Korea Town’s enduring spirit

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Photos by PHILIP KIM


It’s been about fifty years since Koreans first settled in Canada. Generations later, their descendants have carved a hot spot in a section of The Annex, a historic neighbourhood in downtown Toronto.

Korea Town is not your average ethnic neighbourhood. In Korea Town, you can sample as much of the culture as you’re willing to. It’s a place where you can pop into one of its ubiquitous hair salons for a cut that’s trending in South Korea. It’s also just a stone’s throw away from the iconic (and soon-to-be-shuttered) discount store Honest Ed’s, which casts an even wider net.

Korea Town is not Little India or Little Manila, which one must seek out in order to find. Its scale does not approximate the behemoth that is Chinatown on Spadina Avenue. But its home, which stretches along Bloor Street between Bathurst and Christie streets, is close enough to the University of Toronto that students and young professionals are among its regulars.

It’s no accident that Korea Town was established a short distance from U of T. The earliest settlers from Korea were theological students at the university, sponsored by Christian missionaries.

These students ended up staying and paved the way for others, as immigration policy opened up and Canada’s ties to Korea deepened. Diplomatic relations in the early ’60s centred on encouraging the immigration of educated workers. Now, about 37,225 Korean immigrants live in Toronto, according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Survey.

A growing number of Korean-run restaurants, hair salons, health food stores, specialty shops, trendy fashion boutiques and bookstores have changed the landscape of Korea Town.

Some old guards remain. Take the Korean Village restaurant. Its Greek columns betray a Hellenic past, but its incumbent proprietors, the Lee family, have transformed the structure into a Korean institution in its own right. Before its transformation into a Greek restaurant in the late 1960s, the space housed a beauty salon and a grocery store.

What accounts for the Village’s longevity? Sacrifice and long hours, according to Jason Lee, whose family owns the restaurant. The Village, one of only two Korean restaurants in the ’70s, has always remained open on holidays.

“I asked my mom every day, ‘Why aren’t you retiring? I can be here,’ ” said Lee, to a crowd gathered for a Korea Town Heritage Walk last spring, organized by Heritage Toronto and Korea Town BIA. “She said, ‘No, I want to be here.’ ” Lee, who is vice-chair of the Korea Town BIA (Business Improvement Area), added: “I realized, after many years of being here, it is their way of life. It is their identity… It’s what they built from the ground up.”

Korean Exchange Bank (KEB), which was established in 1983, is another pillar in the community. KEB helped many Korean immigrants to harness their entrepreneurial drive and re-energize the area, said Lee. Unable to access Canadian banks because of language and other barriers, they turned to the KEB to start up their businesses.

When it opened its doors in the 1970s, P.A.T. Central served the needs of Korean immigrants pining for a taste of the old country. Today, the supermarket—which also carries Japanese and other Asian goods—draws a diverse clientele who load up their carts with assorted varieties of tofu, wakame, kimchi, Pocky sticks, ginger crackers and red bean ice cream.

And, of course, a visit to Korea Town would not be complete without a pit stop at Hodo Kwaja, where walnut cakes baked on the spot never disappoint.

While there are generation gaps that separate experiences, Lee said the belief that hard work matters above all is a shared value among Korean immigrants and their families.

But adjusting to Canada wasn’t necessarily easy. The language barrier left many immigrants from his parents’ and grandparents’ generations feeling isolated from the rest of Canada. “They had their papers; they had Canadian citizenship,” said Lee, who was born in Korea and moved to Toronto as a baby. “But they would tell me, ‘I don’t feel Canadian.’ ”

Eventually thye overcame their fear of learning a new language with the help of an ESL program run by the YMCA and Palmerston Library, long a lifeline for many immigrants. Today, the library carries over 2,000 print, audio and video materials in Korean.

Improving their language skills eventually brought many Korean immigrants closer to feeling part of Canadian culture, to the point that they began to enjoy watching the local TV news, said Lee.

Lee recalled memories of his family asking him to translate words, but as a teenager, he wasn’t particularly helpful. “I’m just really thankful that these services were here, ” he said, “and that they helped them.”

Now he fondly remembers the first words his aunt spoke to him proudly in clear English, “I love you very much.”

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