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Chinatown Histories

An Incomplete History of Toronto’s
Downtown Chinatowns

In downtown Toronto, two historic Chinese neighbourhoods have already come to pass. “The first known Chinese area in Toronto was along York St., south of Wellington; redevelopment of this area from 1910-20 forced a move to Elizabeth St. and the south-side of Queen.”[1] Soon after, in 1947, two thirds of this new Chinese neighbourhood along Elizabeth St. (known today as “Old Chinatown”) was expropriated by city council to make way for New City Hall.[2] Following the construction of New City Hall in the 1960s, Chinatown moved, for the third time, to its current home along Spadina Ave. and Dundas Street, known as “Chinatown West”. From 1971, a fourth urban chinatown, known as “Chinatown East” began to emerge at Gerrard Street East and Broadview Avenue in response to the increasingly unaffordable property values in Chinatown West.

In contrast to the earlier years of expropriation, Toronto’s East and West Chinatowns have become economically desirable as sites of tourism, today. And both sites have received support from the city, reflecting Canada’s changing attitude towards immigration and multiculturalism on a national scale.

Passed on Jan 21, 1980, Zoning By-law No.99-80 amended the Official Plan for the City of Toronto and designated a portion of Chinatown West as an “Area of Special Identity” which “encourage[d] the provisions of decorative elements to complement and the emerging Chinese motif, such as illuminated signs, street furniture and architectural detail”.[3] Meanwhile, in Chinatown East on Sept 12, 2009, the city celebrated the opening of Toronto’s first Zhong Hua Men Archway; a 10-year joint project between the City of Toronto and the Chinese Community, including the Chinese government.[4] Yet, in 2017, the City of Toronto’s Public Art and Donation Policy expressly excluded commemorative ethnocultural donations requiring that “work must feature a significant contribution from Canadians, or be an event that occurred in Canada.” [5]

These conflicting urban planning policies illustrate the complexity of fostering inclusive and diverse heritage practice within Canada’s multicultural context. How do we define “Chineseness”? How does this relate to what is considered Canadian heritage? How has this been shaped by notions of appropriation, diversity, and cultural exchange? Chinatowns are one of the few globally accepted (and acceptable) public (and overt) displays of ethnocultural heritage. And, the Chinese diaspora are one of the few marginalized ethnic groups who have frequently chosen to exaggerate and portray themselves as exotic or distinct from mainstream Canadian culture. A closer look at the architectural origins of Chinatown reveals that this choice was often a survival tactic during a time of historical exclusion and struggle. [6]Threatened by expulsion following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Chinese community strategically hired American architects (who knew little about Chinese architecture and who had never been to China) to design and build a Chinatown distinctly “Chinese” that all Americans could appreciate (understand) and enjoy (consume). These mistranslated “Chinese” architecture elements and motifs form the basis of Chinatowns we know and love today. These mistranslations are still in wide circulation in the architecture of Chinese diaspora around the world today. Over the years, they too have taken on new values and meanings. Learning from these tensions in urban and interior architecture, we hope to more critically engage and safeguard the future heritage(s) of Toronto’s Chinatowns.

[1] Toronto Star (1971-2015); Oct 15, 1992; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Toronto Star pg. E3
[2]Toronto Daily Star (1900*1971); Apr 1, 1955; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Toronto Star pg. 33 Of note is the fact that this expropriation occurred during the height of Elizabeth St.’s restaurant boom with the infamous Nanking Tavern opening in 1947 and Lichee Garden and Club opening in 1948. (Toronto Star (1971-2015); Jun 7, 2015; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Toronto Star pg. IN4)
[3] City of Toronto, By-Law No.99-80 to adopt an amendment to Part I of the Official Plan for the City of Toronto Planning Area respecting South-East Spadina (Toronto, Canada, 1980)
[4] Commemorative Plaque: The Making of the Toronto “Zhong Hua Men” Archway (Toronto, Canada, 2009).
[5]Toronto’s 2017 Public Art and Donation Policy states: “For commemorative donations, the theme of the proposed work must feature a significant contribution from Canadians, or be an event that occurred in Canada. If the event the donor wishes to commemorate neither occurred in Canada nor prominently features Canadians, then the event being commemorated must be officially recognized by the Government of Canada.”
[6] In face of threats of displacements, post-earthquake in San Francisco 1906, Chinese communities deliberately promoted chinatown as a “tourist mecca, in hopes that its improved image would help ameliorate the relationship with the community at large.” Philip Choy, San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012)

