Listen to A Place to Belong, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada.
Toronto’s Chinatown – one of the largest in North America – is filled with hustle and bustle. Today, the community is larger, more diverse, and more embedded in Canadian society than ever. But, in the late 1960s, the City of Toronto nearly wiped its Chinatown from the map.
In this episode, Arlene Chan helps us explore the history of the Chinese people in Canada, and one Chinese Canadian woman’s determination to save Toronto’s Chinatown.
Narrator: If you’ve ever visited Toronto, you’ve probably at least walked through Chinatown, a near cross-shaped neighbourhood in the heart of the city. It’s just south of the University of Toronto and west of the financial district.
Today, Toronto is home to one of Canada’s largest concentrations of people of Chinese descent (nearly 700,000 people). And the city’s Chinatown is a vibrant community. To stroll the area today, past the hustle and bustle of greengrocers and restaurants, you wouldn’t know that, in the late 1960s, the City of Toronto nearly wiped its Chinatown from the map...
Arlene Chan: The city politicians really wanted to get rid of Chinatown because it was very rundown.
N: That’s Arlene Chan.
AC: They said, well, Chinatown is in a really rundown part of the city. Do we really need a Chinatown? Even the idea of Chinatown had a negative connotation to it. They regarded it as like a ghetto. And they did not like the idea of this neighbourhood there that was taking up very valuable real estate.
N: You’re listening to A Place to Belong: a History of Multiculturalism in Canada.
N: Before the second half of the 20th Century, Toronto’s original Chinatown was a bit southeast of where it is today, in an area known at the time as St. John’s Ward.
AC: The Ward was known as one of Toronto's first settlement areas for newcomers coming into the city. And by the time the Chinese community had moved in, they were the last immigrant group to move into the ward.
N: Arlene is a former librarian who worked for the Toronto Public Library for 30 years.
AC: And since I've retired, I think I've been busier than ever. And I've written quite a few books now and they're all on the history and tradition and culture of the Chinese in Canada and in Toronto.
N: All that to say: she knows her history.
In the 1950s, the City of Toronto was eager to build new, more expensive developments. But Chinatown -- which was located on prime real estate -- was in the way.
AC: Land was expropriated to build a new city hall and a public square.
Narrator: It’s what we know today as Nathan Phillips Square. Arlene explains expropriation plainly:
AC: The government can take over property without permission from a property owner if it's going to be used for public use.
N: And Chinatown was hit hard.
AC: That expropriation of land was two-thirds of our original Chinatown, our old Chinatown.
N: To residents like Arlene, St. John’s Ward was simply “old Chinatown.” But anti-immigrant sentiment combined with the large immigrant population of the area meant that Old Chinatown was considered a “slum” by city officials and other people who didn’t live there. More on that later.
For now, the important thing to keep in mind is that the City of Toronto, like many Canadian cities, wanted to clear out the old to make way for the new. Sometimes, that meant demolishing non-white communities like Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver, or Chinatowns in major cities. This was often done with no community consultation or adequate compensation.
AC: Chinatown has been always threatened from day one. They started in bits and pieces and York Street. Then they got pushed out because of development. They went along Queen Street, they were pushed out for a new development. They went up Elizabeth Street and then, you know, the expropriation happened. So it's been a constant challenge for the Chinese community to have to move.
N: To tell the story of how we almost lost Toronto’s Chinatown, we need to tell the story of a woman named Jean Lumb — Arlene’s mom.
N: Jean Lumb was born…
AC:...Toy Jin Wong...
N:...In 1919 in Nanaimo, British Columbia, the sixth of twelve children.
Jean and her family were Chinese, living in a country that wanted to keep Chinese immigrants out. If, against the odds, Chinese migrants managed to make it to Canadian shores, government policy made sure they remained separated from most of Canadian society. Jean was sent to a segregated school. She would walk past the school where white children went...
Jean Lumb: But just for that once little while, I felt that wouldn’t it be nice if I was a blond and I could go to these schools and be inside the circle instead of outside the circle?
N: Jean died in 2002, but we’re lucky enough to have quite a bit of tape of her speaking. You’ll hear snippets from various documentaries of Jean throughout this episode. That clip was of Jean speaking in a 2003 documentary called Spirit of the Dragon by Gil Gauvreau.
AC: This was something that she kept with her all through her life, as this whole idea of: Why are we outside the circle? I want to be inside the circle. So I think this was something that really framed a lot of the work that she did, that she wanted to have the Chinese community, including herself, her family, to be included in larger Canadian life.
N: First, some history: There were many reasons why people wanted to leave China for Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries...
