Toronto Chinatown

Toronto’s Chinatown, one of the largest in North America, is an ever-evolving neighbourhood defined by numerous cohorts of Chinese immigrants with a diversity of culture, traditions and languages. (See Chinese Canadians.) Also known as Chinatown West, it is one of three Chinatowns in Toronto, more of the large Chinese settlements are included from the inner suburbs, like Scarborough and North York, and outer suburbs, like Markham, Mississauga and Richmond Hill.

Toronto’s Chinatown, one of the largest in North America, is an ever-evolving neighbourhood defined by numerous cohorts of Chinese immigrants with a diversity of culture, traditions and languages. (See Chinese Canadians.) Also known as Chinatown West, it is one of three Chinatowns in Toronto, more of the large Chinese settlements are included from the inner suburbs, like Scarborough and North York, and outer suburbs, like Markham, Mississauga and Richmond Hill.


VJ-Day Parade in Chinatown, 1945

(Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives/Fonds 257, Series A, Item 229)

First Chinatown

Sam Ching, who operated a laundry at 9 Adelaide Street East, is the first recorded Chinese person in Toronto’s 1878 city directory. (See also Chinese Canadians.) Upon the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, discrimination and prejudice drove large numbers of Chinese immigrants eastward from British Columbia in search of work and a more welcoming place. Toronto was one such destination.

Although a succession of small Chinese communities appeared on George, York and Queen streets in the early 1900s, Chinatown took root in The Ward bordered by Yonge Street, University Avenue, College Street and Queen Street. Like other early Chinatowns across Canada, it was in the poorest part of the city, close to the railway station and segregated from the dominant community. (See also Racial Segregation of Asian Canadians.)

Chinatown existed as a town within a city where survival depended on its residents and businesses being self-sufficient. Family, district and political associations cemented its foundation. Membership in these organizations was based on shared surnames, birth locality or political affiliation. They provided essential  employment, housing, banking and protection services as well as being important social hubs. Another responsibility was looking after many of their deceased members whose remains, until 1937, were often repatriated to China.

Chinatown was a bachelor society; there were many more men than women. Most men were married, but their wives and families remained in China. The male-female ratio was 18:1, and there were only thirteen families. The gender imbalance was due to the Chinese head taxes and the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. (See also Immigration Policy in Canada.) Although Toronto had Canada’s third-largest Chinatown in 1941, the Chinese population remained low at 2,326. (See also Montreal’s Chinatown.)

88-99 Elizabeth Street, 1937

(Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives/ Series 372, subseries 33, item 175)

From Sam Ching’s single laundry in 1878, the number of Chinese laundries multiplied in Chinatown and throughout the city. By the turn of the century, there were 95 of them, a number representing three quarters of all laundries in Toronto. Pressure from the Laundry Association, composed of white business owners, resulted in a city license fee in 1902 to halt the proliferation of Chinese laundries.

Although there were grocers, barber shops and stores selling imported goods and teas, restaurants and cafés were the second most popular business. Sing Tom, the first Chinese restaurant, opened in 1901 at 37½ Queen Street West. By 1923, there were 202 Chinese restaurants in and outside of Chinatown. The growing number of Chinese enterprises prompted the enactment of a provincial law in 1914 that prohibited Chinese people from hiring “female white” employees in factories, laundries and restaurants. Many Canadian politicians maintained racist beliefs that Chinese people were amoral and that white women needed to be protected from Chinese employers.

Bachelor Society, 1923

(Photo by John Boyd/Library and Archives Canada/PA 086020)

Chinatown’s bachelor society found comfort with a few activities. Many men resorted to gambling after working long hours and having no family life. The family, district and political associations provided places to meet, socialize, and celebrate festivals. Cultural organizations, like the Chinese United Dramatic Society, provided training in and performances of Cantonese music and opera. As early as 1894, Christian churches reached out to Chinese newcomers to teach them English.

Unlike Vancouver’s Chinatown, violent incidents were generally rare, except for a riot that stormed through Chinatown in 1919. According to news reports, soldiers had allegedly been ill-treated at a Chinese café on Elizabeth Street. The next day, an angry mob of 400 men and boys sought revenge and vandalized Chinatown.

