Chinatown in Toronto, Multicultural Megalopolis
Toronto is widely known for its multicultural diversity. There are many different cultures which have resided in this city, creating ethnic enclaves throughout. Throughout this essay, I will specifically be focusing on changes occurring within Chinatown.
Toronto consists of many Chinatowns that have been removed, relocated and subsequently transformed over many years. Chinatown West expands from Dundas Street West to Spadina Avenue, it has one of the largest Chinatowns within North America. A man named Sam Ching was one of the first to immigrate to Toronto and began a laundry business which lead to many other laundry businesses to open, all run by Chinese immigrants (D, 2016). The first Chinese settlers became self-employed by opening a laundromat in the 1870s, this occupation remaining dominant for many years until the immigrant population grew within the city (Derek, 2017). The first Chinatown was located along Elizabeth Street, which has now transformed to Toronto Civic Hall and Nathan Philips Square. Chinatown West once used to be the Jewish district of Toronto and is commonly referred to as Old Chinatown.
A woman names Jean Lumb attempted to keep Chinatown relevant by creating a committee to save Chinatown when there was a city plan to demolish the town. There was a very small population within the area originally settled up until the first major Chinatown was created in Dundas Street West (Derek, 2017). Chinatown West is now located around the corner of Dundas Street and Spadina Avenue as markets, restaurants and many other small businesses occupy the streets. It has a great amount of history including relocating as part of its revitalization; it is constantly undergoing changes as it continues to grow. Considering this, will the culture and heritage of Chinese culture be lost in the future of Chinatown West? As many immigrants continue to reside in Chinatown West, more ethnicities are being introduced rather than solely those of the Chinese. This means changes for Chinatown West, as a new culture is introduced. Due to the long history of Chinatown in Toronto, there are many staple restaurants, markets and small businesses that were the original buildings of Chinatown. These buildings are being torn down and replaced with newer, more westernized buildings – what does this mean for the future heritage of Chinatown?
Chinatown is transforming and becoming something more than an ethnic enclave of the Chinese. A large presence of Vietnamese culture is now present within Chinatown West, as Vietnamese immigrants are continuing to reside within this cultural landscape. Traditional Chinatowns are based on the idea that only people of Chinese culture reside in these areas, maintaining that a majority of businesses are run by or are catered towards the Chinese. This is an example of transformation within a neighbourhood, as this shows a shift in ethnic presence which is an example of how Western cities have been reshaped. The area that Chinatown West is currently located has transformed from residential housing, garment manufacturing and retailing, into the ethnic phenomenon that it is today. Due to the large immigration of Vietnamese people, many businesses that were owned and operated by Hong Kong Chinese have been relocated. This is a significant factor of how culture is being transformed.
The city of Toronto has put a great effort in supporting Chinatown West by building a mall called Dragon City, which is located in the centre of the town’s core. A framework has been proposed suggesting to better understand the subtleties that leads to a reconfiguration of an ethnic region (Luk, 2005). The steady increase in Chinese-Vietnamese businesses has resulted in Hong Kong Chinese businesses being replaced. They often locate their businesses in an area where people from their own ethnic culture reside, as Chinatowns are ethnic enclaves and each business created is catered towards the Chinese. Keung states that the ethnic economy is a problem due to the fact that there is not one culture/ethnicity present, as it is diverse (Keung, 2019). Resource sharing is thus threatened, as the diverse ethnicities attempt to co-exist in one location, causing challenges in terms of group relations and networks. Luk (2005) states that multiple ethnicities can coexist in an ethnic enclave, reconfiguring Chinatown West into a “new” Chinatown. However, Keung (2019) states that Chinese businesses having to relocate is giving more opportunities for outside communities to take over. Since the article written by Keung (2019) was published fourteen years after Luk’s article (2005), it seems as though Keung is concluding the assumptions made by Luk (2005) are proven to be untrue.
