Sam Ching was a trailblazer — the first Chinese immigrant to have his business — Sam Ching & Co. Chinese laundry at 9 Adelaide St. E. — recorded in the Toronto City Directory, an annual official listing of residents, their occupations, businesses and addresses.
That was in 1878.
This laneway acknowledgement — though it didn’t come until 2012 — is significant. It is located near Ching’s original address and not far from what would be Toronto’s first Chinatown. The laneway sign is a reminder of the contributions made by early Chinese immigrants to the city, and the racist attitudes and policies they had to contend with, from special business and head taxes to outright immigration bans.
Ching’s hand laundry — a common way to make a living for early Chinese immigrants who faced barriers of language and discrimination — was located inSt. John’s Ward — the area bordered by College St., Queen St. E., University Ave. and Yonge St. Known as The Ward, it was home to waves of immigrants and refugees from vastly different countries and it became notorious as an overcrowded slum.
There was no specific Chinatown in Ching’s day but by 1915, there was a “clearly defined” Chinese community on and around York St., according to Toronto author Arlene Chan, who wrote The Chinese in Toronto from 1878, From Outside to Inside the Circle.
By 1921 that community had grown to more than 2,000 and had settled around Dundas St. W. and along Elizabeth St. (which then ran south to Queen St. W.) west of Terauley St. (now Bay St.) and east of Spadina Ave. This became the epicentre of historic Chinatown, and for decades it was a bustling community with a plethora of restaurants, laundries and small grocery, dry goods and tea importing stores.
It offered Chinese residents familiar foods and language, comfort and support in a society that was not particularly welcoming. Storekeepers and laundry workers often lived on site in cramped conditions. Laundries, especially in the early years, had a small storefront reception, while behind a partition, kettles, washtubs, scrubbing boards and irons awaited.
“The absence of family life and the priority to save money led to living conditions that reflected little concern for personal health and well-being,” Chan writes. But while Toronto’s early Chinatown was “crowded and unsanitary, these conditions were equally true of other city neighbourhoods,” Chan notes.
But once the railway was built, the federal government decided it needed to “restrict and regulate Chinese immigration,” so it passed the 1885 Chinese Immigrant Act, levying a “head tax” of $ 50 on any Chinese person coming to Canada (increased to $ 100 in 1900 for further discouragement, and $ 500 in 1903).
In an 1886 speech to Parliament, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald admitted the racism behind the tax: “I do not think that it would be to the advantage of Canada or any other country occupied by Aryans for members of the Mongolian race to become permanent inhabitants of the country.”
However, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia it was “largely because of the trans-Canada railway” that the Chinese spread out and developed communities across the nation, including Toronto.
It wasn’t easy. They had to put up with the press of the day and politicians who promoted negativity towards Chinese immigrants and used terms like “yellow peril.”
A Toronto Star editorial in 1908 referred to comments made by (future prime minister) Mackenzie King, who was heading a Royal Commission in B.C., following anti-Chinese riots and referred to “the seductive vices of Orientalism,” meaning gambling and opium dens. (Before 1908, opium use was legal in Canada.) The Star surmised this “bears very directly and suggestively on the desirability or otherwise of Chinese immigration.”
In other words, there was a belief among the power brokers of the day that Chinese immigrants could corrupt the morals of Canadians with gambling and drug abuse and they would not easily assimilate.
When Chinese immigrants were charged in crimes, newspaper coverage invariably mentioned their race and often included racist epithets of the day.
A 1927 a front page Star story reported, “11-year-old girl slain and four men injured by a maniac Chinaman”’ It turned out that the accused man, