TORONTO’S CHINATOWNS: Shop, Eat, Read, Heal, Watch

The author, Robert Fisher, is a contract professor of linguistics at York University in Toronto and has lived in China, Hong Kong and Japan. He speaks some Cantonese and Mandarin, but feels more comfortable in the latter. He has studied Chinese calligraphy and tai chi and was at one time an intern counselor at a Chinese mental health service and at the Japanese Cultural Centre in Toronto. Robert has spent much time grocery shopping, eating and hanging out at the Spadina and Dundas Chinatown but has come to know all the other Chinatowns in Toronto and beyond. Here he shares his decades-long fascination and involvement with these remarkable and evolving parts of our city.

Bringing flavour to the city

Pork congee with preserved egg.In the early 70s, Toronto’s Chinatown was a couple of stores and restaurants clustered around Dundas and Bay. One of these restaurants was subterranean, in a cellar, where the specialty was every type imaginable of congee or juk. That is, rice porridge made with thousand-year-old eggs (eggs baked in pine ash), slices of cha siu (red barbecued pork), strips of beef or chicken, or a mixture of all three. The cellar was unadorned, dingy and you sat on stools at one of three or four battered tables. The place was always full, with as many Chinese as non-Chinese.

On Elizabeth Street, just west of Bay, there was a tiny, narrow store that specialized in tripe and duck and chicken feet in various sauces. The feet tasted of soya sauce but had little meat. Very chewy and good for a change.

Right across the street was a restaurant serving ordinary fare in those days. One afternoon I went down the street and saw that there was nothing but rubble. The word in Chinatown was that it had been blown up because the owner had refused to pay protection money.

Elizabeth St Toronto in 1934.

Elizabeth St south of Dundas, 1934 by Alfred Pearson

At the south end of Elizabeth Street was “New” City Hall and another, now vanished street, with a few old red brick buildings somehow left standing. On the third or fourth floor of one of them was the original Toronto Taoist Tai Chi Association, where for many years I took classes, slowly stepping and pivoting on the creaky wooden floors. Downstairs was another martial arts studio, with highly irregular hours, run by Jimmy, an old, pot-bellied street fighter.

Martial arts, the ‘forbidden kingdom’ and poetry

As the years passed, Chinatown moved west on Dundas toward Beverley and on to Spadina. In a short time, the Cantonese-speaking immigrants had created a faithful reproduction of typical neighborhoods in Hong Kong, right down to the smells of Chinese herbs and seafood. It was easily the liveliest part of Toronto.


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Of course there was one restaurant after another on both sides of the street, some fancy like the ones on the second floors of buildings, others humbler and cheaper, but there were also several bookstores. I used to go in and peruse the large collection of books on the martial arts. The various moves were illustrated in grainy black-and-white photographs of young men in white cotton T-shirts and baggy black trousers. Chengfu-form-09You could see that the photos had been shot on the roof of an apartment building, with laundry and water tanks in the background reminding you of the scarcity of space in Hong Kong. Other slender volumes illustrated traditional Chinese breathing exercises with line drawings. At the magazine rack, in addition to the thousands of movie and gossip magazines from Hong Kong and Taiwan, there were the large propaganda magazines from China, at that time the forbidden kingdom that few had ever visited. One of these was Ren Min Hua Bao (People’s Pictorial), that usually had on its cover beautiful pictures of cloud-shrouded mountains with gnarled pines clinging to sheer cliffs. Inside were stories of increased production of tractors and success stories about collectivization.

dreamoftheredchamberBut many of the books were scholarly. For example, the poetry section was quite large, with editions that gave the original texts in Classical Chinese with extensive notes and commentary. You could find all the great classics of Chinese civilization: Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, The Analects of Confucius, works by the Taoists like Lao Zi, the more mystical Chuang Zi and Lie Zi, and philosophers such as Mencius and Mou Zi, all in excellent editions. There were even books of doggerel, written by anonymous scholars in their spare time. All the wonderful novels of Chinese literature were there, some in what today are called graphic novels: Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin (bandit adventures) and Journey to the West, an adventure story about how the Buddhist scriptures were brought to China with the aid of a pesky but resourceful monkey. Also there, was Golden Lotus, a Ming Dynasty novel that is a remarkably explicit account of the intimate, daily life of a rich man, as if written by an anthropologist with Masters and Johnson. The Chinese title is Jin Ping Mei, the names of the main character’s three wives.calligraphy grip

Books on calligraphy were also plentiful with all the major styles and step-by-step instructions on how to write them. You could even buy wolf’s hair brushes and ink stones for grinding your own ink to the consistency you desired, plus the rice paper to practice on.