AC: From 1850 to 1910, as far as push factors, there were two droughts, 14 floods, seven typhoons, four earthquakes, four plagues, five famines. I mean, just to have one of those natural disasters would be catastrophic but all those things were happening.
N: Most Chinese migrants at the time came from the southeastern province of Guangdong.
AC: Two thirds of the population there were starving. And then add in on top of that, a layer of a corrupt government, high taxes, a lot of banditry happening. So it was a very, very unsettling time in China.
N: Word of a faraway land called Gold Mountain -- what we know as North America -- reached the villages of southern China.
AC: And so that's when we started having a really mass migration of Chinese out of China and crossing over the ocean and arriving in British Columbia, which was at the time a colony.
N: They left to find work with the intention of eventually returning home. The first large wave began in 1858, during the Fraser River gold rush--hence the name “Gold Mountain.” By the 1880s...
AC:...over 15,000 Chinese labourers came to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway....
N: Jean’s grandfather was one of those labourers and Jean’s own father…
AC:…Fun Gee Wong…
N:...arrived in 1899 to work as a farm labourer and later as a coal miner. But the Canada that Fun Gee Wong came to — the one that Jean and her siblings grew up in — was far from a welcoming place.
AC: This was the worst time in the history of the Chinese and Canada, because in British Columbia alone, there were over 100 anti-Chinese laws and policies in place.
N: A year after entering Confederation in 1871, the British Columbia Legislative Assembly passed an act to disenfranchise Chinese people. That meant that they, along with Indigenous peoples and other non-white communities, were deprived of their rights to vote.
After the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, the Canadian government had no more use for the thousands of Chinese labourers who endured dangerous working conditions to make the railway possible. More than 600 died during its construction.
AC: So at the time that my mum was growing up, the discrimination was so strong. It was the time of the head tax that was in place from 1885 until 1923.
N: To discourage more Chinese people from entering the country, the government came up with a plan to implement an entry fee for Chinese immigrants, known as the Chinese Head Tax.
AC: My grandfather, my mother's father, when he came in 1899, had to pay that fifty dollar head tax. Then by the time he was able to bring my grandmother over, a few years later, the head tax was doubled to one hundred dollars. And my father came in 1921 from China. And when he came he paid the five hundred dollar head tax...
N: To give a sense of scale: In the late 1800s, the average Chinese labourer earned about $300 a year and saved only about $43 after living expenses.
But the Head Tax didn’t work; no matter the price, many Chinese immigrants continued to pay. Chinese immigration to Canada continued. So the Canadian government took it to the next level by introducing the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. Also known as the Exclusion Act, it effectively closed the door on Chinese immigrants for 24 years. There were a handful of exceptions, like Chinese diplomats, students, and merchants.
The Exclusion Act came into force on Dominion Day, July 1, 1923. From then on, July 1 was known within Chinese communities as “Humiliation Day.” Between 1923 and 1947, fewer than 50 Chinese immigrants were allowed into Canada. One estimate is as low as 15. Many families were separated for decades.
AC: So these men would go back and then and in the time they were in China, they would father children. So by time they started arriving in the 50s after the repeal of the exclusionary law, they might be meeting their father for the very first time and they would be meeting someone they did not know. And these might be children, they might already be teenagers by the time they met their fathers for the first time.
N: If the Exclusion Act didn’t work, the federal and provincial governments had backup plans. Those included restrictive laws to prevent Black and Chinese Canadians from owning property well into the 1930s. In some cities, like Vancouver, the government forced Chinese people to confine themselves to the outskirts of town. These policies were accompanied by racist ideas toward Chinese communities. Though Vancouver’s Chinatown was a thriving community throughout the 30s, it was historically perceived as an evil place that no so-called decent person should visit. In Toronto, the sentiment was similar.
AC: The discrimination was entrenched in not only our policies, our government policies, but also in the media. So it would be not unusual to see a front page headlined with, you know, who was going to be the premier of British Columbia pulling on the ponytail or the queue of a Chinese laundryman. So this was something that was the norm.
N: Arlene is referring to a newspaper illustration from 1879. Part of the caption reads: “The Heathen Chinee in British Columbia.” It shows BC politician Amor de Cosmos forcing a Chinese man with braided hair to leave British Columbia because he refuses to assimilate.
AC: The vision for Canada was to have a white Canada. I mean, I'm using the phrase "white Canada," it's not my phrase, but that was how things were described before World War Two.
N: So how does a girl from a small city in B.C. go on to save Toronto’s Chinatown?
Find out after the break.
