Walking Tour

Beyond Chinatown

Toronto's Chinese Community

Alexa Dagan & Natalie Dunsmuir

Top Gallery Photo Sample

City of Toronto Archives Series 1465, File 344, Item 11

In the heart of modern-day Toronto sits the sprawling block of civic governance at the northeast corner of Queen Street East and University Avenue. This block contains Toronto's current city hall and law courts as well as the "Old City Hall" located on the other side of Yonge Street. While anyone can walk through the square and admire the stately buildings, not every visitor is aware of what was lost when the square was developed into its current incarnation. Before city hall, this block was home to Toronto's first "Chinatown", which stretched along the section of Elizabeth Street that was blocked off and demolished to make way for the new civic centre.
While most of the buildings were lost in the construction, many of Chinatown's residents and businesses moved several blocks west, and today, Chinatown is centred on the intersection of Dundas and Spadina.
This tour tells the story of downtown Toronto's Chinese community, exploring the lives of the people who made their homes on Elizabeth Street, their fight to save it from development, and the renewal of Chinatown in more recent decades.
The tour begins in the square fronting city hall, where we will start our story with Chinese immigration to Canada. As we walk north up Elizabeth Street, we will learn more about the neighbourhood known as "The Ward" and about some of the businesses that were common in early Chinatown. Next, we will head west along Dundas for a few blocks. As we take in the sights along this street, we will discuss the importance of restaurants in Chinatown and learn about the transition from the "Old" Chinatown to the "New" and about the community activists who fought to preserve Elizabeth Street. As we resume our northward journey by turning right onto Spadina, we will reflect on Chinatown's connections to Toronto's other immigrant communities and on the journey the community has taken into today.

This project is the result of partnerships with the Little Italy College Street BIA, the Toronto Chinatown BIA, and the Toronto Railway Museum.

1. "Journey of a Thousand Miles"


City of Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 187

May 15, 1913

Before the construction of city hall and the large, open square that fronts it, this block was Elizabeth Street, home to Toronto's first Chinese neighbourhood. In this photo, a young child stands at the rear of the building at 92 Elizabeth. Many of the first Chinese settlers in this neighbourhood were impoverished workers who came to Canada in search of opportunity. For many, settling in the growing community centred on Elizabeth Street marked the end of a long and arduous journey.

In 2016, an estimated 11% of Toronto's population identified as Chinese, making them the second largest visible minority in the city, just behind those who identified as "South Asian."1 While recent immigration has bolstered these numbers, many Chinese families in Toronto are the direct descendents of those who immigrated to Canada from China in one of several waves that began almost 150 years ago. These collective waves of immigration are known as the "Chinese Diaspora." Researchers estimate that the movement of people leaving China to settle worldwide was so large that it numbers only second to the diaspora caused by the African slave trade.2
In 1859, the Qing or Manchu Dynasty lifted an edict against emigration from China that it had imposed in 1672. For many, this change was a chance to seek opportunities elsewhere. For the struggling peasant class, namely from the Guangdong province in southern China, life had become almost unbearable. A burgeoning population had stretched the Empire's ability to feed its people to a breaking point, a situation which was further exacerbated by a series of floods, typhoons, droughts, and other disasters in the most densely populated area of the province. The labourers and farmers of the peasant class felt the weight of these disasters most keenly.
When the Qing government imposed taxes on the poorest portion of the population to cover the indemnities imposed by the British after the Opium Wars, it was a financial burden few could afford. However, a rumour began to spread throughout Guangdong that promised a small measure of hope. In 1858, gold was discovered in the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. The news of this find, and of the lucrative opportunity it presented, spread across the world. In China, the news sparked stories of a place that became known as Gum Shan, or Gold Mountain. And while the elusive rumours of gold were enough to persuade some to make the arduous journey to North America, it was the far more tangible promise of paid labour that prompted many more to follow.
In the 1880s, Canada began construction on one of the most intensive and expensive infrastructure projects it had ever undertaken. The transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway was meant to connect the country and open new lands to settlement. The biggest obstacle to its completion was crossing the Rocky Mountains to reach the Pacific Ocean. To complete this portion of the railway, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald approved the CPR's decision to hire thousands of Chinese labourers. Not only could the CPR get away with paying these labourers far less than white workers, but the Chinese workers also had little bargaining power to protest the outrageously poor working conditions on the railway.
When the railway was completed, not only had many Chinese workers died in the process, but very few left the project with any financial gains to show for their ordeal. A scant few were able to afford passage back to China. Thousands more were stranded in a province that was at best unwelcoming and at worst, actively hostile. Finding little opportunity in BC, many began to travel east. In 1878, the first Chinese settler was recorded in Toronto's city directory.3 Many more would follow. Thus began the establishment of Toronto's first "Chinatown" on Elizabeth Street.

2. The Ward


City of Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 257

Dec. 2 1937

Joe's Cafe, pictured here, stood on the corner of Elizabeth Street and what was likely Albert Street. Both streets ran through this block before it was closed off for the construction of the new city hall. Cafes such as this were once among the most common businesses one would find in Chinatown. They offered affordable, filling meals suited to both western and Chinese palettes.

