As early as 1878, a Chinese named Sam Ching came to Toronto to open a laundry at No. 9 Adelaide Street East. By 1881 there were still only ten Chinese residents and four Chinese laundries in the city. Their move from the United States was likely prompted by the economic depression of the 1870s. After the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, a steady stream of Chinese immigrants came to Toronto by rail from Vancouver. By 1900, the city’s two hundred Chinese residents and ninety-five Chinese businesses were widely scattered, although a few laundries and stores were concentrated on Church, Yonge and Queen Streets.
Two clusters of Chinese business establishments emerged in 1910. The Chinese Empire Reform Association (CERA), known for its attempt to rescue Emperor Guanxu from house arrest imposed by the Empress Dowager, was established on Queen Street East near George Street (Map 1). Chinese merchants who supported the Association set up businesses nearby. The Chee Kung Tong, a secret society, which supported Dr. Sun Yat-Sen to overthrow the Manchu government, set up its lodge on York Street between Queen Street West and Richmond Street West. Merchants and revolutionary members set up Chinese business concerns or lodgings near the society.
After the Manchu government’s downfall, the CERA became defunct; Chinese businesses near the association moved out and the budding Chinatown on Queen Street East was dead. On the other hand, the budding Chinatown on York Street was growing as the Jewish community there moved out while Chinese people moved in. By 1911, Toronto had about one thousand Chinese residents. Chinatown businesses and residents on York Street gradually spread northward from Queen Street East to Dundas Street West. Unlike Vancouver Chinatown, there had not been violence against Chinese in Toronto Chinatown. However, on I November 1919, a mob of about four hundred people ransacked Chinese stores on Elizabeth Street and broke their windows. This might have been prompted by a Chinese waiter’s refusal to serve food to some white soldiers.
After the 1920s, Chinatown had become firmly established on Elizabeth and Chestnut streets between Queen Street West and Dundas Street West. On these two streets was a great variety of small businesses, many clan and county associations, Chinese churches, schools, theatres and opera houses. By 1941, Toronto’s Chinatown with a Chinese population of 2,326 was the third largest Chinatown in Canada after Vancouver’s (7,174) and Victoria’s (3,037). It held this position until the 1950s (Map 2).
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, nearly two-thirds of Chinatown was demolished to provide space for Nathan Phillips Square and the new City Hall (Fig.1). The remaining Chinatown area was being slowly strangled by the high cost of land. By 1965, many Chinatown properties had been sold to developers and most of the Chinese businesses and residents had moved further west along Dundas Street West beyond University Avenue. By the 1960s, the shrinking Old Chinatown, covering an area of about ten acres (four hectares) along Dundas Street West between Bay and Centre streets, was all that remained (Map 3). Most of its Chinese residents had moved to other locations in downtown Toronto. During the 1960s Chinatown’s population was estimated at about seven thousand.
In the spring of 1967, Walter Manthorpe, the City’s development commissioner, recommended to City Council that Chinatown be relocated to provide space for a northern extension of the civic square. While the proposal was being studied, land speculators immediately assembled as much land as possible in Old Chinatown, thus inflating land prices from about twelve dollars to more than thirty dollars per square foot. In February 1969, Alderman Horace Brown expressed concern that designating the Elizabeth-Dundas streets area as Toronto’s Chinatown would encourage development of a ghetto. Another Metro Council proposal in 1970 was to widen Dundas Street and relocate all Chinese businesses to Dundas, Elizabeth and Chestnut streets. These various threats finally prompted concerned community leaders, such as Mrs. Jean Lumb, CM to form the Save Chinatown Committee in March 1969 in a desperate effort to save Old Chinatown from destruction. Eventually, the Committee succeeded in persuading Council to endorse the principle of maintaining the current location of Chinatown. In May 1970, Chinatown still had seventy-five business concerns, including seventeen restaurants, fourteen grocery stores, four bakeries among other stores and services (Fig. 2-3). Although Old Chinatown was saved, its size had been further reduced by large redevelopment projects such as the Holiday Inn and the Meridian Group’s commercial complex (Fig. 4). By 1984, Old Chinatown had fewer than ten restaurants and four association buildings; the Chinese United Church on Chestnut Street and the Chinese National League building on Hagerman Street were the only remaining significant landmarks of Old Chinatown (Fig. 5). In 1999, few restaurants and associations were still in Old Chinatown. As Chinese customers continued to decrease, Chinese businesses closed down one after another (Fig. 6). Old Chinatown was, for all intents and purposes, destroyed by the end of the 2010s.