N: A Place to Belong is part of a larger education campaign created by Historica Canada. This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada. Along with the podcast series, Historica Canada also offers a video series and an education guide about the history of multiculturalism in Canada. Visit historicacanada.ca for more.
N: By the time the Depression hit, the Wong family was living in Vancouver. Jean’s father ran a hotel in the city’s Chinatown. Though the hotel was filled with guests, including family, no one could afford to pay for their rooms.
Jean, by then a studious child of 12, was forced to drop out of school to work and help out the family so her brothers could continue their studies. When she was 16, Jean’s parents sent her to Toronto to work for her older sister and brother-in-law at their fruit stand. Within two years, Jean proved herself to be quite the young entrepreneur.
AC: She borrowed two hundred dollars and opened up her own fruit store at Bathurst and St. Clair area. And within a very short time, my mother earned enough money to start bringing her family over from Vancouver.
N: When Jean and her family moved to Toronto in the 1930s, the local Chinese community was much smaller compared to Vancouver’s.
JL: I remember coming to Toronto and looking at Chinatown, just one street, you know, and the biggest discovery was there was only 14 families here.
AC: And most of these were men because of, again, because of the head tax and the exclusionary law that there was predominant, there was a huge gender imbalance.
N: In fact, when Jean arrived the ratio was about 12 Chinese men to every Chinese woman in Toronto. But with the help of Arlene’s grandmother…
AC:...Hone Hung Mah
N:… and a matchmaker, Jean Wong met Doyle Lumb.
AC: When my mother first met him, she went, she went, wow. He dressed like one of those Hollywood movie stars. You know, he had spats on…
N:...fancy linen or canvas shoe accessories that went over the top of a shoe…
AC:...a spiffy hat and his suit, and he was very, very handsome
N: Doyle’s quiet demeanour didn’t worry Jean’s mother, who joked that Jean talked enough for the both of them.
AC: But I always teased my dad, I said dad, do you realize… you got mum as one of, you know, you lucked out and you got mum.
N: Arlene’s father responded:
AC: Well, there wasn't much choice back then so [laughs].
N: Jean set her sights on the Knox Presbyterian Church for her wedding day. She wanted to get married on a Sunday -- the only day her grocery store was closed — but Sundays were the church’s busiest day. But that wasn’t a problem for Jean — she was one heck of a negotiator. On a Sunday in 1939 Jean Bessie Wong, in a white wedding dress she designed herself, married Doyle Lumb.
AC: But I have to tell you that the, the sad side of her marriage day was that the day she got married to my father, she lost her citizenship because the law at the time, Canadian law at the time was: a woman when she married, took on the status of her husband. And because my father was born in China, his status was ‘alien.’
N: For Jean, it was another reminder that she was on the outside of the circle, looking in.
JL:...wouldn't it be nice just for that once little while, I felt that wouldn’t it be nice if I was a blonde and I could go to these schools and be inside the circle instead of outside the circle yes?
Narrator: Jean and Doyle had six children together. For years, the family lived in a house at the corner of Beverley and Dundas near what was St. John’s Ward. It still stands today.
AC: And The Ward was an ideal spot for the groups that were arriving because it was close to the train station. It was a place that, you know, people could afford to live there.
N: Over decades, countless communities called the Ward home: Black freedom seekers fleeing enslavement; Irish refugees escaping the potato famine; Jewish people fleeing Eastern Europe; Italian seasonal labourers — the list goes on.
By the 1920s, the Chinese community was establishing itself in the Ward. They opened up their own businesses, but were mostly limited to restaurants, cafes, and laundries.
AC:...Not because they wanted to, but that was basically what was left over for them to put their money into….
N: At the time, these jobs would have been considered women’s work. But because of the overwhelming male population of Toronto’s Chinatown and racist policies limiting where those men could work, they were forced into the jobs, like the laundry, because…
AC: …nobody else really wanted to go into that line of work because you work long hours and it was very, very hard work
N: There were protests in the late 19th century against what the president of the Canadian Labour Congress called the “Chinese immigration curse”. In 1914, the Ontario Act to Amend the Factory, Shop and Office Building Act forbade Chinese businesses from hiring white female employees in factories, restaurants or laundries.
Eventually, Jean and Doyle managed to sell their fruit store in the Junction and set up shop in Old Chinatown. They opened a restaurant, the Kwong Chow Chop Suey House, in 1959.
AC: The Kwong Chow was 126 Elizabeth Street, and when you got to the entrance, you would go up just a few steps, open the front door, and then you had to climb up a lot of stairs to get up to the second floor. The dining room was divided into two sections. And probably the seating capacity, I'm just guessing now, must have been around two hundred people.