While Elizabeth Street is known as Toronto's first "Chinatown", it did not become home to a sizable Chinese community until around 1915. In 1881, there were reportedly 10 Chinese people in Toronto, most of whom lived in the St. James Ward, which stretched from Bloor Street in the north to King Street in the south. The population grew very slowly until the early 20th century, and by 1910, there were 1,001 Chinese men and 35 Chinese women living in Toronto. Between 1881 and 1915, small clusters of Chinese businesses grew sporadically throughout the city, but each was eventually dislodged by the hands of development. Finally, many Chinese settlers made their home on Elizabeth Street between Queen Street and Dundas Street West in the area known as "The Ward".1
This neighbourhood had a reputation as a landing site for new immigrants. Before the Chinese settlers moved in, The Ward had been home to immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy. From 1905 to 1912, a large Jewish population lived there, but rising rents, increased demand for housing, and neglectful landlords eventually prompted them to move on. The Jewish businesses moved westward to Kensington Market, and the Italians moved to "Little Italy" at College and Grace Streets.
The Ward was known as a low income area and was composed of small, crowded cottages that landlords refused to maintain or upgrade, and narrow, unpaved alleyways. However, with the European immigrants moving on to new areas and after the Chinese settlers had been repeatedly forced out of their previous residences by development, Elizabeth Street offered shelter and, more importantly, space for a community to take root.
While the Chinese immigrants had settled into a neighbourhood few others wanted, not everyone welcomed their presence in the city. One article published in the newspaper Jack Canuck makes it clear that anti-Asian racism was prevalent in Toronto: "There are not less than 25 Chinese stores, laundries and restaurants in the blocks bounded by King, Queen, Yonge, and York Streets. How many of them are 'dens' in the police court parlance? One need only stroll through the above mentioned blocks and notice the throngs of Chinese lounging in the streets and doorways to realise the 'Yellow peril' is more than a mere word in this city."2
However, despite the hostility from much of Toronto's white community and despite other factors that prevented them from entering the workforce such as limited English and skill barriers, Toronto's Chinese settlers were able to find their niche. For many, previous experience in other parts of Canada and the United States had made clear that laundries and restaurants were two areas in which Chinese immigrants could make a living. Both of these businesses were some of the first Chinese-owned operations in Toronto, and in the early 20th century, restaurants and laundries composed a large number of the businesses that were owned and operated by Chinese immigrants.
Chinese laundries and restaurants in Canada had a history which went back to the gold rush. In frontier gold rush communities, anti-Asian sentiments were often very strong. As Chinese men were driven from the gold fields and prevented from finding other means to support themselves, they began exploring other options. Laundry would not have been the first choice for many. Chinese men viewed laundry as women's work, perhaps to an even greater degree than white men did. However, they had few options, and not only were laundries a necessary service, but they had the added benefit of low start-up costs and operating overhead, and they required little English or specialised skills. Restaurants and cafes were similar, although they required a larger upfront investment and a slightly higher overhead.
In 1881, when there were only 10 Chinese settlers in Toronto, there were already four Chinese-owned laundries. By 1905, this number had grown to 228.3

3. Soap


City of Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 255

Dec. 2 1937

In this photo, a laundry truck is parked on the street outside of 111 Elizabeth Street. For the men who opened laundries in Canada, it was an exercise in opportunity rather than preference. In China, laundry was women's work, and some Chinese men who came to North America following a gold rush would wear clothes until they fell apart or else send them home to China to be washed and returned months later. When earliest Chinese laundries began to appear during the gold rush period, they were often among the first businesses in town.

By 1914, half of Toronto's 2,134 Chinese residents were estimated to be a part of the laundry business. But while laundry offered a living, the work was demanding and the profits were slim. Workers in laundries laboured from early morning until there were no more customers, which often meant 12 to 18 hour work days, 6 or 7 days a week. Even though a laundry may have closed on the occasional Sunday, workers on that day were occupied with sorting and packaging laundry for the following day.
Laundries were small, practical spaces usually composed of a reception area and a workroom. In the reception area, wall-to-wall counters were lined with stacks of laundry parcelled in brown paper and labelled in Chinese. The workroom was full of kettles, wash tubs, scrubbing boards, and wringers. What little space was left was taken up by the stove or by washed clothes hanging to dry. The workroom also doubled as a living space.
Tom Lock, who worked in his father's laundry, described the process: "to make the linens white, we used to put the soiled linen in a big square steele tank 4'x4'x'6' deep on top of the coal stove. We would feed the tank using a hose and add bleach, stirring the washing with a big stick. After, Ma would stand on a stool, reach into the boiling water and drag out the clothes with the stick. She would then drop them in a pail and transfer them to the washing machine."1
However, even the modest living that Chinese settlers earned from laundries was often threatened. While laundries were a common occupation for Chinese men, they were not the only ones in the business, and white laundry owners soon began to resent the competition. Chinese laundries were initially tolerated, but after a few years, their competitors realised that the Chinese businesses were doing well and charging less—only 12 cents a shirt instead of the 15-18 cents typically charged by white laundries.2
White laundry owners and labour union leaders began fighting against the Chinese businesses, claiming that these establishments were edging them out of the business. The white Laundry Association, aided by local newspapers, launched a smear campaign to pressure public health authorities to close the "dirty" Chinese laundries. As a result, the Toronto Star published an article that read, "alleged by those who claim to know, that in most of these places their working boards are used for bedsteads, and the soiled linen which comes from the houses of Toronto citizens are utilised for bed clothes."3
When Ah Cong tried to open a laundry at 1061 Bathurst Street in 1906, property owners opposed his application at City Hall. The city then turned down his application because its Board of Control had visited the area and determined that it already had enough Chinese laundries.4
Even before Cong's struggle with City Hall, officials had attempted to limit the number of Chinese laundries. In 1902, the city passed a bylaw that attempted to regulate laundry businesses by forcing them to pay a licensing fee of $50. The bylaw, while not inherently discriminatory, was implemented in such a way as to disproportionately affect Chinese laundries. Their businesses were often smaller operations with limited employees and rudimentary machines. They could not afford the same fee that the larger, white-owned laundries could. Fortunately, a municipal alderman advocated on their behalf, and the fee was changed to a sliding-scale based on the number of staff that the establishments employed. The bylaw backfired on the white laundry owners. The smaller Chinese laundries paid as little as $5, while larger, white-owned laundries paid up to $20.5 (2.5)

4. A Watering Hole


City of Toronto Archive Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 46, Item 35


The Continental Hotel stood on the northwest corner of Dundas and Elizabeth from the 1950s to the 1960s. Several marginalised groups found a tolerant space away from the public eye at The Continental. Chinese men, who were unable to bring their wives to Canada due to blatantly discriminatory immigration laws, found companionship here. Queer women also frequented the hotel, as the bar manager, Johnny, was known to both accept and protect his queer clientele. At the Continental, Chinese men, queer women, and sex workers had interconnected, social relationships with each other as groups that were discriminated against elsewhere.

For much of the 20th century, Toronto's Chinese community was a bachelor society. Many of the immigrants who arrived here were men who planned to work, build a life, and eventually save enough money to bring their wives and families to join them. However, in 1885, almost as soon as the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, the Canadian government passed new regulations to curb Chinese immigration. The Chinese Immigration Act introduced a $50 head tax that every prospective Chinese immigrant would have to pay if they planned to settle in Canada. This act was the only one of its kind to introduce a fee targeted against a specific group. Yet while $50 was a significant amount, the Canadian government found it was not nearly a strong enough deterrent, and they raised the tax to $100 only five years later. In 1903, the tax was raised a final time, to a staggering $500—which, after inflation is calculated, would have neared $13,000 in today's dollars.
In Arlene Chan's book on Toronto's Chinatown, Gim Won describes his memory of the head tax's effects: "villages did everything they could to send one person over, in hopes he would do what he could to help the village… Even when I was in high school I remember my parents still fighting every New Year's about whose village they were going to send $20 back to, my father's or my mother's. Our rent at the time was $5 a month, so $20 was a lot of money."1
The Canadian government made a total of approximately $23 million from the thousands of Chinese immigrants who scraped together the cash to pay the head tax. Coincidentally, the Canadian government spent about the same amount on building the BC portion of the CPR—the same railway that so many Chinese workers died to build.2
When the head tax was ended, it was only to make way for another discriminatory law, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively banned any and all Chinese immigration. The effect these laws had on Chinese families was incalculable. The men who had travelled to Canada found it virtually impossible to bring their families over to join them. One man, who had himself arrived in Canada without his family, recalled, "I remember looking out over the big dining room of our restaurant on a busy day in 1946. I counted one hundred old Chinese men sitting out there and just six women, four Chinese and two Canadian. And I thought to myself, if Canadian culture has a Christian spirit, how could they deny Chinese their families? The whole city of Toronto didn't have a dozen Chinese women in 1946."2
For some of these men, the Continental Hotel offered something different from the bachelor society found in Chinatown. Queer women and sex workers also frequented the hotel. According to Professor El Chenier, who has done extensive research on LGBTQ+ communities in Toronto, "Up until the end of the 1950s, the police did not raid the Continental, and there are no records to suggest that any effort was made to force the owner or management to ban their lesbian customers, even though liquor licensing laws contained provisions that allowed them to do so,".3
Chenier also explains that some Chinese men and queer women lived together in arranged relationships. In these situations, the men would usually pay the bills while the women offered physical companionship.
While each of the disparate groups that spent time at the Continental endured discrimination for different reasons, the hotel provided a space where an unorthodox community could form away from the disapproving gaze of Canadian society.