Cultural change is especially evident as significant buildings which shaped Chinatown are being demolished in place of westernized-style buildings. Upon reviewing the relevant literature on the subject, many articles conduct interviews with individuals who have lived in Chinatown for the majority of their lives, inquiring on how the demolition of these significant buildings has effected them. In the article titled “Chinatown Bends Newcomers and Gentrification – Without Breaking”, Kueng (2019) states, “[t]here was the Far East Theatre, which showed newly released Chinese-language movies from Asia in the 1980s and 90s amid the peak of Chinese immigration. It is now a 10-storey midrise condo south of Dundas Street”. Kueng (2019) continues with several other examples including the demolition of a grocery store, and accounting offices being replaced by the Nomad fashion retail store.
As the demand for housing and retail spaces continues to increase in prevalence, more staple buildings are being purchased and torn down. In the article published in The Toronto Star, Banares (2019) states that the staple Chinese food restaurant called Rol San has been purchased by a development company in hopes to transform it to a mixed-use development consisting of studio apartments and retail space due to the high demand. Banares (2019) states, “Tema Smith, a long time Toronto resident who grew up in Chinatown and has frequented Rol San for more than two decades, said she was disappointed when she heard about the restaurant’s potential closure and possible redevelopment” (pg.1). Major markets and small businesses catered to Chinese immigrants are being replaced with westernized functions, taking away from the town’s heritage and culture.
For the purpose of my study, hands-on field research was conducted by walking through China Town and analyzing its changing characteristics. This field research focused mainly on the cultural changes that have ensued since the saturation of Vietnamese individuals and culture, including material changes to Chinatown’s general landscape. The main findings of my field research which will be elaborated upon within this essay are the demolition of significant Chinese cultural buildings and the mass immigration of Vietnamese individuals into Chinatown. These two changes occurring within Chinatown work to displace the previous predominant Chinese culture, which further works to displace Chinese individuals and their businesses. In my hands-on field research, it was evident which buildings have been remodeled, for example, Bright Pearl Restaurant, which was a staple Chinese food restaurant, has been renovated to the current office building from Metropolitan Commercial.
In addition, Chinatown West is highly neglected throughout, it seems as though most of the area is not kept clean. There are great amounts of litter on the sides of the streets, between buildings, in alleyways and even in front of storefronts. The apartment complexes look extremely dirty as well, the balconies are filled with clutter and the exterior of the building is rundown and not up kept. Storefronts are highly neglected as there are missing pieces of signage, sections of the buildings broken or falling apart, and steps damaged and unfixed. This may be an evident as to the reason behind large corporations purchasing small, rundown businesses and renovating them to adhere to the demand of residents or consumers within the area. It is important that the culture is preserved by efforts of restaurant, retail and small business owners to upkeep their space and prevent the process of revitalization and gentrification by large companies or corporations.
In the article titled “Iconic Chinatown Building Gets a Ghastly Makeover”, Mok (2018) states, “[r]enovations on Chinatown’s Hsin Kuang Centre have finally been unveiled after months of construction, and it’s safe to say that Toronto has lost another cultural icon.” This is a prime example of the demolition of buildings that Banares (2019) has elaborated on. Taking away a significant restaurant which represents the authentic heritage of Chinatown is slowly chipping away at the culture of the town all together. This is the result of revitalization and gentrification that has been pushed by the City of Toronto and businesses that focus on a profit in reaction to supply and demand rather than maintaining the culture present. Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world and taking away from the cultural city enclaves will result in hindering the over-all multicultural unity within the city.
Chinatown will constantly be growing and changing, throughout the process of demolition and renovation of buildings by the purpose gentrification and introduction to new ethnicities. In conclusion, both the mass immigration of Vietnamese individuals as well as the demolition of staple Chinese restaurants, markets and small businesses will result in a loss of culture if this pattern continues. Vietnamese presence in Chinatown now makes it a multi-ethnic enclave rather than simply the home to one ethnicity: Chinese. Vietnamese presence will soon exhibit Vietnamese cultural presence creating a false image of what Chinese culture entails. Businesses, restaurants, markets and even festivities that occur throughout Chinatown will soon be altered as other cultural aspects such as ethnic identities and rituals or values. Furthermore, the development of westernized modern buildings continues to occur which will hinder the heritage of the ethnic enclave resulting in gentrification of the multicultural phenomenon that is Toronto.
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