The East Meets West



Home to one of the largest Chinese communities in North America (that makes up about 12% of our city’s entire population as of 2006), Toronto prides itself on multi-culturalism.  It is the bedrock of our city’s mandate and a value shared by all Torontonians.  And one of the truest embodiment of this characteristic is the historic Chinatown located along Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue.  An ethnic enclave, it was first developed in the late 19th century and is now one of the largest Chinatowns in North America…and one of six in Toronto.  For many, it is a culture shock walking along Spadina Avenue: savouring in the exotic smells of BBQ restaurants, sifting through fresh produce at the open-air grocery markets and taking in the sounds of the Far East.  While others call this their home-away-from-home and a neighbourhood where their culture and traditions live on in our city.  Its story is one that is rich with the struggles of the first Chinese-Canadian immigrants in the late 19th century.  But its cultural impact on Toronto makes Chinatown a landmark in a city that is home to the world and beyond.


Chinese_railway_workersThe earliest record Toronto’s Chinese community is traced to Sam Ching, who owned a hand laundry business on Adelaide Street in 1878.  Ching was the first Chinese person listed in the city’s directory. Despite strict limitations placed on Chinese immigration with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, Chinatown took shape over the next two decades along Bay Street and Elizabeth Street, as hundreds of Chinese men settled in Toronto from western Canada after helping to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

By 1910, the Chinese population in Toronto numbered over one thousand. Hundreds of Chinese-owned businesses had developed, comprised mainly of restaurants, grocery stores and hand laundries.  By the 1930s, Chinatown was a firmly established and well-defined community that extended along Bay Street between Dundas Street and Queen Street in The Ward.  Like the rest of the country, Chinatown suffered a severe downturn in the Great Depression, with the closing of more than 116 hand laundries and hundreds of other businesses. The community began to recover after World War II as Canada’s general economic fortunes improved.  The Chinese population greatly increased between 1947 and 1960, as students and skilled workers arrived from Hong Kong, Guangdong province and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and the West Indies.

lotdays17When plans emerged in the late 1950s to construct the new Toronto City Hall at the intersection of Queen and Bay Streets, it became clear that most of Chinatown would be displaced by the project.  As Chinese businesses began to relocate, some stores were taken over by other developers, and most stores that occupied the project site were cleared through expropriation.  Construction on City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square began in 1961.  The Chinese community migrated westward to Chinatown’s current location along Spadina Avenue, although a handful of Chinese businesses still remain around Bay and Dundas.

changing faces

With the population changes of recent decades, it has come to reflect a diverse set of East Asian cultures through its shops and restaurants, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai.  The major Chinese malls in the area are Dragon City and Chinatown Centre.

Since the 1990s, Chinatown has been struggling to redefine itself in the face of an ageing Chinese population and the declining number of tourists visiting the enclave.  As the ageing population shrank, revenues of businesses in the neighbourhood also decreased.  While the majority of the grocery stores and shops remain, most of the once-famed restaurants on Dundas, especially the barbecue shops located below grade, have closed since 2000.

Chinatown23Competition from commercial developments in suburban Chinese communities also drew wealth and professional immigrants away from downtown.  Unlike those newer developments in the suburbs, Chinatown’s economy relies heavily on tourism and Chinese seniors.  As many of the younger, higher-income immigrants settled elsewhere in the city, those left in the district are typically from older generations who depend on downtown’s dense concentration of services and accessibility to public transportation.  Ethnic Chinese from Vietnam are now the faces of old Chinatown Toronto and turning some parts into Little Saigon.  Also Latin American immigrants are also moving into old Toronto Chinatown.

In the 2000s, downtown neighbourhoods became more attractive to urban professionals and young people who work in the Financial District, leading to the gentrification of surrounding areas and potentially changing the face of old Chinatown.

the people

Reuters PhotoHistorically, Toronto’s Chinatown has been represented by immigrants and families from southern China and Hong Kong.  Since the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, immigrants from mainland China have greatly exceeded those from Hong Kong. However, at present, Cantonese remains the primary language used by businesses and restaurants in Chinatown.  Yet Mandarin (spoken by mainland Chinese and Taiwanese) is increasingly being more common and spoken within the Chinese community.  The Chinese immigrant population now consists of distinct subgroups: while some Vietnamese Chinese, who generally arrived as impoverished refugees, continue to reside in old Chinatown, others now live in suburban Mississauga; the wealthy Hong Kong Chinese now tend settle in Markham and Richmond Hill.  Among new immigrants, those who settle in the historic Chinatown tend to be Mainland Chinese.

Recently, an influx of students mainly from the adjacent Ontario College of Art and Design, as well as some from Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, arrived in search for affordable housing and accelerated the gentrification of the district.  The area has also seen a surge in Latin American immigrants.  The changes bring a more multicultural flavour to the district, but may gradually reduce or eliminate its identity as Chinatown.

lost in translation

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A number of streets in Chinatown are bilingual, a feature first introduced in the 1970s.  The translations are mainly phonetic and use Chinese characters defined through Cantonese pronunciations (as is common when translating an English name to Cantonese).

  • Baldwin Street – 寶雲街
  • Beverley Street – 比華利街
  • Cecil Street – 施素街
  • College Street – 書院街
  • D’Arcy Street – 達士街
  • Dundas Street West – 登打士西街
  • Glasgow Street – 嘉士高街
  • Huron Street – 休倫街
  • McCaul Street – 麥歌盧街
  • Phoebe Street – 菲比街
  • Queen Street West – 皇后西街
  • Ross Street – 羅士街
  • Spadina Avenue – 士巴丹拿道
  • Stephanie Street – 史蒂芬尼街
  • Sullivan Street – 蘇利雲街

toronto chinatown festival


The Toronto Chinatown Festival is a celebration of Canada’s diverse Asian cultures and communities.  It is a not-for-profit event presented by the Chinatown Business Improvement Area.  This fun-filled family event is free to the public!  The Toronto Chinatown Festival attracts over 100,000 people with its colourful display of multicultural entertainment, food, games, prizes, sampling, street market and community celebrations.  The highly respected and auspicious Lion Dance troupe opens the annual Festival.  Some of the past performance highlights included the Shaolin Monks from China, Mongolian performers, and other international entertainment groups.

The Toronto Chinatown Festival has established itself as an event of local, regional, national and international appeal.  The Festival helps contribute to the local and regional economies through increased tourism from different regions and across the border.  The Festival provides a unique opportunity for corporations, government officials, industry representatives and the general public to engage in an important annual event of Asian heritage and traditions.

via Chinatown BIA


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related links

The City Within the City

The World of Luxury

India Bazaar

The Multicultural Neighbourhood

Ciao Italia!

A World Within A Market

Liberty Village

Hollywood North

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