5. A Labourer's Lunch


City of Toronto Archives Series 1465, File 519, Item 17

ca. 1980 - 1990s

This photo looks west down Dundas towards Huron. Today, if you look north up Huron Street from this intersection, you can view the statues in this public plaza, which are part of an initiative by the Chinatown Business Improvement Association to create a vibrant public space for casual use and community events.
Despite only being about 30 to 40 years old, the majority of the buildings shown in this photo have been renovated over the decades. While many types of businesses are visible in this shot, the most numerous are the restaurants. Chop suey, a dish that is commonly found in many Chinese-Western style restaurants today, is one menu item that has historic ties to the Chinese-owned restaurants that were prevalent in Toronto in the early 20th century.

While many Chinese settlers in Toronto opened laundries due to their low overheads and operating costs, some of those who were slightly better off chose the restaurant business instead. Restaurants required a higher initial investment than laundries, but the profit margins were also higher. Chinese-owned establishments outside of Chinatown generally served food suited to both Chinese and Western palates, but within Chinatown, restaurants served Chinese food.
On Elizabeth Street, two restaurants in particular gained notoriety: Hung Fah Low and Jung Wah at 121/2 Elizabeth. Their clientele were mostly Chinese, with some Jewish patrons, but the proximity of two vaudeville theatres meant that actors were frequent guests as well. Actor Edward G. Robinson, who was in over 100 films, claimed that "121/2 [Elizabeth Street] was the best place to eat."1
Chinese restaurant operators outside of Chinatown mostly ran small cafes and hamburger joints. They catered to Canadian customers and served dishes such as roast beef, steak, apple pie, and ice cream. Lithuanian men were known to pick up boxed lunches from these businesses on their way from the boarding houses where they slept to the factories where they worked. Chinese-owned restaurants were very affordable for a labourer and charged around 20 cents for soup, sandwich, and dessert.2
George Heron remembers that these restaurants were a "bonanza for the many unemployed men who crowded the city during the Depression years," and that, "On Queen Street near Sherbourne there were a couple of these restaurants which offered full course meals for 15 cents. By full course is meant soup, a Salisbury steak or fish main course with vegetables, a piece of pie and a drink of tea, coffee or milk. Not only that, each had plates piled high with white and brown bread."3.
In The Chinese in Toronto 1878, author Arlene Chan includes a quote from her father, Doyle Lumb, who worked at the Rex Cafe on Yonge Street in 1929. He recalled, "the Rex Cafe was considered one of the best restaurants. Got paid $3 a week. I worked every day, including Sunday, seven days a week, from ten in the morning to ten at night."4

6. Save Chinatown


City of Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 519, Item 18

ca. 1980 - 1994

This photo shows the view looking east at the intersection of Dundas and Huron. In 1947, the city approved funding for a new city hall development which would cut through the heart of Elizabeth Street's Chinatown. The community's residents and businesses were not consulted, and the property owners were vastly undercompensated for the value of their expropriated properties. Much of the physical presence of Elizabeth Street's Chinatown was lost in the development, despite the efforts of dedicated activists. Its people moved several blocks to the west and set down deep roots around Dundas and Spadina. Today, this "New" Chinatown continues to commemorate the Save Chinatown Committee and their commitment to protecting their homes and businesses from urban development.

In 1947, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited any new immigration from China to Canada, was finally repealed. However, this did not lead to the family reunification that many had hoped for. Despite the end of the act, Chinese immigration was still limited to the spouses and children (those under 18 years of age) of Canadian citizens. As approximately only 8% of Chinese-born immigrants had Canadian citizenship at the time, the end of the act benefitted very few.1 However, between 1951 and 1961, the population of Chinatown grew from 3,000 people to 6,700.2 The 1950s and 1960s were a mixed bag for Toronto's Chinatown. The population was increasing, discriminatory policies were beginning to ebb, and city voters elected Ying Hope to the Toronto Board of Education, where he served as chair in 1968. He was then elected as Ward 5 alderman in 1969 and re-elected for 1972-1982. Yet even while some things were improved, the threat of development cast a shadow over the community. In 1947, Toronto voters approved spending for a new civic square and city hall. Council proceedings from 1948 to 1958 show the City’s acquisition of property in the Elizabeth Street Chinatown. The new civic centre was intended to spur downtown investment and development. This caused some businesses from the southern part of the Elizabeth Street Chinatown to move to the northern end of the street, closer to Dundas. By 1955, a significant number of shops and restaurants in Chinatown had been expropriated to make way for the development, which impacted the employment of almost 500 people.3 By 1962, construction on the new city hall had begun. By 1965, two-thirds of Chinatown had been demolished. Two years later, as further development continued to threaten the remainder of Chinatown, a group of activists formed the Save Chinatown Committee. In 1969, they brought their case to city council and successfully campaigned for the preservation of the remaining buildings and businesses in Chinatown. Activist, community leader, and restaurateur Jean Lumb founded and chaired the committee. Lumb was also one of 20 Chinese Canadians from across the country who travelled to Ottawa in 1957 to speak to Prime Minister Diefenbaker about changing discriminatory immigration laws. She was the only woman delegate in attendance. Later, when asked about the experience, Lumb said, “The questions from the floor were mostly directed to me because of the fact that I was a woman and the issue was family reunion…. I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to be out front as an official spokesperson. Women have always had to be too much in the background."4 While Jean Lumb passed away in 2002, her efforts to champion Chinese heritage and to preserve not only Toronto's Chinatown but other Chinatowns across Canada are still honoured. On the southeast corner of Elizabeth Street and Foster Place, there is a plaque honouring her contributions to the community, and a small, intricately muralled laneway off of Dundas between Huron and Grange Place bears her name.

