For the people who love Chinatown, a piece of this place only lives in memory.
And memories of Chinatown can be vivid — they sometimes feel just as alive as the real, physical spaces. Going to Chinatown in a city that is different from your own can still stir a deep familiarity. It’s a site of common heritage and it represents a collective struggle.
In Chinatown, the past is important. It reminds you of your grandparents, your mom and dad, early morning dim sum, after-school kung fu lessons, banquet nights and lion dances.
But against that backdrop of nostalgia also lives a deeply painful history. You need a good memory in Chinatown because so much has been lost.
Chinatown’s steady decline as a hub of culture and economy in recent years comes as no surprise to people who know its history. Chinatown has always been under attack, ever since its formation. The only thing that’s changed is who’s been leading the charge.
Governments and angry mobs have raided, expropriated and cut Chinatown in half. But now, development and a lack of services are threatening the cultural fabric of these beloved neighbourhoods, with high prices boxing out longtime businesses and area residents.
“Chinatown is an act of resistance,” says Linda Zhang, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Zhang is also a multimedia artist using 3D scanning technology to make records of Toronto’s Chinatown, something she felt an urgency to do because of how quickly the community in her city is changing.
“It’s constantly a resistance to still exist every day. And in that resistance, I think, is a beautiful expansion of what it means to be Canadian.”
Chinatown’s protectors are fighting for the survival of these vital neighbourhoods, and one way they’re doing so is by combating the erasure of Chinese Canadian history.
The last few years have been a reminder that the lessons we should be learning from the past are not being understood.
“2020 came, and a lot of the sentiment and attitudes that have shaped both Chinatown and how Asian Canadians are supposed to behave, all of those things came back,” says Zhang. “We are still understanding this space as a space of infectious disease. All of this pathologized racism is all still there.”
Chinatowns have always been magnets for anti-Asian racism. Historically, that took the form of riots, punitive laws and slum-clearing policies, and in modern urban society, it looks like rising hate crimes, over-policing and vandalism.
The outlets look different but the reasons remain the same. Myths persist that Chinatowns are dirty, that they’re foreign, and that the people who live there are not Canadian. These ideas are rooted in a historical narrative that is still impacting our present.
But these things have never been true. The real history of Chinatown shows us that Chinese people have been here as long as white settlers, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Chinatowns existed before Canada was even a country, and Chinatowns were never centres of disease or debauchery.
Most damning of all, the Canadian government in every era has attacked Chinatown’s residents or actively sought to destroy these neighbourhoods — but this wasn’t the history most of us learned.
Chinatown vs. the freeway
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Canadian and American governments unleashed city planning campaigns to wipe Chinatowns off the map. A popular tool they used was the freeway.
The narrative that local governments used to justify expropriating huge chunks of Chinatown property was that they were clearing slums. Chinatowns, in their eyes, were dirty, diseased and a blight on the city community.
This line of thinking traces its way through Canadian policy from the beginning of Chinatown to the present day: From restrictions on vegetable peddling to banning the employment of white women in Chinatown establishments to the ongoing investigations into the safety of Cantonese barbecue restaurants by health officials (Vancouver conducted its latest in 2019), it’s a familiar pattern.
In 1947, Chinese Canadians won the right to vote, so governments in the 1950s and ’60s had a hard time targeting Chinatown through direct legislation as they had done in the past.
Also at this point, property values in cities were rising. Chinatowns occupied prime real estate because of how old these neighbourhoods are. They had gone from occupying the periphery to being the heart of downtown.
In Canada, freeway plans were drawn up to cut straight through Vancouver and Montreal’s Chinatowns, but they were hardly the only targets. Henry Yu, a professor of history at UBC and co-founder of the university’s Asian Canadian Research Engagement Centre, says that Seattle’s Interstate 5 is the iconic example of a freeway that destroyed the city’s Chinatown.
“Seattle’s one. Chicago’s Chinatown got an off-ramp put right through it. Toronto City Hall took out the first Toronto Chinatown. Los Angeles, it was Union Station,” he says.
In Montreal, the first mentions of a Chinatown date back to 1902, but Chinese immigrants had been living in the city since 1877. During the 1960s and stretching into the 1980s, the municipal government launched a number of public works projects that led to the expropriation of Chinatown.
“They enlarged a boulevard just north of the area that really created a clear distinction between what is in Chinatown and not in Chinatown.… And then a few years later, they created the Ville-Marie expressway just south of Chinatown that really cut Chinatown with Old Montreal. So Chinatown was isolated between these major roads,” recounts Jonathan Cha, a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal who specializes in Montreal’s urban heritage.