N: The Cantonese restaurant was a well-known spot in the city, with people often waiting up to an hour and a half for a chance to eat there. Along with Chinese brush paintings, photos of well-known visitors, like actor Lauren Bacall, lined the walls. Politicians were also known to frequent the restaurant, like Toronto Mayor David Crombie and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
AC: But it's funny because I always said to my father, because all these famous people were going to the Kwong Chow restaurant, and at the time I was a huge fan of Robert Redford, the actor. And I said, Dad, if Robert Redford ever goes to the Kwong Chow, I don't care if it's 2:00 in the morning. You have to call me and I'll be there in a flash. And he says, OK, OK. And then he said, Well, who's Robert Redford? [laughs] so, anyhow. [laughs]
N: Customers came to the Kwong Chow because of the food, but they stayed for Jean. Canadian author Pierre Berton once described her as “so bubbly, alive and gracious – she was all of those things.” She began to give Chinese cooking demonstrations at department stores and museums.
AC: So, Chinese food, I think, was so, so much a part of really making Chinese culture accepted. And people started learning about Chinese culture.
N: Then came the TV and radio appearances.
AC: For many people, they'd never experienced having, seeing a Chinese person even speak before. And then when she would start speaking in this perfect English, it would be just a game changer for a lot of people. She was on a talk show and they were talking about, you know, what do Chinese people eat for breakfast in China? And she said… Well, I don't know what people in China are eating, but what I eat for breakfast is: I have bacon and eggs. So again, it's just showing how we're all alike, right? Not how we are so different.
N: Jean’s community work reached far beyond the realm of Chinese food and culture. Remember, when Jean arrived in Toronto, the ratio of Chinese men to women was 12 to 1. Even though the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, immigration restrictions remained for another 20 years. Chinatowns across the country were filled with men who could not bring their wives and children to Canada.
JL: You know, the families are the most important thing. And they used to say that if you don't have a strong family, you haven't got a strong country, which is true.
N: In 1960, Jean was the only woman in a delegation of 40 men lobbying then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to lift restrictions on family reunification. The delegation invited Jean because they considered family reunification a woman’s issue, but her presence was purely meant to be symbolic.
AC: She was reluctantly accepted to join the group and she was told to sit in the back and be quiet as a mouse.
N: Jean sat right next to the Prime Minister, and the official spokesperson of the delegation, Mr. Wong, was on his left.
JL: I didn't know until later that Mr. Diefenbaker had one good ear, and one bad one. And so every time Mr. Wong would read something from the brief and he would say to me, "What did he say?" You know, so I had to go through the brief line by line, and I knew it by heart. So, I spoke throughout the whole day and nobody was nobody else was asking any questions. So I was the main speaker for the whole condition. So this is how we got about to change the immigration law.
N: From then on, she was known as the unofficial spokesperson of the Chinese community. Immigration regulations were later revised so that Chinese people who were legal residents of Canada could sponsor their relatives’ arrival. By 1967, all immigration restrictions on the basis of race and national origin were removed.
And Diefenbaker even came to eat at the Kwong Chow.
AC:...there's a famous picture of him learning how to use chopsticks at the Kwong Chow restaurant.”
Narrator: Jean’s knack for political leadership came naturally, according to Arlene.
AC: So there was just this innate sense of what was right, what was wrong and what she should be fighting for and how she should be fighting for it.
N: This sense of civic duty was instilled in Jean by her father. He and Jean only gained the right to vote in 1947, when new citizenship laws recognized them as Canadians. Jean, born in Canada, regained the Canadian citizenship that was taken when she married Doyle. Fun Gee Wong died three years later, in 1950, but he managed to vote in two elections before he passed.
JL: And he said to me, so that's very important, he said we've waited a long, long time for this and this vote is very important and it's very important for us later on in our years to make sure that we get interested in politics, because politics is very important for the things that you want changed and for the things that you need.
N: It seems that, in many ways, everything Jean went through was in preparation for what the 60s would bring. Now, back to the seemingly imminent disappearance of Toronto’s old Chinatown.
Remember, prejudice in Canada — particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — meant that Chinese in Canada across the country were forced to settle in enclaves or neighbourhoods that we call Chinatowns. As cities grew, these areas typically became prime real estate. In Toronto’s case that represented…
AC:...two-thirds of our original Chinatown, our old Chinatown.
N: When the city wanted more than that, the Chinese community fought back.