Chinatown West is known to speakers of Mandarin Chinese as “Zhongqu Huabu” (Central District Chinese Port). Before the Second World War, the district, bounded by Spadina, College, McCaul and Queen streets, was a low-density residential area, containing two- and three-storey wooden houses built in the late nineteenth century. In 1951, the Jewish community predominated in the district, and Chinese households accounted for only 20 percent of the population. In the late 1950s the Jewish community began to relocate to newer residential areas on the northwestern fringes of the city, thus a large number of houses in Southeast Spadina were available for sale or rent. As many buildings on Chestnut and Elizabeth streets in Old Chinatown were bought up for re-development, many Chinese businesses, residents and institutions began to move into Southeast Spadina. In 1962, Canada financed one hundred refugee families who had fled to Hong Kong from Communist China with the intention of moving on to settle in Canada.
The universal immigration policy of 1967 encouraged migration by Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia. By 1971, nearly half of the eight thousand residents in Southeast Spadina were of Chinese origin. Chinese associations, grocery stores, restaurants, and other retail stores occupy both sides of Dundas Street West between McCault Street and Spadina Avenue (Fig.7-8). Small Chinese associations, rooming houses, cafés, stores, restaurants and other small retail shops were set up on Huron, Beverley, D’Arcy and other side-streets of Dundas Street West. Larger restaurants, service and retail establishments, and Chinese associations spread out on Spadina Avenue from its intersection with Dundas Street West (Fig. 9). This growing New Chinatown, known as Chinatown West, is a large Chinese commercial, residential and institutional district and has replaced Old Chinatown in Toronto.
In 1970, the Planning Board recommended to council that the lowdensity residential and commercial structures in Chinatown be replaced by high-density residential, commercial and institutional development. The Chinese Canadian Association and the United Actions of Chinese Canadians strongly opposed the recommendation on the grounds that it would alter the physical characteristics of the area. Eventually, in 1973 the Planning Board recommended that most of Southeast Spadina be stabilized as a low-density residential and commercial area, and that only its south and east sections be changed to a mixeduse, high density residential area. In 1979, Chinatown West was designated an area of Special Identity, where development had to be compatible in form and character with the existing Chinese motif and architectural details. Intensive retail and service uses such as split entrances to the commercial spaces below and above street level were permitted in the area (Fig. 10). The City of Toronto returned streetcars to Spadina Avenue and erected two “door-shaped” gateways to the avenue.
In 2007, the Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Area was established (Map 4). In 2012, the Area had 403 members including a wide range of retail and wholesale businesses, restaurants and grocery stores, beauty and hair salons, medical and pharmaceutical outlets, and herbalists. (Table 1).
Chinatown East is known to speakers of Mandarin Chinese as “Dongqu Huabu” (Eastern District Chinese Port). During the 1970s, many lower-income Chinese immigrants found it difficult to obtain cheap accommodation in Chinatown West. They looked for places near Chinatown where rents were lower. Riverdale, about three kilometres (two miles) east of Chinatown, was chosen because properties there were several thousand dollars cheaper than those in Chinatown and rents were much lower. Many Chinese property owners in Chinatown West also sold their houses at high prices and moved out to Riverdale to buy houses at lower prices. Furthermore, Riverdale, largely populated by white working class families, has a large park, public libraries, and other amenities and services. It is easily accessible by streetcars and buses from Chinatown. As a result, Chinese students, young couples and restaurant workers began to move in.
In July 1971, Charles Cheung opened Charlie Meat Store (Hung Kee Store) at 383A Broadview Avenue, probably the first Chinese in the neighbourhood. Later that year, the Hsu Store at 597, and the Hai Fung Fish and Meat Market at 339 Gerrard Street East opened. The Ko Sing Restaurant opened at 341 Broadview Avenue and attracted many Chinese customers to the area. An embryonic Chinatown East thus emerged at the intersection of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street (Map 5). It had a large Chinese market created by many Vietnamese and Chinese from Mainland China. Unlike Chinatown West, it had more street parking, and was very well served by Toronto’s public transit system. As a result, it even attracted Chinese customers from Chinatown West. By the late 1970s, more Chinese stores were established along Broadview Avenue southward to Dundas Street East and along Gerrard Street East as far east as Howland Road from the intersection of Broadview and Gerrard streets (Fig. 11). Outside Chinatown, a few Chinese businesses, including a Chinese theatre, were established on Queen Street East. In the southern part of Riverdale Park, about 320 metres (350 yards) north of Chinatown, a bronze statute of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China, was erected (Fig. 12).
