Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Ethnoburbia or Bust

Is Toronto's Chinatown in its Death Throes?

Apparently, Toronto's Chinatown is dying. "Most of the good restaurants have gone. Only a few fruit stands remain. Litter swirls around the cold and lonely sidewalks," proclaimed the Toronto Star last March. As sensational as those claims may be, they merely echo the rumour that has been circulating for years: that the neighbourhood is in its death throes.

"That's a bit of an exaggeration," says Lucia Lo, a professor of geography at York University. "But it has been undergoing changes," she adds. Chinatown might not be dying, but it certainly isn't what it used to be.

Toronto's Chinatown first came to be in the early twentieth century, when Toronto was a decidedly provincial place. Back then, just a couple of thousand Chinese inhabitants called the city home. This community suffered under racist laws such as the 1924 Chinese Exclusion Act: the federal government's attempt to slowly eliminate Canada's Chinese population by cutting off all new immigration from China and limiting the civil rights of Chinese-Canadians in Canada. Things changed after the Second World War, however, when attitudes towards immigrants softened and Chinese-Canadian families were allowed to reunite, resulting in a steady stream of Chinese immigrants into Toronto.

By the early 1960s, Toronto's Chinese population had reached 6,700, but it lacked a central focus. "Chinatown" back then was a derelict concentration of shops, restaurants and apartments lodged in the bowels of the city's downtown. Despite its decrepitude, however, it was the only part of Toronto the Chinese community could claim as its own, so when city officials decided to tear the place down to accommodate a new city hall, the community was up in arms.

"We should have a spot for [Chinese immigrants] to start from, a place where they can be among their own people, hear their own language spoken," argued Jean Lumb, a Chinese-Canadian activist whose life had taken her from a childhood in the segregated schools of British Columbia to the Prime Minister's office, where her lobbying efforts convinced John Diefenbaker to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. "It just gives the people a sense of belonging."

City Hall was built anyway-a soaring spaceship-like structure meant to represent a departure from Toronto's starchy past-but community protests helped save the remainder of the original Chinatown from urban renewal. Ironically, though, it would be the rapid growth of the Chinese community after the 1967 immigration reforms that pushed the first Chinatown into oblivion. New immigrants began settling further west, around the corner of Spadina and Dundas, just a few blocks from the Jewish and Eastern European shops and vendors of Kensington Market. A large, vibrant and colourful Chinese neighbourhood sprouted up, one that would become an icon of Toronto.

But by the early 1970s, Toronto's Chinese community had outgrown Chinatown. While the Spadina Chinatown was still fighting off threats from zoning, urban renewal and an expanding University of Toronto, a third Chinatown developed in the East End. Shortly thereafter, an even more remarkable trend emerged: Chinese immigrants began settling in the suburbs. "Many of them, new to Toronto or new to North America, had a bad perception of Chinatown, [based one] stereotypical characteristics from movies and writings," explains Lucia Lo. The influx of relatively affluent immigrants from Hong Kong, escaping political unrest in their home territory, had no desire to live in old, idiosyncratic Chinatown when they could easily afford a new split-level home on the city's fringes.

In 1983, North America's first all-Chinese mall, the Dragon Centre, opened in Northern Scarborough. This marked the emergence of what geographer Wei Li calls the "Chinese ethnoburb," a kind of suburban Chinese concentration that has little in common with traditional Chinatowns. Ethnoburbs are business districts with diverse ethnic economies; they are also residential districts with a high proportion of Chinese residents. Most importantly, ethnoburbs are not just immigrant communities but global outposts. Their inhabitants are highly mobile; their businesses are dynamic and connected to the mainstream global economy; their culture is a constantly evolving blend of Asian and North American trends.

In North America, Chinese ethnoburbs can be found in Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Toronto's ethnoburbs exist in its northeastern suburbs, where the proportion of Chinese residents ranges from 20 percent (in North York and Richmond Hill) to nearly 50 percent (in parts of Scarborough and Markham). These areas have the look of suburbia gone Chinese: giant Asian malls such as Pacific Place sidle up to big-box-style Chinese supermarkets and strip malls filled with karaoke bars, boba cafés and shops that sell the latest CDs, DVDs and VCDs from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Even mainstream businesses such as Wal-Mart and Loblaws cater to Chinese tastes because, in ethnoburbia, Chinese is mainstream.

Ethnoburbia fuels the Canadian economy. Many Chinese immigrants to Toronto are highly mobile, returning to Asia on a regular basis to visit family and run businesses. The constant flow of Chinese-Canadians between Toronto, Vancouver and Hong Kong represents $6.7 billion in annual trade and investment. An estimated 250,000 Canadian citizens live in Hong Kong, while maintaining personal and business links with Canada, particularly Toronto.

Is it any wonder, then, that Chinatown has become irrelevant to the majority of Toronto's 500,000 Chinese? Today's Torontonians can buy Chinese groceries, listen to Chinese music, buy Chinese movies and bank at a Chinese financial institution without ever setting foot in Chinatown. Yet Chinatown is far from dead.

Chinatown's character has always been in a state of flux. It has only been Chinese since the late-1960s and its ethnic composition has actually been more Vietnamese-Chinese than Cantonese. "I remember one time myself, a bunch of Chinese classmates, all from the suburbs, and a Vietnamese girl visited Chinatown," recalls Wylie Poon, a young resident of Scarborough who was born in Hong Kong. "The ironic thing was that we Chinese didn't know a thing about Chinatown, but the Vietnamese girl knew all the good places."

More recently, Chinatown has become a centre of activity for immigrants from mainland China, many of whom are much less wealthy than their counterparts from the rest of Asia. The neighbourhood is also popular with students from the nearby Ryerson University and University of Toronto, not to mention the hordes of multiethnic Torontonians who flock to this crossroads at the centre of Toronto. Chinatown may no longer be the focus of Chinese life in Toronto, especially for the affluent Cantonese-speaking middle class, but it is still thriving.