On top of that, in the early 1980s, around six acres of Chinatown was expropriated for the construction of the Complexe Guy-Favreau, a group of government office buildings and rental properties. An additional city block was taken to build the Palais des congrès de Montréal convention centre.
“By this, they demolished maybe a quarter or third of Chinatown,” says Cha.
“It wasn’t as bad as Toronto, but I mean, Chinatown certainly became very, very small, and within very strict boundaries.”
Among Canada’s major Chinatowns, Montreal’s is the smallest. Cha and fellow Chinese Canadian professionals and activists banded together in 2019 to establish the Chinatown Working Group to combat further development and erasure in the area.
In January 2022, they were successful in lobbying the municipal government to name Chinatown a heritage site.
“That was a huge victory. A major step after more than two years of hard work,” says Cha.
But he stresses that more action is needed to protect the area and its residents.
Vancouver’s Chinatown has been protected under heritage legislation since 1971, and that came, in part, out of a fight to stop a freeway from bisecting the area.
Yu says that in the 1950s, plans were being drawn up for a third crossing between Vancouver and North Vancouver. The plan called for a freeway to be built right in the heart of Chinatown and the adjacent Strathcona neighbourhood.
A trio of forces formed from the businesses of Chinatown, Strathcona residents and progressive city planners at UBC to fight the freeway. They wanted to combat displacement and saw how other North American cities had destroyed their downtown cores by building freeways through them.
“It’s interesting because Vancouver stops it and keeps a vibrant downtown,” Yu says. “That’s what makes Vancouver such a number one/number two place to live in the world. We never destroyed the downtown.”
Without a freeway, Vancouver remains walkable and livable. People live and work in the downtown core because there isn’t a freeway to escape to the suburbs at night. Property values and populations remain high, businesses are supported, streets stay safe, and the downtown keeps its character and culture.
“So it’s not that Chinatown was saved from the freeway. Vancouver was saved by Chinatown,” Yu says.
Finding the first Chinatown
It’s helpful to know this modern history to understand that the government posed a direct threat to Chinatown’s survival much more recently than you might have expected. But to truly understand how intertwined racism has been with the evolution of Chinatown, we need to go back further.
The history you might have learned in class goes that European adventurers came in the 1600s, developed the fur trade and over time settled in Canada. Chinese workers were brought in to build the railroad because they were cheap labour, and they all lived in a place called Chinatown.
What that simplistic, surface-level story erases is how Chinese settlers helped build the fur trade, laid the groundwork for Canada’s longest-enduring industries, and were pushed into Chinatowns because of institutional discrimination.
The first permanent, non-Indigenous settlement in what is now B.C. was established by Capt. John Meares in Nuu-chah-nulth territory. The year was 1788, a century before the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) would be completed, and in his expedition was a group of 50 Chinese migrants.
“In fact, they built the ship that everyone arrived on,” says Yu.
Yu recounts that Chinese trappers were already catching pelts in the Pacific Northwest and bringing them back to sell in China even before the 1788 outpost was built. But we can’t even say that these migrants are the first Chinese Canadians because the concept of Canada didn’t exist yet.
“There’s no Canada in 1788,” Yu laughs. “And yet, we want to go back and say that’s the first Chinese (who came) to Canada. There’s no Canada, no British Columbia.”
The first beginnings of a Chinatown came after a major influx of Chinese workers from San Francisco and Hong Kong joined the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858. A number of them settled in and created the first Chinatown in Canada in Victoria — nearly a decade before Confederation — and marked the year that British Columbia was declared a colony.
According to these facts, Chinatown predates Canada and helped create the province of B.C.
The University of Victoria estimates that, by the spring of 1860, Vancouver Island was inhabited by 1,577 Chinese people and 2,884 white settlers, meaning that for every two white people you saw on the island, you were likely to see at least one Chinese settler as well.
Migrants came mainly from provinces in the Cantonese Pearl River Delta region because of widespread poverty in southern China and the existence of established Canadian immigration ties from the fur trade. It was much easier to get to the Pacific Northwest by boat because no railway existed, which would have brought in European settlers who landed in Eastern Canada.
By the time B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, 211 Chinese inhabitants were already living in Victoria’s Chinatown. One of the largest companies in the city was a Chinese import/export outfit called Kwong Lee & Co.; it was second in size only to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The myth of the 'white man’s country'
The Chinese residents of Victoria’s Chinatown didn’t call it that when they settled there in 1858. It was Tong Yan Gai, or Street of the Tong, referring to how Cantonese people were brought into the Chinese Empire during the Tang dynasty. You’ll likely see this name, 唐人街, on Chinatown gates to this day.