The War Years

During the Second World War, the declaration of war against Japan in 1941 united the community. Canada and China now shared a common enemy: Japan. The Chinese community rallied to raise money for the war effort. Proceeds from Cantonese opera performances, fundraising tag days, Victory bonds and other fundraising appeals contributed to the war chest. On August 15, V-J (Victory over Japan) Day, the war in the Pacific ended. Thousands of people flooded into Chinatown to watch a celebratory parade with floats and Chinese lion dances.

The end of the war marked a watershed for the Chinese community in Canada. The Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947, ending 24 years of exclusion. The Chinese across Canada gained full provincial and federal voting rights. They could now run for public office and enter professions like law and pharmacy. K. Dock Yip, Canada’s first Chinese Canadian lawyer, opened his law office in Chinatown. Tom Lock was the first Chinese Canadian pharmacist to open a drugstore in Chinatown.

Despite the repeal of the exclusionary law, there were still clauses that hindered the reunification of Chinese families. It was not until the introduction of the point system in 1967 that racist immigration policies against Chinese migrants were removed. Family reunification from China ended the bachelor society era. (See also Immigration to Canada)

Toronto’s Chinatowns

Chinatown began expanding with the influx of Chinese immigrants. (See also Chinese Canadians.) At the same time, however, the City of Toronto approved a project, without public consultation, to build a new City Hall and public square. By 1958, two thirds of Chinatown was expropriated; businesses, homes, and other buildings were bulldozed.

Land expropriated for the new City Hall and public square

(Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives/RG1 Reports, Box 9, Hall and Square Conditions of Competitions, 1959-1967)

After the new City Hall opened in 1965, the city planned to take over more land from what remained of Chinatown. This time, the Chinese community fought back. In 1967, the Save Chinatown Committee, made up of leaders from Chinese organizations and led by Jean Lumb, achieved success in preventing further expropriation. Subsequent development proposals in 1970 and 1975 were also halted.

Today, Chinatown — now known as Old Chinatown — has shrunk to a handful of Chinese restaurants, bakeries, and stores. The Lee Association and Lem Si Ho Tong are the only remaining family associations. A Heritage Toronto plaque on the west side of new City Hall pays tribute to Toronto’s first Chinatown. An Ontario Heritage Trust plaque at the Downtown Diversity Garden on Elizabeth Street commemorates Jean Lumb.

Chinatown West

After most of Chinatown was demolished, displaced Chinese businesses and residents moved west along Dundas Street toward Spadina Avenue. There, they rented or purchased properties that had been vacated by the Jewish community. The south part of Spadina Avenue, once the centre of a thriving garment industry, became increasingly staffed by Chinese female garment workers. By 1971, nearly half of the residents were Chinese. This neighbourhood became known as Chinatown West.

Chinatown West

(Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives/Series 1465, File 759, Item 2)

Four successive cohorts of immigrants filled Chinatown West. (See also Immigration to Canada.) The first group left Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s due to civil unrest, overcrowding due to large numbers of refugees from mainland China, riots and typhoons. The announcement of the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1984 and anxieties surrounding the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 encouraged many more to emigrate. Those with financial means looked to Canada as a safe place for their family and money. The Investment Canada Act of 1985 also spurred investors and entrepreneurs to apply as business-class immigrants who could bring substantial capital. Hong Kong was Toronto’s top source of immigrants from 1993 to 1997.

The second major cohort of newcomers to Toronto was comprised of refugees fleeing from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. (See Vietnamese Canadians; Cambodian Canadians; Laotian Canadians.) By the end of the 1980s, government and private sponsorship programs brought 200,000 Indochinese refugees into Canada. (See Canada’s Response to the “Boat People” Refugee Crisis.) Ethnic Chinese made up 40 per cent of the Vietnamese, 25 per cent of the Cambodians and 20 per cent of the Laotians. In the same period, the third cohort of immigrants began arriving from Taiwan due to civil unrest and fears of the country losing its independence to Mainland China. The fourth and largest cohort came from the People’s Republic of China after it opened the doors in 1985 for emigration. China was the largest source of immigrants to Toronto in 2016.