The boom begins

This Chinatown expanded rapidly up and down both sides of Spadina from College down to Queen, and even a little westward on Dundas past Spadina. A little above Dundas on the west side of Spadina was a large restaurant painted pale yellow on the outside, which had gone through several owners, each one of whom failed to make a go of it. The building had originally been a funeral parlour and the Chinese claimed that the ghosts of the dead resented being disturbed so had cursed the owners.Packaged tea in a Chinese shop.

Chinese_teapotTeapot_(Yixing_ware,_about_1900)I knew Chinatown was booming when a couple of teashops opened. They sold tea from every corner of China and beautiful teapots to brew it in. Some teapots were the familiar white ceramic type with delicate blue-painted willow trees and idyllic gardens with eyebrow bridges, but others were a type I had seen in the traditional kung fu movies: squat and made of clay with handles and spouts shaped like twisted twigs.

There were two Chinese movie theaters in the area, with a new double bill every week, featuring two types of films: kung fu movies, some taking place in centuries past, others in present-day Hong Kong; and unbelievably sentimental love stories, mostly about contemporary Hong Kong or Taiwan. Many of the kung fu actors came from traditional Chinese opera, where they had been received strict training in acrobatics and martial arts from childhood. dcfsstposter2ur2The kung fu movies were mostly in Mandarin, while the love stories and comedies were in Cantonese. Many Hong Kong immigrants remarked on how much the slang had changed since they left their native city — they had trouble getting some of the jokes. The English translations in the subtitles were often unintentionally hilarious. I remember one scene where an excited official brought the news that the Empire was disintegrating. He said, “The Ming Dynasty is panting.” Long before Hollywood included women assassins in its movies, the Chinese film industry had many women warriors who defeated even the strongest male opponent. Angel Mao was an example. She appeared in Bruce Lee’s epic, Enter the Dragon.

In one memorable love story ‘Allan’, the doomed lover, is walking along the seashore at dusk, the syrupy music leaving no doubt that he is already dead and that we are watching a memory. ‘Allan’ was none other than Chow Yun Fat, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-fame.

Enter the Dragon City Shopping Mall

Dragon City Mall at Dundas and Spadina in Toronto.Then, in the 80s, Dragon City Shopping Mall opened up, just south of Dundas on the west side of Spadina. This was the first attempt to recreate the multistoried malls of Hong Kong, filled with tiny stores like the cells in a beehive. In Hong Kong I often felt I could walk through the British Colony from end to end and never leave the malls. Today’s Pacific Mall in Markham is a perfect replica of Hong Kong shopping malls.

There was also an outlier to Chinatown along Baldwin Street, between College and Dundas, and west of McCaul. One store specialized in selling various kinds of tofu and bean sprouts. They gave you the bricks of tofu in a large tin can, with the lid and label removed and with a little wire handle so you could hold it like a bucket, or they would drain the tofu and wrap it in paper. The display space for their wares was nothing more than the tiny entrance hall and a piece of the sidewalk, but you could peek down into a cellar to see great vats of bean sprouts.

Baldwin St.

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Across the street was Yung Sing (the old poetic name for Canton), a pastry shop. Chinese pastries are nothing like French pastries, but are often made with much heavier, oily dough and are filled with ingredients such as lotus paste. They were very good, and outside in summer you could eat them at picnic tables under a large maple tree. It was constantly busy. Alas, now the shop is boarded up and nothing is left but the name on the window.

On the opposite side of the street was Mendel’s Dairy, with “kosher” and the store’s name written in Hebrew on the window. Mr. Mendel used to carefully wrap each slice of cheese individually with a wonderful, calm patience. His store was a relic from the time when Kensington Market and Spadina had a large number of Jewish businesses, like Sammy Taft’s haberdashery. In fact, the Chinese still refer to Kensington Market as “Jewish Market”. Now all that remains is the window with the Hebrew letters; the store itself is an Italian restaurant.