“In English, they began to be called Chinatowns by non-Chinese. And so that name stuck,” says Yu.
He explained that the concept of a Chinatown was created by white settlers to herd Chinese people into one area. But despite housing covenants that prevented people of Chinese descent from owning property in certain areas, Chinese Canadians have lived all over B.C., especially in the Cariboo region, for nearly two centuries.
When the CPR was completed in 1885 — thanks to around 15,000 Chinese labourers — European migrants flocked to settle in the West. When they arrived at the terminus station in present-day Vancouver, they found it wasn’t the “white man’s country” they had been promised.
“As soon as people started to arrive from Europe, they looked around and said, ‘Oh my gosh, who are all these Indigenous people? And who are these Chinese? What are they doing here? Let’s get rid of them,’” says Yu.
“And that’s the story that those who organized around white supremacy told. ‘These people, they don’t belong here. They’re coming to take away our jobs,’” Yu explained. “In most industries, the Chinese were already in those jobs.”
As the last spike was being nailed in the country’s transnational railway, Canadian lawmakers were wetting their pens, ready to pivot from actively importing Chinese workers to building obstacles in their path.
In 1885, the first head tax on Chinese immigrants was established. A $50 tax to enter the country was created for all Chinese newcomers specifically to deter immigration (a prior government commission found that the average Chinese labourer only saved about $43 a year).
Despite these measures, Chinese immigration did not stop; uprisings, famine and poverty were still pushing thousands of Cantonese people out of the Pearl River Delta and over the ocean to Canada.
The same year that Vancouver was incorporated as a city, 1886, was also when its Chinatown was first documented, with around 90 residents at Carrall Street and East Pender.
Over the next decades, white settlement in B.C. would far outstrip Chinese settlement due to preferential immigration and land allotment.
But the construction of the CPR also had an opposite reaction: as white settlers moved west, Chinese Canadians were moving east.
A tale of two Chinatowns
Toronto’s history holds the tale of two Chinatowns: two Chinese urban centres that were destroyed, and the two that remain.
Toronto’s first Chinatown started forming in the 1890s, but the first Chinese business was a laundry owned by Sam Ching in 1878. The only thing we know about this particular piece of history is a name, date and address — no other information remains.
It raised the head tax to $100 and then $500 by 1903. By the time the head tax was replaced by the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, the Canadian government had extracted $23 million from just under 100,000 Chinese migrants.
What was labelled an immigration act was actually one of exclusion. Starting in 1923, Canada Day has been known as Humiliation Day for those who still remember the almost 25 years the Canadian government outright banned Chinese immigration.
“The timing of how Chinatowns are developed and how they’re displaced basically follow immigration policies across Canada and the U.S.,” says Zhang. “The timing, if you look at different cities, is uncannily similar. It’s always tied to some legal immigration-related policy.”
This rings true for both Vancouver and Toronto’s Chinatown, which saw growth in the late 1800s and faced attacks in the early 1900s with the advent of the head tax.
In Vancouver in 1907, a massive three-day riot nearly destroyed Chinatown because 10,000 disgruntled white Canadians perceived Asian workers to be stealing their jobs.
In Toronto, the original Chinatown burned down in 1904 and the municipal government used that as an excuse to displace its residents. The area was expropriated and redeveloped into Union Station, and Chinese Torontonians moved their base to the Ward neighbourhood, in what is now the heart of downtown Toronto.
Chinatowns were severely in decline between 1923 and 1967 while Chinese exclusion and race-based immigration policies were in effect. This phenomenon played out in the advent of western Chinese cuisine.
“There’s not enough Chinese to be customers,” says Yu. “For Chinese restaurants in the 1910s and ’20s, you could have a restaurant in Chinatown and most of your customer base could be (Chinese labourers) that are resting between jobs.”
But as populations in Chinatowns dwindled, restaurateurs had to pivot to attract a white customer base. Popular Cantonese dishes were sweetened and deep-fried to appeal to a western palette.
In the same year Chinese exclusion ended in Canada, Toronto’s city council decided to expropriate Chinatown a second time to build a new city hall. The razing of the Chinatown in the Ward was justified as a means of slum-clearing — the same story Vancouver and Montreal told to justify the building of freeways.
“I think a lot of people have the misconception that, at that time, it was a dirty place or it wasn’t like a nice Chinatown. It was actually a super-nice Chinatown,” Zhang says.
“There were many really well-known and loved restaurants that also had separate clubs, and had dance parties that were not just serving the Chinese community — because of course, if they did that, they knew they’d be displaced. They were already very strategic, and had broad audiences across mainstream Toronto.”
