As Tonny Louie strolls along Spadina Ave., the fixture of Toronto’s Chinatown points out the buildings where the community’s old landmarks once stood.
There was the Far East Theatre, which showed newly released Chinese-language movies from Asia in the 1980s and ’90s amid the peak of Chinese immigration. It’s now a 10-storey midrise condo south of Dundas St.
North of it, an old salmon-coloured building was the home of a grocery store and paralegal and accounting offices. It’s been occupied since February by the chic Nomad fashion retail store.
Just south of St. Andrew St., the yellow tiles and green roof of the Hsin Kuang Centre, where the staple Bright Pearl restaurant was located, were demolished to make way for a minimalist four-storey office building last fall.
Although Chinatown, centred at Dundas St. and Spadina Ave., is still dotted with many Chinese signs, the neighbourhood has become more mixed than ever both in terms of its demographics and businesses, said Louie, who chairs the Chinatown Business Improvement Area.
“I grew up helping my father at his restaurant and noodle factory. I used to help grow bean spouts after school. My son, Ryan, is an accountant. My daughter, Stephanie, is a high school teacher. They never help me here,” says Louie, 64, as he serves patrons at the Grossman’s Tavern.
His family took over the iconic jazz bar on the north end of Chinatown in 1975 from Russian Jewish immigrant Al Grossman’s family.
“The old guards are getting old, and their children don’t want to continue their family business. It gives new opportunities to others from outside of the community. Chinatown is changing everyday. Change is the only constant.”
The first Chinese business was started in the late 1870s on Adelaide St. E. More slowly gravitated to the area, forming the original Chinatown on Elizabeth St., from Queen St. W to the north to Dundas St. W. to the south. It was born out of the need to fend off racism and discrimination against Chinese migrants, who couldn’t find jobs elsewhere and were often bullied by other Canadians.
In the mid-1950s, the original Chinatown was expropriated and bulldozed to make way for the new Toronto City Hall. Most businesses and residents relocated west to Spadina and Dundas, while some moved east to the Broadview Ave. and Gerrard St. area.
Lo Wah Kiu (Chinese-Canadian pioneers, in English) and their descendants in the “new Chinatown” would be replaced by waves of future newcomers: first the Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975; followed by migrants from Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, who left the island in anticipation of its return to Communist China; and most recently a mix of skilled immigrants and asylum seekers from Mainland China looking for a better life.
The demographic changes are reflected in the menus of local restaurants shifting from mainly southern Chinese cuisines like dim sum to the Vietnamese Pho noodle shops and bakeries and now hot pots and hand-cut noodles popular in Mainland China. Most recently, young educated Chinese entrepreneurs have arrived with fusion restaurants, dessert cafes and bubble tea shops, along with non-Chinese newcomers offering Korean, South Asian and Caribbean food.
Toronto Chinatown historian Arlene Chan said the community is no longer just a gateway for Chinese newcomers with limited language skills who are restricted to settling in the neighbourhood.
It is a vibrant and more diverse community with a mix of old establishments, like the herbal shops, and new ones, such as a hip hotel, high-end coffee shops and fancy eateries. Take for example the R&D restaurant co-owned by MasterChef Canada winner Eric Chong and Michelin chef Alvin Leung.
“What I’m seeing is a turnover of businesses with a generation of young Chinese starting new businesses here,” said Chan, a retired librarian, published author and third-generation Chinese Canadian. Her mother, Jean Lumb, led the Save Chinatown Committee to prevent further demolition in the 1960s.
“It has evolved from what used to be a ghetto where working-class new immigrants go to be safe because of discrimination. We still have Chinese temples, churches, library and community services. There are still Chinese living here, but it’s become more than just a concentration of Chinese stores, restaurants and services.”
Louie, whose family ran the Great Chinese restaurant in the old Chinatown near Elizabeth St., attributes the changes to the city’s zoning bylaw in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which allowed higher-density residential development. It led to the condos built at the foot of Spadina Ave., near Queen St., and along College St., which in turn has brought in diverse residents with higher purchasing power.
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“It used to be mostly rental housing here. The rents were cheap, and it’s not profitable for landlords to invest in these units,” said Louie, who also works as a real-estate agent while running his family’s jazz bar.
“We’ve lost some grocery stores and old restaurants, but we’ve some new high-end shops and luxurious condos coming in. We can’t stop those developments. It’s survival for the fittest.”
The fading of Chinatowns in large cities has recently prompted a North America-wide movement called the Coast-to-Coast Chinatown Against Displacement Network, which hopes to raise public awareness of government policies contributing to gentrification.
“We are not trying to preserve Chinatown at a certain state. The (lost) pagoda over at Bright Pearl restaurant is just some overt cultural symbol. What we really would like to do is connect the issues that push people out of these communities,” said Amy Lam, a local visual artist who leads the Toronto affiliate of the network, which staged a protest in May.
“When the affordable space is no longer affordable, people start going, and it changes the neighbourhood. What makes Chinatown Chinatown are the people in the community.”
Lam, an immigrant child from Hong Kong who grew up in Calgary, recalled going to the local Chinatown every weekend to eat, buy groceries and pick up community newsletters with her family.
“That’s my lived experience as a child. It’s a place where you connect with your culture. It’s an emotional bond,” said Lam, adding that gentrification happens all across the city and Chinatown is just a notable example because of its visibility.
“Chinatown was born out of discrimination against the Chinese. We don’t have the lived experience of the Chinese exclusionary immigration law (of the last century), and it’s important for us to remember that history. We need to keep that in mind when we look at some of the contemporary migrant issues.”
Although the city’s old ethnic enclaves including Greektown, Koreatown, Little Italy and Little Portugal have all been dealing with gentrification, Chan believes Chinatown will withstand these forces longer because of the influx of Chinese immigrants each year.
“I’m pleased and hopeful to see many young people getting involved in preserving our heritage,” said Chan, who still hosts Chinatown tours. “I’m sure Chinatown is not going to disappear immediately, not in my lifetime.”