Chinatown, Toronto, Canada

Chinatown, Toronto

Toronto's Chinatown (多倫多華埠) is an ethnic enclave in Downtown Toronto with a high concentration of ethnic Chinese residents and businesses, extending along Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue. First developed in the late 19th century, it is now one of the largest Chinatowns in North America and one of several major Chinese-Canadian communities in the Greater Toronto Area.


The earliest record Toronto's Chinese community is traced to Sam Ching, who owned a hand laundry business on Adelaide Street in 1878. Ching was the first Chinese person listed in the city's directory. Despite strict limitations placed on Chinese immigration with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, Chinatown took shape over the next two decades along Bay Street and Elizabeth Street, as hundreds of Chinese men settled in Toronto from western Canada after helping to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

By 1910, the Chinese population in Toronto numbered over one thousand. Hundreds of Chinese-owned businesses had developed, comprised mainly of restaurants, grocery stores and hand laundries. By the 1930s, Chinatown was a firmly established and well-defined community that extended along Bay Street between Dundas Street and Queen Street. Like the rest of the country, Chinatown suffered a severe downturn in the Great Depression, with the closing of more than 116 hand laundries and hundreds of other businesses. The community began to recover after World War II as Canada's general economic fortunes improved. The Chinese population greatly increased between 1947 and 1960, as students and skilled workers arrived from Hong Kong, Guangdong and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and the West Indies.

When plans emerged in the late 1950s to construct the new Toronto City Hall at the intersection of Queens Street and Bay Street, it became clear that most of Chinatown would be displaced by the project. As Chinese businesses began to relocate, some stores were taken over by other developers, and most stores that occupied the project site were cleared through expropriation. Construction on City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square began in 1961. The Chinese community migrated westward to Chinatown's current location along Spadina Avenue, although a handful of Chinese businesses still remain around Bay and Dundas.


Toronto's Chinatown is one of the largest in North America. It is centred on the intersection of Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue, and extends outward from this point along both streets. With the population changes of recent decades, it has come to reflect a diverse set of East Asian cultures through its shops and restaurants, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai. The major Chinese malls in the area are Dragon City and Chinatown Centre.

Since the 1990s, Chinatown has been struggling to redefine itself in the face of an aging Chinese population and the declining number of tourists visiting the enclave. As the aging population shrank, revenues of businesses in the neighbourhood also decreased. While the majority of the grocery stores and shops remain, most of the once-famed restaurants on Dundas, especially the barbecue shops located below grade, have closed since 2000.

Competition from commercial developments in suburban Chinese communities also drew wealth and professional immigrants away from downtown. Unlike those newer developments in the suburbs, Chinatown's economy relies heavily on tourism and Chinese seniors. As many of the younger, higher-income immigrants settled elsewhere in the city, those left in the district are typically from older generations who depend on downtown's dense concentration of services and accessibility to public transportation. Ethnic Chinese from Vietnam are now the faces of old Chinatown Toronto and turning some parts into Little Saigon.

In the 2000s, downtown neighbourhoods became more attractive to urban professionals and young people who work in the Financial District, leading to the gentrification of surrounding areas and potentially changing the face of old Chinatown.


Historically, Toronto's Chinatown has been represented by immigrants and families from southern China and Hong Kong. Since the transfer of Hong Kong's sovereignty to the People's Republic of China in 1997, immigrants from mainland China have greatly exceeded those from Hong Kong. However, at present Cantonese remains the primary language used by businesses and restaurants in Chinatown. The Chinese immigrant population now consists of distinct subgroups: while some Vietnamese Chinese, who generally arrived as impoverished refugees, continue to reside in old Chinatown, others now live in suburban Mississauga; the wealthy Hong Kong Chinese now tend settle in Markham and Richmond Hill. Among new immigrants, those who settle in the historic Chinatown tend to be Mainland Chinese.

Recently, an influx of students mainly from the adjacent Ontario College of Art and Design, as well as some from Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, arrived in search for affordable housing and accelerated the gentrification of the district. The area has also seen a surge in Latin American immigrants. The changes bring a more multicultural flavour to the district, but may gradually reduce or eliminate its identity as Chinatown.

Translation of street names

A number of streets in Chinatown are bilingual, a feature first introduced in the 1970s.

East Chinatown

As property values increased in downtown Chinatown, many Chinese Canadians migrated to Toronto's east end in Riverdale. A second, somewhat smaller, Chinese community was formed, centred on Gerrard Street East between Broadview Avenue and Carlaw Avenue. Chinese-Vietnamese and mainland Chinese immigrants dominate this district. East Chinatown, though, is somewhat smaller than Toronto's main Chinatown, but is growing. The main part of East Chinatown is located between Broadview Avenue, and Carlaw Avenue, on Gerrard Street. At the north-most corner of East Chinatown (NW corner, Broadview & Gerrard Street), there is the Riverdale branch of the Toronto Public Library. This branch is quite bilingual in Chinese and English. East Chinatown can be accessed by taking the 504 King, the 505 Dundas, or the 506 Carlton Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) streetcars.

In popular culture

The 1999 Chow Yun-Fat film The Corruptor was set in the New York City Chinatown, with scenes filmed in the Chinatowns of New York and Toronto.

The television series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues was filmed in Chinatown at Spadina and Dundas for many episodes of its 1993-1997 run. Filmed in Toronto, it portrays the Chinatown of an unidentified major U.S. city.

Toronto's Chinatown is featured prominently in the 2008 collection of short stories The Chinese Knot and Other Stories by Lien Chao.

Suburban Chinese communities

With the changes in Chinese immigration patterns in the past decades, several new Chinese enclaves or new "Chinatowns" have been developed in suburban parts of Greater Toronto. The largest clusters of commercial developments are located in Agincourt, where commercial plazas developed along several main roads; in Markham along Steeles Avenue between Esna Park Drive and McCowan Road, centred on Market Village Mall, Pacific Mall and Splendid China Tower; along Highway 7 spanning Markham and Richmond Hill; and in Mississauga, at Dundas Street and Tomken Road.

See also


External links

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