Project Team

Amy Yan (she/her) is a graduate of the Ryerson School of Interior Design in Toronto. She is interested in exploring the intersections between design and storytelling with her work, and in finding new ways to be able to convey narratives that can be experienced visually, emotionally and at all scales. Her passions include illustration, 3D prototyping and longboarding.
IG: @aypproductions

Linda Zhang (she/her) is an artist, a licensed architect, certified advanced operations drone pilot and educator. She is a principal at Studio Pararaum and an assistant professor at Ryerson SID. Her research areas include memory, cultural heritage, and identity as they are indexically embodied through emergent technologies, matter, and material processes.
IG: @lindayzhang @pararaum


多伦多市中心两个历史悠久的中国街区已经不复存在。“多伦多最早的华人地区是惠灵顿以南的约克街。1910-20年该地区的重建迫使其搬到了伊丽莎白街和皇后区南侧。”[1] 此后不久,在1947年,这个伊丽莎白街上的新华人街区(今天称为“旧唐人街”)的三分之二被市议会征用,以给新市政厅腾出空间。[2] 20世纪60年代建造新市政厅之后,唐人街进行了第三次搬迁,迁至司帕蒂娜大街和登打士街的现址,被称为“唐人街西区”。从1971年开始,被称为“唐人街东区”的第四个城区唐人街,因唐人街西区日益昂贵的房地产价格而在杰拉德东街和布罗德维尤大街上出现。


1980年1月21日通过的第99-80号分区条例修改了多伦多市官方计划,并指定唐人街西区的一部分为“特别区域”,以“鼓励互补的[d]装饰性元素设施和新兴中国主题,例如灯光闪烁的招牌,街道设施和建筑细节”。[3] 与此同时,2009年9月12日,多伦多在唐人街东区庆祝了多伦多第一个中华门拱门的启用;多伦多市与华人社区(包括中国政府)之间为期十年的联合项目 。[4] 然而,2017年,多伦多市公共艺术与捐赠政策明确排除了纪念性的民族文化捐赠,要求这些捐赠必须以加拿大人的重大贡献为特色,或者是加拿大发生的一件大事。”[5]

这些相冲突的的城市规划政策说明了在加拿大多元文化背景下培育包容性和多样性遗产实践的复杂性。我们如何定义“中国性”?这与被视为加拿大的遗产有什么关系?拨款、多样性和文化交流的观念如何塑造这一点?唐人街是为数不多的为全球所接受(及全球接受)的公共(和公开)展示民族文化遗产的地方之一。而且,华裔散居者是少数经常选择夸大和描绘自己是异国情调或与加拿大主流文化截然不同的边缘化种族之一。仔细观察唐人街的建筑起源,你会发现,在历史排斥和斗争时期,这种选择通常是一种生存策略。[6] 在1906年旧金山地震后遭到驱逐的威胁下,华人社区策略性地雇用了美国建筑师(对中国建筑了解甚少,而且从未去过中国)来设计和建造一个独特的“中国”唐人街,所有美国人都可以欣赏(理解)并享受(消费)。这些被误解的“中国”建筑元素和图案构成了我们如今所认识和喜爱的唐人街基础。这些误解在当今世界上的华人建筑中仍在广泛流传。 多年来,它们也有了新的价值和意义。从城市和室内建筑的这些冲突中汲取教训,我们希望更批判性地参与和保护多伦多唐人街未来的遗产。

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