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Asian Heritage Month: Toronto's Chinatown

As we have discussed in a previous post, there were many Chinese immigrants that came to Canada who settled primarily in British Columbia. But did you know that many of them also settled in Toronto? Today, we will highlight the different parts of the city of Toronto which have been associated with Chinese immigration.


The Chinese community was very sparse in Toronto for most of the late 1800’s. The first documented Chinese business established in Toronto was a hand laundry owned by Sam Ching, on 9 Adelaide Street, which was listed in the 1878 Toronto business directory. At the turn of the century, there were over 95 laundry businesses in operation by Chinese business owners. The earliest Chinese café called Sing Tom (serving both a combination of Western and Chinese food) was opened in 1901 at 37 ½ Queen Street West, opposite from City Hall. During the 1900’s, many of the Chinese men who came to Toronto settled around Union Station, so that they could be close to Union Station and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the corporation who was the largest employer of Chinese people at the time.


Figure 1: Portrait of five men wearing top hats and holding books, Toronto, c. 1900. Photo courtesy of Toronto Public Library, Accession # CHI201607B050104-DIG.


In the 1910’s and 1920s, despite the restrictive head tax that was imposed upon Chinese immigrants, the district grew and thrived. By 1923, there were 202 Chinese restaurants operating both in and outside of Chinatown. The people who lived in Chinatown were essentially a bachelor society; many men were married and were sending money home to support their wives and children whom they had left back in China. The ratio between males and females in Toronto “was 18:1 and there were only thirteen families (living there).”[1] That same year, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, essentially barring all persons of Chinese origin of coming to Canada, except for merchants, students, and diplomats.


By 1941, Toronto had the third-largest Chinatown, although there were only 2,326 people living there. Negative opinions about Chinese people started to change after this time, as Canada and China shared a common enemy during the Second World War: Japan. The Chinese community raised money through fundraising tag days, donating the proceeds from performances of Chinese opera, purchasing victory bonds, and enlisting in the war effort. When August 15, when the war in the Pacific ended, thousands of Chinese people participated in the celebratory parade centred in Chinatown. After the war, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, allowing people to vote, as well as to run for public office and entering distinguished professions such as law and medicine.


Unfortunately, the municipal government in Toronto approved a plan to build a new city hall and public square on the site where Chinatown was located. By 1958, two thirds of the businesses, homes, and other public buildings had been expropriated and bulldozed, and a multi-year building project had begun. By 1965, the new city hall and Nathan Philips square had been built. Some time after, the municipal government wanted to take over more land in Chinatown. Residents from the Chinese community began to fight back, spearheaded by Chinese-Canadian activist Jean Lumb; they managed to convince politicians to save what was left of the original Chinatown area.


The Chinatown we know and appreciate today is now centred on the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West.


If you want to learn more about Chinese-Canadians in Toronto, you can check out our online ProQuest Database and read Arlene Chan’s two books, “The Chinese in Toronto From 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle” (2011), or “The Chinese Community in Toronto: Then and Now” (2013).


[1] Chan, Arlene (2022, March 30th) “Toronto Chinatown”. From The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/toronto-chinatown

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