7. Chinatown(s)


City of Toronto Archives Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 74, Item 14


This photo shows the Buck Gat Store on the corner of Dundas Street and Larch Street. Larch used to run here, but now it is blocked off by an entry to an underground parking garage. The New Ho King restaurant at 410 Spadina had their first location here, and today, it is the home of Biwon, a Korean restaurant. While this area is known as "Chinatown", there are three distinct and sizable Chinese-Canadian communities in downtown Toronto, and many more in the surrounding suburbs.

The number of Chinese immigrants in Toronto increased steadily throughout the latter part of the 20th century, and this growing population created new Chinese communities and neighbourhoods throughout the city. Immigrants came from four major regions, drawn to Canada by a diverse set of factors over the course of several decades. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and well into the 1990s, a large portion of these immigrants came to Canada from Hong Kong, driven here by civil unrest and political uncertainty. The Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989, which was the culmination of weeks of rioting and protest throughout Hong Kong, caused many to search for peace farther from home. They were joined throughout the 1980s by refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, many of whom were ethnically Chinese. Canada's response to these new immigrants differed drastically from its past conduct when it came to newcomers to Canada from Asia. Rather than imposing strict regulations and limitations upon the refugees, Canada launched a program of private and government sponsorship that led to the resettlement of 200,000 Indochinese refugees in Canada.1 Many of these refugees ended up making the city of Toronto their home. A third group fleeing civil and political unrest in their journey to Canada were those who emigrated from Taiwan, and many more new immigrants came from the People's Republic of China. Together, these groups of Chinese immigrants settled into communities throughout Toronto which were culturally diverse even within themselves. Toronto's Chinatowns became places where Asian immigrants from all walks of life found their homes and opened their businesses. Just as the Chinese population of Toronto was diverse, so too were the neighbourhoods in which they lived. Within downtown Toronto, three separate Chinatowns developed: Old Chinatown, Chinatown West, and Chinatown East. Old Chinatown was limited to the small area on Elizabeth Street that had not been developed during the construction of City Hall. Chinatown West was located farther down Dundas Street towards Spadina, and was largely where those who had been pushed out of Old Chinatown resettled. Chinatown East, located at Gerrard Street and Broadview Avenue, was also known as "Little Saigon" and was home to a large population of Vietnamese immigrants, as well as Chinese immigrants from other parts of Asia. It grew throughout the 1970s as rents increased in Chinatown West, causing people to turn to other neighbourhoods to establish community. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, the Chinese population of Toronto was not limited to the core downtown Chinatowns. Throughout the 1980s, the population began to disperse throughout the city, and several "ethnoburbs" grew throughout Toronto's suburbs. Markham, Richmond Hill, Mississauga, Scarborough, and North York all became home to suburban Chinese neighbourhoods. This trend demonstrated the changing circumstances of the Chinese immigrants in the city. Faced with fewer discriminatory policies as Canadian society gradually became more accepting, many Chinese immigrants were becoming middle class. Similarly, many of the immigrants now travelling to Canada from places such as Hong Kong were bringing money with them. In 1988, a revision to Canada's immigration laws allowed those within the Chinese business class to immigrate more easily to the country. These men and women were required to have a networth of $500 thousand and investment capital of $250 thousand.2 The new Chinese-Canadian middle class could afford newer houses, larger lots, and the cars which were required to commute from suburbs to the city centre. These suburban neighbourhoods differed from the traditional downtown Chinatowns in many ways, in much the same way as any suburb differs from a downtown core: less traffic and road congestion, fewer street vendors, and larger houses and businesses. Several Asian themed malls and business centres took up root in these neighbourhoods, and their popularity only increased with time. Toronto's ethnoburbs were here to stay, becoming an integral part of the Chinese community in the city.

8. Commerce


City of Toronto Archives Series 1465, File 344, Item 11

ca. 1980 - 1990s

This photo shows a view of some businesses on Dundas Street in the 1980s or 1990s. The white building on the right of the photo with its distinctive triangular window is noticeably newer in this photo, while the brick building on the left appears to have been drastically remodelled. A sign advertises the services of a Chinese Astrologer. Scholars estimate that this cultural tradition has roots that date back around 3,000 years. As the face of Chinatown changed over the decades, small businesses such as restaurants and grocers blended in alongside modern shopping complexes, retail outlets, and gift shops.

