from Beijing. She and her husband have been in Canada a mere eight months and they’ve already rented a home in Markham.

Both were trained as engineers in China and worked for large multinational corporations. Though their professional qualifications were initially disregarded by Canadian employers, they were able to adjust to their new situation with the help of social networks.

Professionals from mainland China often have to settle for low-paid work in the service sector in their own communities, but they’re not destined to stay there.

Janet Salaff, a sociology professor at U of T who’s done studies on both Hong Kong and mainland Chinese immigrants in Toronto, explains: “They’re really glad they have a chance to live and settle in a Chinese environment, but they don’t necessarily want to stay there. They want to be able to have a job at Ontario Hydro, not in a restaurant or computer store.”

So if the new wave of mainland Chinese immigrants aren’t setting their sights on survival via grocery stores, what is the future of East Chinatown?

Gilbert Ching, who serves as vice-president of the East Toronto Chinese Chamber of Commerce, has been working in this area since 1997 and says the general feeling amongst local businesses is that “if they can go out to the suburbs and open up another store, they will get out. We cannot compete with Market Village (a popular Chinese mega-mall in Markham) or Mississauga. Once people move out there, they’re gone.”

Big problem

Last year, he says, a rash of store closings sent business morale plummeting, partly due to a four-week stretch when stores were starved for customers by the closure of the Gerrard-Broadview intersection for the replacement of streetcar tracks.

Since then, things have picked up, though the big problem is not how many stores are closing but how many new businesses are opening. “Nobody is finding a reason to come in. What’s so attractive about this place?”

Ching thinks the key to reversing the trend is to open up other avenues. He points to the gentifrication of the surrounding residential area. “The merchants used to complain that they have no business and everybody is moving to the suburbs. Yes, but the yuppies are moving in, and we’re not capturing that kind of business.”

The next day, I ask to speak to some of the old-school businessmen who first began settling here 30 years ago, and I’m directed to Sam Wong, who runs Wong’s Aquarium. He moved here from Hong Kong in 1967 and opened the second Chinese-owned store in the area.

Having invested so many years in this community, Wong has no intention of joining the suburb-mongers. “I don’t have that ambition to move. Because of my business, it would be very inconvenient to commute every day.”

But there’s a poignant edge to the words of another Chinatown veteran, K.N. Chan, owner of the venerable Pearl Court restaurant. He says that if any establishment is going to draw yuppies to this Chinatown, it’s his restaurant. He’s been here since 1975 and has a fairly sizable non-Chinese clientele (partly because of NOW’s rave reviews in the past, he adds).

But because of economic conditions affecting the area, business has tailed off, forcing Chan to close the other restaurant he had until recently been operating.

All professionals

I ask him whether he plans to pass the restaurant torch to his kids. He laughs. “My son would never think of doing this. As in Chinese communities all over North America, the younger generations have moved away because they won’t look for work within their Chinatown. They’re all professionals with degrees and fluent English, so why would they want to work in this business and stay here?”

Then I head over to Sam Hoa Foods on the southeast corner of Gerrard and Broadview. It’s the first store people lay eyes on when they get off the streetcar, and for that reason the first stop for shoppers.

A constant stream of shoppers make their way through the store, turning innocent bystanders like me into hazardous roadblocks, so I’m relieved when owner Steve Lai pulls me into a safe corner and lets me interview him on the spot.

Lai and his two brothers left Vietnam for Toronto in 1982, following the second wave of Chinese immigrants who settled in this area. That began a gradual expansion of Chinatown, resulting in a mushrooming of Vietnamese-owned stores after 1987. Lai estimates that 80 per cent of the stores are now owned by Vietnamese Chinese. Would he move to the burbs if he had the chance? Yes.

James and Jennifer Jin, owners of Cowork Newcomer Services, one of the few mainland-Chinese-run stores, haven’t had it easy. Both possess master’s degrees in engineering but were unable to find work in their fields when they moved here last July.

Eager hopefulness

When I meet them at the store where they live, I find it stacked row upon row with mattresses for sale. They invite me up to their living area, which is spartan and devoid of consumer toys, but I’m struck by their optimism.

It’s the kind of eager hopefulness I hear in Jack Layton’s voice, too, when I ask him how useful a Chinese gate will be in keeping East Chinatown alive. Layton points to Greektown on the Danforth. “(That area) only has 4 per cent of residents who call themselves Greek,” he says. “Yet the area attracts visitors precisely because it has a Greek flavour.”

Whether East Chinatown chooses to head in that direction will ultimately be decided by the merchants themselves. Ching says, “If (they) are smart enough to convert or to change a bit to suit the customer, they can have it.”

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