By Justin Lam
While Asian culture is preserved through Chinatown in Toronto, its spread has become as an aspect of daily lives
Walking down the streets of Spadina Avenue from Kensington Market’s direction, Western storefronts gradually faded out, with Asian stores starting to blend into the street. Malls dedicated to Chinese goods had a mixture of Chinese and English letters inscribed onto their respective store signs. The soft breeze carried the aroma of fresh fruits being displayed at a nearby wet market. People of different ethnicities were interacting with each other, despite the potential language barrier.
Within these busy streets filled with Asian influences, Chinatown had been embedded seamlessly as one of Toronto’s cornerstones. With the Canadian Multiculturalism Policy being instituted in 1971, Canada is best known for its diversity. This policy allowed different cultures to flourish and interact with each other in unity for the first time, and Chinese culture is no different.
Toronto’s Chinatown is one of the largest concentrations of Asian business and communities outside of Asia. The various services and small communities acts as a place for Asians to interact with their own communities even overseas, while interacting with the locals.
According to a report by The City of Toronto in 2016, 52 per cent of the population in Toronto belonged to a visible Minority group, and within those 52 per cent, 11 per cent were Chinese.
The Chinatown in Toronto is covered in a web of streetcar tracks. Local food, jewelry, and service shops are laid one after another by the side of the streets. Graffiti runs rampant, as plenty of the local business building’s walls are covered in symbols and words. While most of the area is filled with either low-rise or small buildings, some business buildings and shopping malls were squeezed in between them.
While the Chinatown in Spadina Avenue is now regarded as the major area where Asian communities and businesses thrive, the current area was built from the ashes of the first one, now known as Chinatown West, at Bay Street and Dundas Street West in the 1950s. The demolition of the first one was to make room for Toronto City Hall. Most businesses have transitioned from Chinatown West to the current Chinatown, according to the article, “The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle” by Arlene Chan.
Over the following decades, more and more students and skilled workers from Hong Kong, China, and South-East Asian countries further increased the Chinese population. However, the communities were not seen in a positive light.
Chan, who is Chinese-Canadian, says, “Up until the Second World War, the Chinese community were very segregated and were not included in larger Canadian life.”
She adds, “Through food from Chinese restaurants, right after the Second World War, it offered natives Chinese-Canadian food like Chop Suey, sweet and sour chicken balls and fortune cookies, things that they would never be able to get unless they were in China or Hong Kong.”
Chan’s face relaxed a bit as she continued to explain, “These were so important in breaking down barriers so that Chinatown became a destination for not only Chinese people, but also people from around the city and for visitors,” Chan says. She is beaming with a prideful smile, “Chinese culture has played a really important role in getting the Chinese community to be more accepted and more included in Canadian life.”
“We have come a long way from the early years before the Second World War, where the Chinese were really segregated and discriminated against, and not allowed to vote, not allowed to go into professions and not allowed to run for public office.”
As the community grew, a wide range of people would visit Chinatown, and with time, the area incrementally turned into a bridge that connected different ethnicities together.
“It’s because Chinatown sells unique products like Chinese or Vietnamese food here in downtown,” says Lucia Huang, a staff member of the Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Area. “I do believe that some new immigrants visit Chinatown if they want something that can help them. For example, test if they speak their language fluently.”
While new business in Chinatown continues to bloom, traditional Chinese culture is still being preserved through practices. The most notable ones would be lion dances and kung fu.
Along the path down Dundas Street West lies Hong Luck Kung Fu Club. While the building is relatively small, it would catch a passersby’s gaze with its bright red coat of paint on the exterior.
The club started in 1961 at the old Chinatown and it was one of the places affected by the construction of the Toronto City Hall. It was moved to the current location at 548 Dundas St W. in 1968. They offer services such as kung fu training and traditional lion dance performances.
Rick Wong is a martial arts instructor at the club. While his hair and goatee started turning white, he is still in great shape, able to perform complex martial arts moves, “Bruce Lee came along and kind of single-handedly popularized the whole culture of martial arts into mainstream North American culture.”
Clearing his throat, he continues, “As a result, traditional Chinese medicine, Tai Chi, and even meditation became much more popular and mainstream. A lot of that can be rooted back to when Chinese martial arts were first introduced back in the 60s.”
The activities in the club, such as practicing martial arts and lion dances, may seem like a routine at a glance, but they are important as it preserves Chinese culture. Through exercising them, it allows the culture to be passed onto future generations.
“Not everything we do is just like working out at the YMCA. There’s a cultural aspect about it as well. Lion dances are a traditional part of the kind of kung fu we do.”
Wong gazes at his surroundings, “A lot of kung fu is based on watching nature. You can learn different things from watching how animals use their bodies and nature.”
“Traditional Chinese lions don’t really look like the lions that are at the Toronto zoo. They look like it’s a mythological animal,” Wong further explains. “It’s like the embodiment of nature all into one animal. When you’re performing the lion dance, you’re harnessing some of that.”
Lion dances are a traditional Chinese dance that have been a pivotal part of Chinese celebrations in Asian territories such as Chinese New Year. The lion is usually in colours that are bright and eye-catching like red and yellow, and the appearance is more akin to a mythical beast rather than a traditional lion. The dance is performed by multiple people, and each performer don a separate piece of a lion.
Those traditional lion dances are an important part of Chinese culture as it represents good fortune and happiness. In Asian countries like Hong Kong, streets and roads will be sealed off during Chinese New Year in order to make way for lion dance parades.
Chinese culture in Toronto has been made more accessible due to the Chinatown. People of different cultures engaging with the Asian community while also appreciating the rich history behind the existence of the area. It was as if a bridge was constructed to encourage cultural exchanges.
“Chinese culture has been so integrated into Canadian everyday life,” Chan says. “It’s not unusual to go into someone’s home, who’s not Chinese, and find pairs of chopsticks and a rice cooker now.”