Chinatown at dawn

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Photos by PHILIP KIM

Chinatown Mural by Alexa Hatanaka and Li-Hill


We say Chinatown and we think: a frenzy of activity.

One must always go to Chinatown on full alert. We are ready to be pushed and shoved by the crowds determined to score the best bargains. We come prepared to say no to persistent hawkers egging us to buy fresh mangosteens and other expensive exotic fruits that pull the heartstrings of every immigrant pining for a taste of the old country. We must be properly rested for the sheer onslaught of sensory overload.

But surely Chinatown, too, has moments of peace and quiet contemplation.

It does, we find out—at dawn, when most of us are still lucky enough to be snug in our beds.

Dawn is that sliver of time when Chinatown’s denizens can read the day’s news, carefully sweep the previous day’s detritus, sip a cup of tea, ponder the meaning of life, water the plants, say hello to neighbours and not have to think (just yet) about the endless dim sum to prepare, the cups after cups of rice that have to be scooped for the hungry masses, the strings of noodles to be stretched, pulled, boiled or fried, the endless questions to be answered from curious tightwads…the never-ending, repetitive, sometimes desultory work to be done.

It is that precious time when fresh bananas, mangoes, bok choy, limes, chives, broccoli, eggplants, oranges and scallions are unloaded from crates, and one can be an artist who masterfully piles produce into mini temples for throngs of shoppers to admire. “Just look, don’t touch,” then becomes the robotic line that the poor, hapless vendor, assigned to watch over the produce, must say several times a day, every single day of the year.

At dawn, the Vietnamese or Chinese middle-aged woman meticulously folds the cheap “Made in China” or “Made in Bangladesh” blouses and shirts; she lines up the kitschy souvenirs and lucky charms—while her mind drifts off to the family back home, which she supports with her meagre income.

Sam Ching, said to be among the first Chinese to arrive and work in Toronto in 1878, couldn’t have imagined the way Chinatown has planted its roots in the heart of the city and how other Chinatowns have emerged in the city and in the neighbouring suburbs of Markham and Mississauga.  “He [Ching] ran a laundry downtown, at 9 Adelaide Street East,” according to the Toronto Archives.

Like any good thing, the Chinese-run laundry craze spread, leading The Laundry Association, in 1902, to petition Toronto City Council to impose a license fee on all laundries. The goal was to prevent Chinese newcomers from opening their own laundry business. A levy of $50 was approved, but Chinese businesses put up a solid opposition and it was reduced to between $5 and $20.

It is easy to forget—when one looks at what one imagines to be thriving businesses in Chinatown—how hard people actually work, and what they and their predecessors have had to struggle with in order to make a living.

The Chinatown that we now know today—extending along Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue—isn’t the original one. In 1909, “the City Directory shows a cluster of Chinese shops located at Queen Street East, at George Street,” according to the Toronto Archives. “Another cluster was at Queen Street West at York Street. Chinatown emerged on Elizabeth Street, north of Queen Street. Earlier, a large Jewish community had lived in the Elizabeth Street area.”

Toronto wasn’t quite the hospitable place we brag about today. In November 1919, “a mob of 400 men and boys stampeded through the Elizabeth Street Chinatown… smashing glass windows and looting Chinese stores,” says the Toronto Archives.

On July 1, 1923—Dominion Day—the Parliament of Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which the Chinese-Canadian community referred to as the Chinese Exclusion Act, and “Humiliation Day.” This came more than two decades after the infamous Chinese Head Tax imposed in 1885, where every person of Chinese descent entering Canada was imposed a levy of $50, which rose to $500 in 1903. When it ended in 1947, the federal government had collected about $23 million from the head tax, which wasn’t imposed on any other ethnic group that entered Canada.

Other humiliations followed, among them a law in Ontario that made it illegal, in 1928, for Chinese employers to hire white women. “The law addressed unfounded fears that Chinese employers would take advantage of white women,” notes the Archives.

When Torontonians voted on a new city hall and civic square (now Nathan Philips Square), the city acquired most sites on Elizabeth Street Chinatown, causing most businesses to move to Dundas Street and later to Spadina Avenue.

The old Chinatown—which today still has a smattering of Chinese restaurants—would have been completely taken over by City Hall, were it not for the efforts of the Save Chinatown Committee, led by Jean Bessie Lumb, who later became the first Chinese-Canadian woman and first restaurateur to receive the prestigious Order of Canada. A plaque commemorating the Elizabeth Street Chinatown was unveiled near the Archer statue at City Hall in 2007.

Today, Toronto’s Chinatown is considered one of the largest in North America. It isn’t quite as big or as distinct a section as Vancouver’s Chinatown nor as quaint as Montreal’s Quartier Chinois, which has a charming courtyard.

Our Chinatown is a jumble of competing garish neon signs, streetcar wires, stores jammed with cheap luggage and Toronto souvenirs, crowded sidewalks, illegal vendors and hoi polloi. And yet, it is the Chinatown that bears and endures our collective frustrations and aspirations. Whether we love it or we hate it, we go there anyway.

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