In its early years, Chinatown was home mostly to small, local businesses: family restaurants and cafes, small-scale laundries, and Chinese grocers. Yet as immigration increased throughout the latter part of the 20th century and as wealthy immigrants from Hong Kong resettled in Toronto, the face of business within the Chinese-Canadian community changed. Small family ventures were joined by larger, more elaborate and modern businesses, and eventually, larger chains moved into the area, capitalizing on the potential of the growing Chinese-Canadian market. The first indoor Chinese mall to be opened in North America was established in 1984 in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, in the neighbourhood of Agincourt. It was founded by a pair of brothers, Daniel and Henry Hung, who redeveloped an old roller skating rink into Dragon Centre. Agincourt, where the mall was located, was home to a growing population of Chinese immigrants, and by the middle of the 1980s, around 25,000 Chinese-Canadians lived in the Agincourt area, with a further 15,000 living in the wider suburb of Scarborough.1 The transformation was such that some began to refer to Agincourt as "Asiancourt", a name which not all appreciated. In a 1984 article published in the Toronto Star, real estate broker Norman Ho claimed that half of the real estate in Agincourt was then owned by Chinese investors and homeowners, both those living in Canada and those abroad.2 This growing population flocked to the Dragon Centre once it was opened, and the complex became not only an instant economic success but a gathering place for the community. The mall was a spot where neighbours could meet and talk, where children could play, and where Chinese businesses could flourish. And in the wake of the Dragon Centre's success, other Chinese malls opened in suburbs across Toronto: "These malls were designed as spaces of belonging shaped by high density living in Asia, which in turn shaped the social life and heritage of the diaspora."3 Yet not all was smooth sailing for the Dragon Centre. While the mall became a celebrated and integral part of the Chinese-Canadian community, many of its white neighbours were nervous of the centre's success, and racial tensions flared. The issue manifested itself in a conflict about parking. The area of the Dragon Centre was not equipped for the massive popularity of the mall, despite being zoned for commercial use, and the mall traffic often overflowed into the residential areas of Agincourt. At a public meeting on May 28, 1984, hundreds of local residents gathered to discuss the parking problem, but the crowds soon began to air out their anti-Chinese sentiments instead. In a Toronto Star article at the time, one resident was quoted as saying, "I don’t want to be biased or prejudiced but I don’t think they should be allowed to come into a neighbourhood and take over with such force. I’ve got nothing against the Chinese as people but it’s the masses."4 Chinese malls across Toronto became a "flashpoint for opposition from the non-Asian community."5 Yet despite this, they remained popular, and in time, became established places of business and community throughout Toronto. Another business which, more recently, has changed the economic landscape of Toronto's Chinese community is the chain grocer T&T. This company first rose to popularity in British Columbia in the 1990s, and did not open a store in Toronto until 2007. When it did, however, it was met with both enthusiasm and concern. Many shoppers welcomed the opportunity to purchase Chinese foods in the big supermarket environment which has become the norm of modern life. Others, however, worried that the arrival of such a big economic player would quash local Chinese grocers and dominate business competition. After the stores opening, one Chinese grocer said, "Downtown business has been slow over the last few years. A lot of Chinatown customers are moving out to Scarborough. We lost 10 per cent of our sales as soon as T&T opened on Cherry Street."6 Today, newer Asian-themed malls have replaced the Dragon Centre, and the T&T has moved from its original Cherry Street location to College Street instead. The face of Chinese-Canadian business continues to change. Yet while malls and modern supermarkets have become a crucial part of the Chinese-Canadian experience, the small, locally run businesses which originally made up the fabric of Chinatown remain integral to the community.

9. Connections


Toronto Public Library 970-20-1 Cab


Today, the building on this corner is home to a popular chain donut shop, but in 1915 it was the Cut Rate Drug Store. In this photo, two men, a boy, and a lounging dog stand for a photo outside the business. The sign above their heads features the words "Cut Rate Drug Store", followed by a rendering of the English title in Yiddish script. Before Toronto's Chinese community moved into the Dundas and Spadina area, the neighbourhood was largely Jewish and Eastern European, much like "The Ward" had been in the late 1880s.

