Old Chinatown

In its heyday, in the early 1920s, Toronto’s original Chinatown centered on the Elizabeth/Dundas intersection. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that Chinatown moved west along Dundas to Spadina and became Chinatown West. The prominent family association halls were on Dundas near Elizabeth. The majority of laundries and restaurants in the traditional community were located on Queen Street and stretched along an east-west axis from Yonge Street on the east to St. Patrick Street on the west. There were other concentrations along Yonge, down York, up Elizabeth St, and along Dundas Streets. Seven of the nine groceries specializing Chinese goods were on Elizabeth Street. Many Chinese businesses were gradually taken over by larger non-Chinese businesses and developments or, as in the case of New City Hall, through expropriation. Today, Nathan Phillips Square occupies an area previously dotted with the early Chinese laundries and restaurants.

The year 1923 was the peak era in the early growth of Toronto’s Chinatown. The number of restaurants and laundries in that year is the greatest of any year in the history of the community. The early 1920s were also said to be the most active years of the traditional clan, district and political associations. 1923 is also the year of the Immigration Act which prohibited further Chinese immigration to Canada. Later in the same decade, the Chinese were also seriously affected by the world-wide depression. The number of businesses declined sharply. By 1930, the number of laundries declined to 355; a loss of 116 from 1923. Restaurants also suffered a drastic reduction to only 104 in 1930. In the 1930s and 1940s Chinese businesses stabilized, but at a lower level than in the early 1920s. In 1943 there were 316 laundries and 85 restaurants owned and operated by Chinese. The decline in business was due as much to the death of many of the early Chinese immigrants as to general economic decline. Their loss could not be replaced. Only 44 Chinese entered Canada between 1923 1947, and between 1931 and 1941 Toronto’s Chinese population decreased by more than 400

I remember visiting Chinatown with my grandmother in 1933, when I was eight. Here we entered a shop on Dundas Street, where I recognized that a picture on his wall was of Hong Kong (my mother had a friend who had visited that city and sent her a similar picture). The proprietor was so pleased with this that he gave me some Litchi nuts. Later as a University student, my friends and I patronized the Mandarin Restaurant that was upstairs above a store on Elizabeth Street. It had booths with curtains around the circumference of the larger open area in the center of the floor. It was considered to serve the best Chinese food in the city.

It would appear that the early immigrants from China came from a relatively small area in southern China near Canton City and in Guangdong Province. In fact most came from a single district, Toisan.

Thompson tells us that: “Chinese success in restaurants led more and more Chinese to this economic adaptation. Like the laundry, the small cafe was particularly suited to Chinese social institutions such as the clan where several Chinese “cousins” would invest in a restaurant (which, like the laundry, also served as a home as well as a place of business), share the work, and keep business and personal expenses to a minimum, thereby insuring some small margin of profit. According to one former restaurant owner of this period, Chinese restaurants were substantially cheaper than non-Chinese. An entire meal consisting of soup, sandwich and dessert cost only 20 cents. Most Chinese preferred the restaurant to the laundry as a business enterprise. The initial capital investment was two to three times greater (approximately $500 for a laundry, $1000-$2000 for a restaurant), but so was the margin of profit. In either case the work was hard. A normal work week was fourteen hours a day every day of the week. Hence, the growth of Chinese restaurants seems to have resulted from the relative economic advantages of the cafe over the laundry since each was equally adaptable to Chinese business practices.”

Most information came from “Toronto’s Chinatown, The Changing Social Organization of an Ethnic Community” by Richard H. Thompson AMS Press, Inc. New York 1989.