Two-thirds of the Ward’s Chinatown was levelled and replaced with Nathan Phillips Square and Toronto City Hall in the 1960s, but the slow construction process gave Chinatown leaders enough time to start shifting their hub over to Spadina.
Chinatowns across the country experienced a renaissance in the 1970s with the removal of all race-based immigration restrictions and a flood of investment from Hong Kong. There was so much new Chinese development that a second Chinatown formed in Toronto’s Riverdale district.
But even during this time of so-called revival, Chinese people were still targets of racist aggression.
Kwoi Gin arrived in Toronto’s Chinatown West in 1967. He says his father owned the first vegetarian restaurant on Baldwin Avenue and he used to work as a dim sum boy at the restaurant of famed activist Jean Lumb.
“When I first came to Chinatown it was mostly a poor, low-income Irish neighbourhood. And I actually got bullied and beat up a lot when I first came here; it was really depressing,” Gin recounts.
“I was nine years old and I got death threats after school.”
Over time, Gin witnessed the establishment of Toronto’s Chinatown West into a community where everyone knew his name. When he first graduated from art school and needed lighting equipment to start his career in film, the community was there to help him.
“My family is very small here, so the Gins didn’t have a family association in Toronto. So (Lumb) took me to the Wongs, because my father was a paper son, so I’m a fake Wong. And then she took me to the Lum Association, because she was a member there. And my grandmother was a Li; she took me to like three different family associations.”
Family associations and benevolent societies have long played a role in Chinatown, and are an example of the strong co-ethnic ties among Chinese Canadians. They were a means through which the community could help itself, because no one else would.
“Especially if your life revolved around Chinatown, which was cash-based, you wouldn’t have a credit rating. And in order to get a mortgage from a white bank, you have to have a credit rating,” Kwoi explained. “If you don’t have that, you can’t buy a house. So you’d go to family associations and things like that, that allowed everybody to help each other out.”
Now, Gin is taking the support that Chinatown gave him and paying it forward. He, along with a number of Toronto-based artists and activists, established the Long Time No See Collective to help revive the community spirit in Toronto’s Chinatowns.
The organization’s posters can be seen dotted around the neighbourhood, giving a human face to what Chinatown represents.
Reimagining the past
For so long, the prevailing narrative about Chinese Canadian history has been that Chinese labour built the railroad.
It’s a reductive story, but it’s emblematic of a centuries-long campaign to minimize Chinese contributions and erase Chinese spaces from Canada. It leads to feelings of entitlement over who belongs in Canada, what is Canadian and who is an “other.”
The stories of the past affect the present and that can be seen in every hate-motivated attack against a Chinese Canadian. When a Chinese Canadian is told to go back to where they came from, a history of lies and erasure is also to blame.
In January, the University of Victoria surveyed almost 900 first- and second-generation Canadians. One in four reported that they had been physically attacked in Canada. A third of respondents had been personally threatened.
In 2021, hate crimes against East and Southeast Asian people rose by 301 per cent. Incidences of anti-Asian hate crimes occurring in Vancouver’s Chinatown also rose by 300 per cent and 425 per cent in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Just last Friday, a senior in Vancouver’s Chinatown was attacked with bear spray.
This rise in hate is coupled with high levels of poverty in Chinatown. According to a 2016 report by the City of Vancouver, half of Chinatown’s residents are in the lowest 20 per cent of earners in Canada. Seniors, in particular, are four times more likely to have low incomes.
A neighbourhood profile of Toronto’s Chinatown found that 40 per cent of Chinatown’s residents live in poverty, according to the market basket measure — double the 20 per cent average across the city. Almost half of residents are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
It’s clear that Chinatowns need support, but they simply aren’t getting enough. And while Chinatowns have weathered many storms in the past, that doesn’t mean that we can take their continued existence for granted.
Amy Shuang Wong is another member of the Long Time No See Collective, and she represents the younger wave of activists who are carrying the torch alongside multi-decade Chinatown residents like Gin.
She perceives a real threat to Chinatown because spaces are fragile. With modern development, they can change and be erased so easily.
“I think that it’s the people and the culture that are resilient, and not the space. Whatever spaces we get chased out of, we’ll find another,” she says. “I think that the culture and people will always find each other.”
She says that so many people are fighting to save Chinatowns across the country because “we want to hold on to what we’ve got.”
“Because we can’t just keep restarting over and over and over again.”
Chinese Canadian history is a history of displacement, of packing up and starting again. But perhaps it’s time to disrupt that legacy.
Chinatowns shouldn’t have to live in memory only.