Mike, the photographer and I are waiting in a mall in Chinatown, hanging off the rail of the escalator. There is perfect light, and a perfect shot waiting to happen. We’re waiting, because we want to capture a shot of a person walking through the sunlight under the mall’s optimistic signage.
A downtown mall could be the centre of a community. But alas, here, on a busy weekend day, people are few and far between. Off my look to him, Mike says, “Photographers wait a lot.” I wasn’t in need of an excuse. It perfectly confirmed to me that Chinatown, downtown Chinatown, centred around Dundas and Spadina has changed, and will keep changing.
Downtown Chinatown, the one no one calls the ‘old’ Chinatown, even though it is, is still in Toronto where movies-of-the-week film their ‘gangster’ episodes, where tour buses pull up for a quick wander among fruit stalls and where artists and paramedics alike grab a late-night plate of messy noodles.
The area used to be dominated by mostly Jewish proprietors. Spadina still shows the remnants of being the centre of the garment district as well as a few synagogues. But the Jewish businesses moved on, north up Bathurst.
This Chinatown, previously dominated by Cantonese speakers has seen migrations as well, replaced by mainland Chinese and Vietnamese. Over the years, Chinatowns and the Chinese-Canadians have spread across the Greater Toronto Area, to Markham, to Scarborough, to Richmond Hill, Mississauga and beyond.
My parents came to Canada from Hong Kong in 1967. At that time, Canada sought out workers in far-flung British colonies to emigrate. Both my parents became civil servants working in government. On the day of one of his first job interviews, my father was told to go to a building near Queen’s Park. Lost, he asked for directions, and well-meaning Torontonians directed him to the actual park north of the buildings. I like to think of him in the park with the squirrels.
What was he thinking? Was he nervous, being in a new country? Why Canada?
In the end, he eventually became an investigative auditor with the Ministry of Health. He posed ‘undercover’ as a newcomer to catch doctors that overcharged and took advantage of immigrants’ lack of knowledge of the health system. One particularly unethical doctor, whom my father testified against at an adjudication hearing, lost his license. One day my father was eating lunch at a Chinese café on Spadina, when the former doctor walked in, and spotted my father. The doctor proceeded to reach over the counter for a big metal cleaver, used for the ease it cuts through duck bones, and advance towards my father, who could do nothing, chopsticks frozen mid-way to his mouth. No one in the restaurant let the doctor get very far, and my father was fine. This happened in the 70s, but I did not hear about it until a few years ago. We had walked past the café where it happened. It’s still there, so is the butcher counter, and maybe even the same cleaver. And as it was back then, in the window hang suckling pigs, roast duck, barbeque pork, soya sauce chicken – ready for the knife.
Food, is inextricably linked to Chinese culture.
I make Mike the photographer meet me for dim sum as a start of our adventure. Is there anything you don’t eat, I ask? I learn at dim sum that he is Jewish. We order a lot, probably too much. Dumplings, pork, shrimp, rice rolls, sticky rice. We order some greens, snow pea leaves as punctuation and some nod towards a healthier diet. It’s busy in the restaurant with a lot of families, kids, and women in nice dresses and slingback heels. I realize it is Easter Sunday. My parents are Christian and go to a United Church. I am a baptized and confirmed Roman Catholic, and while Pope Francis has caused me to sit up and take notice, I practice no religion. Occasionally, my parents will do something that they note as culturally Chinese, but clearly has Buddhist origins. On this particular Easter Sunday, I sit across a man who identifies as Jewish.
We prioritized this project, our art, our expression for the day.
After dumplings, we wander Chinatown and Mike takes photos. He bemoans the light. We will come back later.
We stand in front of one of the still-standing synagogues. His grandparents lived here when they first arrived in Canada before they too moved to North York. We want a shot that might capture the changing history and dynamic of Chinatown. We lurk in a laneway. Mike, is dressed as a photographer should be – inconspicuously. I am not. I try to disappear, to allow a moment to happen. I try. I work in theatre. I make things dramatic. I tell stories. I want to do something.
I tell Mike about the big orange building on Spadina, now home to a few restaurants and businesses. He didn’t know this story. It used to be a synagogue, quite a big one. When it was first converted into a single restaurant, there were stories of ghosts in the women’s washrooms, seen only in the mirror reflection. Word got out, and in spite of their excellent food, the restaurant fell into decline. Superstitions in Chinese are in abundance, and no more so than the fear of spirits of the unsettled dead. The restaurant had to do something. They brought in a Buddhist priest, a Christian priest and a rabbi, who blessed the place. The sightings stopped and business picked up again. For awhile it was a popular spot, but then new management or new ghosts caused the building owners to carve it up into several businesses. I haven’t been there in years. Not because of the ghosts. There are other places, more enticing, with better food. Tastes change.
Mike and I go to the community centre off of Spadina. Is this where the Chinese community is? It is open, but the main hall is empty. It used to be an old synagogue too, among the building’s other uses. Today, it is quiet and the woman at reception looks at us with a bit of curiosity but also bewilderment. We gaze casually at the notices: Chess club, tai chi, yoga, pre-schoolers singalong. What did we expect to find?
We want a coffee. There is a popular chain at Spadina and Dundas. Mike and I wait in line. Is this where the community centres itself? It appears so. Multiple generations of families crowd together, teas, and donuts. It’s not very Chinese, but at the same time, it feels to me very Hong Kong. We are in line, a long one, and I lean in to a conversation going on at the table nearby. Two older Chinese women are speaking, but it is not a dialect that I recognize easily. It has some relationship to Cantonese, because I can catch a few words now and then. They are talking about their grandchildren and complaining about money. I catch that they think girls are more expensive. Then, they use the English words, ‘hockey’ and ‘goalie’. One woman’s grandson wants to start hockey, but the other woman warns her off of it, citing the cost of the equipment. Her granddaughter plays goal and loves it. ‘Soccer’ she tells her friend in English.
Chinatown is changing, Canada is changing. Would Mike’s grandparents recognize it? I barely recognize it sometimes. But to me, the spirit of my parents, and those like my parents who picked up and left everything they knew for a new country emboldens and inspires me.
This Chinatown has changed. Its population has shifted. And the demographics of the restaurants and streets have changed. Driven by economics, Chinatown receded in our imaginations and left the elderly, and the poorer behind – as the suburbs flourished. But the adventurous, the young, they floated back in, perhaps for a cheap meal, or a deal on fresh vegetables. On this weekend, the streets are filled with Toronto citizens from many different ethnic backgrounds, all out for a midday dumpling or a passing whiff of durian.
This area might’ve once belonged to Mike’s grandparents, and to my parents’ generation – but now it belongs to me, to you, to all of us. Toronto’s Chinatown.