AC: So my mother rallied together a group of people from the Chinese community; formed the Save Chinatown group and to fight back and say we have to save what is left of Chinatown. Chinatown is so important to our community. It's a meeting place. It's where we can celebrate our culture. It's where we celebrate our festivals. We need to have our Chinatown not only for the Chinese people, but for the city of Toronto.
N: With the backing of the community and city politicians like Mayor David Crombie, laws were set in place to limit the height of new buildings to four storeys. This meant that the construction of high-rise buildings downtown -- including in Chinatown -- were put on hold until the city had a proper planning process in place.
AC: David Crombie wanted to put a moratorium to say we've got to stop, we've got to rethink this. We need to communicate with… with the community. We need to take into consideration that these are neighbourhoods, that there are historic buildings here. So because of that forty five foot limit, that's really what put a stop to further expropriation of land from Chinatown.
N: Jean became known as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, and even traveled to Calgary and Vancouver to help save other Chinatowns from destruction.
AC: We're a city of neighbourhoods, we're a city of various communities. And so if we had lost our Chinatown, I think we would have lost something that makes Toronto what a great city it is today.
N: Jean passed away in 2002. She was 83 years old.
AC: She lived from the darker days of our history and seeing the brighter outcomes of what the early Chinese had suffered and all the hardships that they went through. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
N: Over the course of her life, Jean amassed an impressive list of “firsts.” She was the first Chinese restaurateur and first woman to receive the Fran Deck Award for outstanding achievement in Toronto’s restaurant industry; the First Chinese woman on numerous boards of governors, and later the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Silver and Golden Jubilee Medals.
But perhaps her biggest recognition came in 1976.
AC: I think when my mother received the Order of Canada that she was, of course, very, very happy, very, very proud to receive this high honour. And whenever she went out to events after she received her medal, she always wore it because she wanted to share it with her community because she said, this is not just my medal. It's the community's medal.
N: And then, in 1994, her life really came full circle. Jean, a Canadian-born woman who at one point lost her own citizenship, became a citizenship judge, giving her the right to administer the oath of citizenship to hundreds of new Canadians.
Today, groups like Friends of Toronto Chinatown still fight to protect Toronto’s West Chinatown from being lost to urban developments. The Greater Toronto Area now boasts two Chinatowns, and as many as six neighbourhoods that are predominantly Chinese Canadian. The Chinese Canadian community is larger, more diverse, and more embedded in Canadian society than ever. The Chinatown that Jean and others fought to save is no different. Today, many businesses are Vietnamese-owned, and the Chinese community has expanded.
AC: They were coming from all over the world and so different languages, so, of course, Mandarin language, Hakka language, Shanghainese, very different. So the Chinese community now is very, very diverse in terms of the kinds of backgrounds, the languages spoken, the traditions and cultures that are practiced.
N: This is, in part, thanks to the efforts of determined Chinese Canadians like Jean.
AC: What my mother did and what it teaches us to keep Canada as great a country as it is, is that you have to speak up. You have to take a stand, which is what she did. And when I think of what she did in the context of the time period that she was growing up and being not only a woman, not only being Chinese, but also being a Chinese Canadian woman, she achieved a lot.
N: That’s why, Arlene says, it’s important to remember how far we’ve come.
AC: We've all, with the exception of our Indigenous peoples, we've all come from a different place. We've all come from another country. And we should not forget that fact and we should be really celebrating how much we share the same values. And we have shared the same histories that our earlier generations have gone through so much hardship so that we can have what we have today, and that is Canada as being a very multicultural country and Toronto being a, one of the most diverse cities in the world. We are very fortunate to be living where we are living now.
N: On the next episode of A Place to Belong, we take a stroll through Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s first – and only - Black community, and try to understand why, in the late 1960s, the city destroyed it.
Bertha Clark: Let me put it like this, it was a different atmosphere for, for me and for the family because there were no more Black people. Right? Because everybody had to go wherever they went. And that right there changed that atmosphere.
BC: You can't destroy something and then think that you're going to come back to it and everything's going to be OK. I mean, once it's gone, it's gone.
N: Subscribe to A Place to Belong on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Narrator: This episode of A Place to Belong was co-written by Melissa Fundira and Historica Canada. It was produced by Historica Canada. Production support and post-production by Edit Audio. Thank you to Arlene Chan and to our script consultant, Serene Tan, a lecturer at the University of Toronto.
Special thanks to the Lumb family and the Jean Lumb Foundation. Clips of Jean Lumb from the 2003 documentary Spirit of the Dragon by Gil Gauvreau provided by Third World Newsreel. Fact-checking by Nicole Schmidt. This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.
Thank you for listening.