The city of Toronto has long been a place of multiculturalism and diversity, where people from around the world make their homes. Within the Chinese community itself, immigrants came from a host of different countries and backgrounds, spoke many different languages, and came to the city for different reasons. Some came to Canada in search of gold or work, others were fleeing civil unrest and poverty, and still others came from wealthier backgrounds and moved to Toronto to avoid the political upheaval taking place in Hong Kong. Yet the Chinese community in Toronto is only one part of the interconnected map of immigrant communities which have made the city home since its founding. One such community inhabited the neighbourhood of Dundas and Spadina for many years. The street of Bathurst, a block away, has long been home to a Jewish community that stretches some 24 kilometres north from downtown. Jewish immigrants first came to the city in the late 1840s and early 1850s from countries such as England and Germany. Originally, they worked mostly as merchants selling dry goods, clothing, and jewellery, but Jewish-owned businesses soon came to include manufacturing, finance, and land speculation. For many years, the Jewish population in the city remained small: in the 1880s, Toronto's Jewish population stood at around 600.1 Yet a wave of migration was on its way, one which would create whole new communities within the downtown core where Chinatown would one day stand. In the early 1880s, Jews from countries such as Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russian Poland began to emigrate from their homes en masse. Many came to Canada, and by 1891, Toronto's Jewish population had risen to 1,400. By 1911, the population was over 18,000.2 These new immigrants were largely working class, and they grew to inhabit neighbourhoods such as the Ward on Elizabeth Street and the neighbourhood around Dundas and Spadina. In many ways, their story is similar to the story of the Chinese community in Toronto. For one, the influx of mostly poor Jewish immigrants into the city brought out antisemitism and racism in Toronto's white population, prompting immigration restrictions and even riots. Anti-immigration sentiments in the late 1920s led to restrictive immigration laws which affected immigrants from a host of different countries and made immigration for Eastern European Jews nearly impossible. Similarly to the story of Chinese immigration, it took many years for sentiments—and laws—to improve. Between 1933 and 1939, only 5,000 Jewish immigrants were allowed into the entirety of Canada. It wasn't until after the end of the Second World War that attitudes began to change, and Canada allowed nearly 100,000 people displaced by war into the country, many of whom were Jewish Holocaust survivors.3 As Toronto changed and grew throughout the 20th century, its Jewish population moved away from the neighbourhoods it had first occupied, transitioning, like the Chinese community would later, to more suburban areas of the city. Gradually, the Jewish community which had occupied the neighbourhood in which you stand moved on, many to the suburbs. Jewish grocers, bakeries, fish and poultry shops, and other businesses moved too, and as they did, the Chinese Canadian community took up residence along these streets, adding another layer of history to Toronto's richly diverse downtown core.

10. A Journey's End?


Toronto Public Library JRR 535 Cab


This 1863 painting features the green lawn of Spadina Commons, which was once located on this spot. On the lawn, the Royal Regiment of Canada (later the Royal Grenadiers) parades during a ceremony where the women of Toronto presented the colours. The landscape of Toronto has changed significantly since the painter took up a brush. In the modern photo, a mix of trendy and old fashioned signs decorate brick buildings as steel and glass buildings and the CN Tower overlook the city. As the city changes, so do the attitudes held by those who call Toronto home, and the majority of people welcome the city's multicultural character. Yet the work is not finished, and Chinese-Canadians across the country still face outdated and racist mindsets from others in Canadian society. Despite this, Chinese culture, languages, cuisines, arts, and media thrive in Toronto more than any other city in Canada.

Canadian society has changed throughout the years, and many of the racist policies and attitudes which defined life in early Toronto for its Chinese community have been dismantled. The Canadian government, for instance, acknowledged the unjustness of its past immigration policies in 2006, during a speech by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper: "On behalf of the people and government of Canada, we offer a full apology to Chinese Canadians for the head tax and express our deepest sorrow for the subsequent exclusion of Chinese immigrants."1 The speech was accompanied by a promise of "symbolic payment" to those who had had to pay the head tax in order to gain entry into Canada, or to their spouses. An amount of $20,000 was granted to individual payers, and a total of $25 million was also committed to community funds. The apology and payment was motivated by the continual efforts of Chinese Canadian activists, who worked for decades to gain compensation for the racist taxes of the past. In 1983, two Chinese elders, Dak Leon Mark and Shack Yee, approached their local MP and asked for a refund for the $500 they had each paid in head tax. Their request was denied, but their action sparked a decades-long movement for repayment that culminated with Harper's apology.2 And while Dak Leon Mark did not live to see this apology, the repayment of the tax to hundreds of other Chinese-Canadians was a step towards reconciliation. There is still a long way to go, however. In recent years, Canada, along with other western countries, has seen a surge of anti-Asian racism sparked by the inaccurate association between Covid-19 and Asia. The increase is such that the Toronto Chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council launched a website dedicated to recording and reporting incidents of anti-Asian racism. Data gathered through this and other websites showed a 43% increase in reports of anti-Asian racism in Canada during 2021, with reports being filed in every province and territory across the country.3 Clearly, there is still plenty of work to do to address and stop anti-Asian racism. And despite the wider community of Toronto for the most part embracing the city's multicultural heritage, Chinatown still faces threats and obstacles. The movement to the suburbs in the latter part of the 20th century changed the city's Chinese-Canadian neighbourhoods: "The character of Chinatown has changed. The elders have retired and their kids became professionals and are doing other things. There is nobody to carry the torch, so Chinatown has been left unattended."4 Today, the neighbourhood faces the threats of rising real estate prices, development, gentrification, and the toll of the pandemic. Some activists fear that "the neighbourhood could actually disappear."5 Yet despite the dangers it faces, community members continue to fight for the survival of Chinatown. The last two decades have seen a rise in revitalization efforts from activists, community members, and business associations. The Chinatown Business Improvement Association, for instance, recently took part in a project to rejuvenate the public square at the intersection of Huron Street and Dundas Street West, with a public art installation by artist Jyhling Lee. In addition, cultural festivals which were postponed for several years due to the Covid-19 pandemic are beginning to return, bringing tourists and residents alike to Chinatown to celebrate the rich history and culture of the Chinese-Canadian community. The neighbourhood is also under consideration for a "cultural district" designation, a new designation created by the City of Toronto in November of 2021 to "strengthen local culture and communities, support small businesses and retail, and promote community-owned spaces."6 Toronto's Chinatown has been the heart of the Chinese-Canadian community in the city for years, and its rich cultural and historical value cannot be understated. Since its early beginnings as the home of working class Chinese railway workers, the neighbourhood has provided a place of community to Chinese-Canadians from across Asia, who came to Canada for a variety of reasons.


