From the outside, Parkdale’s Sun Fa bar is the picture of shabbiness, a down-to-earth facade increasingly out of sync with the gentrifying neighbourhood. And that suits owner Sandy Ye just fine.
Ye says she can easily afford to spruce up the exterior. But she prefers a business model that emphasizes a sense of community over profits, one focused on making her often marginalized and low-income customers feel welcome and safe — even if it might turn off more affluent potential clients.
“This place might not look good outside, and sometimes people don’t want to come in because they think like that,” Ye says, flicking an upturned nose with her finger to signal a kind of snobbery.
“But the reason I don’t fix the outside, I don’t want those people here anyway … I like that we’re all regulars here, you know? When (new) people come here I have to keep my eyes on them,” she adds. “I can fix it, no problem. But why bother? I have a bar that is like a family.”
Sun Fa is one of the decreasing number of businesses in Parkdale still accessible to people with low incomes. Ye has owned the bar — but not the building it’s in — for 22 years.
From behind the counter, in jeans and a T-shirt, her cheerful, laid-back energy resonates in the bare-bones bar. Her sometimes blunt talk reflects a practical approach to business, and less fluent command of English, rather than brassy attitude. New customers, including a Star reporter, can easily feel at home; it’s just that attracting them isn’t Ye’s priority.
A private person, Ye is reluctant when it comes to any kind of publicity. She won’t reveal her age, refused to pose for pictures and eventually approved a single, slightly blurry one for publication. She only agreed to an interview after regulars, hearing the Star’s pitch over beers, eagerly encouraged her.
“This is the number one bar in Parkdale — it really is,” says Bev Soutar, a 68-year-old regular. “It’s a happy bar. Everybody takes care of each other here.”
Soutar adds, “It’s the only place where I feel completely safe … You come here and you feel connected. Sandy really cares about people.”
“Believe me,” says another regular, 57-year-old Cheryl Rumble, “you drop a 20 in this place and someone will pick it up and say, ‘You dropped this.’”
The red and white sign hanging on Queen St. W. near Sorauren Ave. says Sun Fa Restaurant. But with a nearby social agency and church providing free meals for residents in need, Sun Fa doesn’t cook much of anything anymore.
The bar is metres from the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, a community-based agency that supports low-income people. PARC’s executive director, Victor Willis, calls Sun Fa “a very important social institution.”
He dismisses criticism he says he sometimes hears suggesting the poor shouldn’t spend money on alcohol, and describes Sun Fa as a social hub where marginalized residents shake the isolation and insecurity that often comes with poverty.
“It creates a place where people can go and have a community,” Willis says.
“Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to go out and have a beer and meet friends and have a social life,” he adds. “It’s actually one of the most important businesses in Parkdale because of that aspect, because it’s one of the few that’s accessible. It would be a terrible loss if it disappeared.”
Willis has seen similarly accessible businesses driven out by rising rents and real estate values as Parkdale gentrifies. The result is fewer places to live, shop and gather for a still high number of low-income residents in the neighbourhood.
About 22,000 people live in south Parkdale, a neighbourhood that runs south from Queen St. W. and east from Roncesvalles Ave. to Atlantic Ave. Fully 40 per cent of residents subsist in the lowest of five national income categories calculated by Statistics Canada, with after-tax earnings of less than $20,200, according to research from the 2016 census done by the University of Toronto. (In the city as a whole, 27 per cent are in the lowest income quintile.)
Willis says business owners like Ye, who leases her space and “isn’t motivated by greed,” are especially vulnerable to gentrification.
At Sun Fa, a pitcher of beer costs $11; a bottle is $3.75.
“I was going to put it up to $4 … then I thought, ‘You know what? People in here have no money,’” Ye says, while serving drinks at the bar.
“So I make a little bit less — that’s fine for me,” she adds. “Everybody happy, I’m happy. Another 25 cents doesn’t make me rich.”
Stored beneath the bar are thick notebooks with well-worn pages, which Ye uses to keep track of her clients’ tabs. They often pay at the end of the month, when social assistance cheques come in.
“A few people, they run away from me without paying,” Ye says. “I know where they live but it’s a waste of my time to go look for them. It’s not worth it. It’s not going to make me rich, it’s not going to make me poor.
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“I know they lost more than me: they lost respect and trust, I only lost money.”
Ye shrugs her shoulders and let’s out a laugh, which often comes easy. No one doubts she’s the boss. She won’t put up with any kind of nastiness — she sometimes fines customers for swearing — and regulars are grateful.
“You are not judged, unless you totally screw up,” Rumble says. “She’s only had one black eye in the 20 years that I’ve known her. Some guy sucker punched her and he hasn’t been back.”
Rumble then leaned along the bar and whispered, “Watch how strict she can be,” before turning to Ye and asking for another double shot of alcohol.
Ye gave her a long, serious look, poured slowly and said, “You’re going home after this one.”
“She knows what everybody can handle,” says Rumble, who admits to sometimes drinking “a little too much” and lives on assistance from the Ontario Disability Support Program.
“She looks out for us. If I haven’t been around for three days she calls: ‘Cheryl, are you alive? Good. Bye.’”
Ye also holds memorials for customers or beloved residents who pass away. When a well-known board member at PARC died, Willis was “astounded” to see Ye donate to the agency $500 she collected at her bar.
On another occasion, Ye presented PARC with two, five-gallon plastic water bottles filled to the top with loose change. She explains that all nickels and dimes in the cash register are placed in plastic containers and donated to different charities.
Ye grew up in a farming village of 800 people near Hong Kong. She came to Toronto in 1988 with her only child, a son who is now in his 30s and works as a high school security guard.
A single mother, she worked in a Chinatown butcher shop, a food court, and as a waitress at “the biggest Chinese restaurant in Toronto,” before waitressing at another restaurant in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood for seven years.
She bought Sun Fa in 1997 with her sister-in-law and became its sole owner five years later. She’s been dealing with the same landlord the whole time and appreciates how she’s been treated. For almost as long, she has lived in a rented apartment above a Shoppers Drug Mart that is next door to her bar.
She works seven days, 90 hours a week, with help from her partner, Brad. The last time the bar closed was for renovations three years ago. “If we close, our customers have nowhere to go,” Ye says.
Ask her what keeps her going and she says, “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, you have to be yourself. Happy or not happy, it’s up to you. Everything is up to you.”
Most of all, she counts herself lucky.
“I can’t complain. You see, I’m not greedy. I have a business — it’s better than working for people — so I’m good, right? I pay my bills, have a little extra money — I’m good to go. The most important thing is that family is healthy and I have a roof over my head. I like simple.
“But you’re always saying, ‘I hope nothing is going to happen.’ Everything is good so far. Knock on wood, right?”
She leans over and knocks on the bar.
Sandro Contenta is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @scontenta