Moving to Scarborough, keeping the east end connection

Also in the 80s, Chinatown went through another transformation: much of the Chinese population moved to Scarborough, in a sense abandoning Chinatown to the Vietnamese. Many of the stores and restaurants in the Dundas and Spadina Chinatown retained their Chinese names, but the owners were more and more Chinese-Vietnamese. The movie theaters held on for a while, but eventually closed. The vibrancy of Chinatown had transplanted itself to the suburbs. Everything that had been downtown was now available in Scarborough. The stores and restaurants were much roomier, but you had to drive to several different places to shop and eat, whereas downtown you only had to walk a few minutes to buy groceries or have a meal.Entrance and sign for Tai Shan association.

One other old Chinatown persists in the east end, at Broadview and Gerrard. This smaller Chinatown had been founded by the oldest stratum of immigrants, the one who built the railways. These are the Toy San, or in Mandarin the Tai Shan, named for the poor region in China that borders Hong Kong. Their dialect is related to Cantonese, but very difficult for people from Hong Kong to understand.

Kung fu and love stories

A bit further east on Gerrard was a movie theater that showed the inevitable double bills of kung fu and love stories. I soon learned that Chinese movies often end tragically (as do many of the great novels in Chinese literature). If the kung fu hero finally prevails, it is only after the villains have dispatched every fine, decent character in the film. The hero is usually the last man standing, alone to contemplate his bitter, Pyrrhic victory. How painful it is to see the hero fighting his way through wave after wave of evildoers while before his eyes loved ones are being massacred. He can never reach them in time. Intentionally or not, this was always for me a nightmarish, Kafkaesque theme. Evil was immensely powerful and implacable. The love stories, too, centered around idyllic love suddenly terminated by death, sometimes incurable disease, other times horrendous car crashes. Suicide and revenge were common. Both genres reflected the recurring, protracted civil wars in Chinese history that brought terrible misery and shaped people’s outlook on life.

This small Chinatown also mirrors demographic shifts. Like its much larger counterpart at Dundas and Spadina, most of the stores and restaurants are now owned by the Vietnamese.

Gerrard St.

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Herbal pharmacies: ginger and dried lizard

There are also the traditional Chinese herbal pharmacies, or yao pu that are integral to any Chinatown – past and present. Herbal medicine has a long history in China and shares many elements with the equally ancient Ayurvedic medicine of India. When I lived in China the local hospital had both a Western medicine department and a traditional Chinese medicine department. It’s worth visiting one of these pharmacies in either the old or new Chinatowns.Jars of Chinese herbs in store.

First your nostrils will be assailed by a rich blend of strange, hard-to-place aromas from the thousands of herbal mixtures, some as familiar as ginger and others as exotic as the flattened, dried lizards that I used to buy. (I was advised to make sure the tail was intact.) The pharmacist will listen to your account of your symptoms, and then reach for various aromatic jars and take out various quantities of roots, plants or pulverized insects. He may grind some these in a mortar. The mixture is placed in an envelope and you are given instructions on how to use these ingredients to make a soup or an herbal tea and on how often to take the concoctions. Some infusions are extremely bitter and if you drink it in the store, the pharmacist will give you a sweet to offset the taste.

Markham is the new, modern Chinatown

Front facade of Pacific Mall in Markham Ontario.The latest incarnation of Chinatown is in Markham, over the border into York Region, although there is no discernible demarcation in the urban sprawl. Driving north on Leslie Street you come to a rise and you suddenly see before you a city of ultramodern towers housing the high-tech industry. All is new and gleaming. It is here that many Mandarin-speaking professionals from China have settled. As in Scarborough, the wide range of restaurants, supermarkets, electronic stores and boutiques are in large shopping plazas. Here the cuisine of every province of China is available, notably the spicy cuisine of Sichuan and Hunan.
Now well-lighted restaurants with picture windows serve, on a Formica table, the congee (juk) that was once served in a tiny dim cellar so long ago.Markham Chinese developments.

– Robert Fisher
Photos by Schuster Gindin with additions from WikiCommons

1943 Newsreel Chinese in Canada


Robert Fisher really has intimate knowledge of Chinese culture in the GTA. Much more so than most Chinese people. He actually studies it. The history lesson rings so many bells in my head. The very last picture shows the most recent T&T supermarket that just opened a year ago on Kennedy Rd. just south of highway 7. Neat.
Steve Li, Toronto