1. "Journey of a Thousand Miles"

1. City of Toronto, "T.O. Health Check," 2019, online.

2. Arlene Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Natural Heritage Toronto, 2011), 17.

3. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 36.

2. The Ward

1. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 36.

2. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 37.

3. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 37.

3. Soap

1. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 46.

2. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 42

3. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 45.

4. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 44.

5. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 45.

4. A Watering Hole

1. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 32.

2. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 69.

3. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 83.

5. A Labourer's Lunch

1. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 49

2. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 50.

3. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 50.

4. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 51.

6. Save Chinatown

1. City of Toronto Archives, " Chinese History in Toronto," online.

2. City of Toronto Archives, online.

3. City of Toronto Archives, online.

4. Myseum of Toronto, "Jean Lumb: Toronto Stories," online.

7. Chinatown(s)

1. Arlene Chan, "Toronto Chinatown," The Canadian Encyclopedia, March 17, 2021, online.

2. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 155.

8. Commerce

1. Camille Bégin & Erica Allen-Kim. "History of the Dragon Centre," Dragon Centre Stories, online.

2. Brian McAndrew, "Chinese are moving to the suburban 'Asiancourt'", Toronto Star, May 14, 1984.

3. Bégin & Allen-Kim, online.

4. McAndrew, online.

5. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 159.

6. Chan, The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle, 178.

9. Connections

1. Jewish Virtual Library, "Toronto," online.

2. Jewish Virtual Library, online.

3. Ontario Jewish Archives, "Immigration," online.

10. A Journey's End?

1. Stephen Harper, "Harper Government Issues Full Apology For Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act," (Government of Canada, June 22, 2006, Ottawa), online.

2. Chan, 152.

3. "Another Year: Anti-Asian Racism Across Canada Two Years Into The Covid-19 Pandemic." Fight Covid Racism, Chinese Canadian National Council, Toronto Chapter. Online.

4. Chan, 177.

5. Clarrie Feinstein, "Can a 'cultural district' designation save Toronto's Chinatown," Toronto Star, Feb. 22, 2022, online.

6. Feinstein, online.


    Bégin, Camille & Allen-Kim, Erica. "History of the Dragon Centre." Dragon Centre Stories. https://dragoncentrestories.ca/history-of-the-dragon-centre/

    City of Toronto, "T.O. Health Check," 2019. https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/99b4-TOHealthCheck_2019Chapter1.pdf

    City of Toronto Archives. " Chinese History in Toronto." https://www.toronto.ca/city-government/accountability-operations-customer-service/access-city-information-or-records/city-of-toronto-archives/using-the-archives/research-by-topic/chinese-history-in-toronto/

    Chan, Arlene. "Toronto Chinatown," The Canadian Encyclopedia. March 17, 2021. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/toronto-chinatown

    Chan, Arlene. The Chinese In Toronto from 1878 - From Outside to Inside the Circle. Toronto, ON: Dundurn Natural Heritage Toronto, 2011.

    Chinese Canadian National Chapter, Toronto Chapter. "Another Year: Anti-Asian Racism Across Canada Two Years Into The Covid-19 Pandemic." https://ccncsj.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Anti-Asian-Racism-Across-Canada-Two-Years-Into-The-Pandemic_March-2022.pdf

    Feinstein, Clarrie. "Can a 'cultural district' designation save Toronto's Chinatown," Toronto Star, Feb. 22, 2022. https://www.thestar.com/business/2022/02/22/can-a-cultural-district-designation-save-torontos-chinatown.html

    Harper, Stephen. "Harper Government Issues Full Apology For Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act," Government of Canada. June 22, 2006. https://www.canada.ca/en/news/archive/2006/06/prime-minister-harper-offers-full-apology-chinese-head-tax.html

    Jewish Virtual Library. "Toronto." https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/toronto

    McAndrew, Brian. "Chinese are moving to the suburban 'Asiancourt'," Toronto Star, May 14, 1984. https://tc2.ca/sourcedocs/uploads/images/HD%20Sources%20(text%20thumbs)/Chinese%20Canadian%20History/Attitudes%20toward%20Chinese%20immigration/Attitudes-toward-chinese-immigration%206.pdf

    Myseum of Toronto, "Jean Lumb: Toronto Stories." http://www.myseumoftoronto.com/programming/jeanlumb/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw1a6EBhC0ARIsAOiTkrFX9PGhMU6I_Pf6izvlHP7Y_wm180wZsqmJDZI-nCwQiOofUoWLqhMaAiMzEALw_wcB

    Ontario Jewish Archives. "Immigration." https://www.ontariojewisharchives.org/Explore/Themed-Topics/Immigration