In 2000, Dale Cheung, a prominent artist, designed a Chinese arch. After he was elected president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (East Toronto) in 2003, Dale Cheung immediately set up a “Zhong Hua Men” Archway Organizing Committee (ARC). He chaired the ARC and pushed ahead the implementation of the arch project. The sod-turning ceremony of the archway was held on 25 October 2008 at the southwestern corner of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East. Zhong Hua Men was officially opened on 12 September 2009 (Fig. 13). By 2012, Chinese businesses were concentrated within the square bound by Broadway Avenue on the west, Greenwood Avenue on the east, Queen Street East on the south and Danforth Avenue on the North (Fig. 14).
During the 1960s, the Glen Watford commercial area, consisting of Glen Watford and Agincourt plazas, was established to serve the small community of Agincourt in Scarborough, but it did not attract much business. Glen Watford Drive, a residential street running off Sheppard Avenue East, was the main access road to Agincourt’s commercial and residential areas.
In 1977, a Chinese developer purchased land on Sheppard Avenue East where he developed Torchin Plaza (Fig 15). The New World Oriental Cuisine and the Original Mandarin Restaurant were established there. Two years later, Ching Kee Market and East Court Restaurant were the first Chinese businesses in Glen Watford Plaza. By 1984, many other Chinese restaurants, grocery stores, supermarkets, hair-stylists, real estate agents, travel agents, bakers, doctors, dentists, and even an acupuncturist had established businesses in the Glen Watford Plaza or Agincourt Plaza. These two plazas, together with Torchin plaza, were collectively referred to as Scarborough’s Chinatown by Chinese customers. Chinese investment resulted in the prospering of the two plazas on the two-lane Glen Watford Drive. The drive was too narrow and always congested with traffic; to make matters worse, the two plazas did not have enough parking for the increased number of Chinese businesses and customers. Some long-time white residents started to complain against the Chinese businesses for disturbing the once quiet residential community in Agincourt and threatening the “well-being of its residents.” In 1984, a Chinese entrepreneur purchased a failed roller-skating rink south of Glen Watford Plaza and converted it into a shopping mall known as Dragon Centre. It consisted of a 350-seat Chinese restaurant and more than twenty Chinese stores. Soon after it opened in April, it attracted many Chinese customers, not only from Scarborough and Markham, but also from North York and the City of Toronto. White merchants in Agincourt and Glen Watford Plazas were angry when their customers could not patronize them because Chinese customers who went to Chinese restaurants and stores occupied parking spaces in front of their shops. White residents were annoyed that the increased traffic on Sheppard Avenue, particularly on weekends, caused back-ups on Glen Watford Drive, and blocked side streets (Fig. 16). In August 1984, they distributed hate literature aimed at the Chinese community. This prompted the establishment of the Federation of Chinese Canadians in Scarborough to deal with the problems concerning the Chinese community there.
Throughout the 1980s, Chinese businesses sprung up in other plazas such as Mandarin Plaza, Pearl Plaza and Pun Chun Plaza near the intersection of Sheppard Avenue East and Brimley Road. Another group of Chinese shopping plazas, the Village Mall, Finch-Midland Centre and Milliken Shopping Centre, emerged near the intersection of Finch and Midland avenues. Chinese customers gradually dropped the term “Scarborough Chinatown” after so many Chinese plazas were built in the immediate vicinity. Chinese customers tended to use the name of the plaza or the name of a popular Chinese restaurant or supermarket inside a plaza that had become popular locations for social gatherings.
The Centre was founded by a group of Hong Kong investors in 1986 and established at 888 Dundas Street in Mississauga. In 2012, it has seventy rental units. Although many people still think of it as a Mississauga Chinatown, it is in fact not a Chinatown but a private shopping plaza.
This document is part of a series of companions to A Brief Chronology of Chinese Canadian History: from Segregation to Integration which presents a national overview. These documents offer a more detailed account of specific Chinatowns that are an integral part of Canada’s history.