As a result of its immigration history, the makeup of Chinatown West has changed from being a homogeneous community to a diverse one. The Chinese diaspora includes people from all walks of life, in all professions and businesses. A new Chinese-Canadian middle class has settled in with global connections and an entrepreneurial spirit. Added to this mix are Canadian-born Chinese, Loh Wah Kiu (translated as old overseas Chinese in the Taishanese dialect), and international students of Chinese origin. Their faces are Chinese, but they speak differently. Taishanese was the predominant dialect in Old Chinatown and Chinatown West up until the 1960s. This was replaced by the Cantonese that was spoken by Hong Kong immigrants. Mandarin is becoming more prevalent due to the influx of newcomers and businesses from China, Taiwan and Singapore. Mandarin and Cantonese are the most spoken non-English languages in Toronto.

Over the years, Chinatown West has overcome many challenges. These have included threats of development and land expropriation from the University of Toronto, Ontario Hydro, Toronto Police Services and developers. In 2003, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) shuttered many businesses and sparked anti-Asian sentiment. Competition from commercial developments in the inner and outer suburbs of Toronto has drawn away investors and professionals. More recent challenges include COVID-19, development, rising property values, aging buildings and gentrification. These issues threaten affordability, inclusivity and community spaces for seniors, tenants, newcomers as well as small and family-run businesses. The Chinatown Business Improvement Area (CBIA) works on building a vibrant hub of social, cultural, and commercial activities, such as improving the streetscape and organizing community events. A series of murals commissioned by the CBIA can be found throughout Chinatown West and include the depictions of the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City in the Jean Lumb Lane.

Chinatown East

During the 1970s, a third and smaller Chinatown emerged in the east end of Toronto at Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street, where rent and property prices were more affordable than in Chinatown West. Chinese newcomers moved in, later joined by a sizeable Vietnamese population. The neighbourhood also came to be known as Little Saigon. The opening of a T&T Supermarket to the south in Toronto’s Port Lands drew shoppers away from Chinatown. More recently, non-Asian restaurants and stores have replaced Chinese ones. A changing demographic also shows a diminishing density of Chinese residents.  

Landmarks include the Zhong Hua Men Archway on Gerrard Street, a bronze statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen at Riverdale Park and a series of seven murals depicting world monuments from around the world, such as the Great Wall of China. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce (East Toronto) has worked on these and other neighbourhood beautification initiatives.

Chinatown East's Zhong Hua Men Archway

(Photo by Lou Manning)

Ethnoburbs

The trend of moving away from Old Chinatown, Chinatown West and Chinatown East to the inner and outer suburbs began in the 1980s, in large part due to the opening of an Asian-themed mall in Scarborough. Despite the anti-Asian protests and distribution of hate literature (see Racism), Dragon Centre was such a success that more Asian-themed malls ushered in a new pattern of Chinese businesses and residences in the inner suburbs of Scarborough and North York, and the outer suburbs of Markham, Richmond Hill and Mississauga.

As clusters of Chinese residents and businesses settled around these malls, these neighbourhoods were also called Chinatowns. Many argue that these satellite or suburban Chinatowns, so unlike the three traditional ones in downtown Toronto, are misnomers. The missing elements are crowded sidewalks, street vendors, traffic congestion, lack of parking and public transit. The term “ethnoburb,” coined by Wei Li, is arguably a more suitable label. An ethnoburb is a suburban area that has a concentration of residences and businesses of one ethnic group. Unlike the inner-city Chinatowns with a history of cultural marginalization, ethnoburbs are the result of economic strength and buying power.

Most major cities across Canada have a Chinatown - but how did they start, and why? This episode, a look at the early history of Chinese people this side of the Pacific, and the historic Chinatown in B.C. that predates Confederation. (Hint: it's not in Vancouver.)
Note: The Secret Life of Canada is hosted and written by Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen and is a CBC original podcast independent of The Canadian Encyclopedia.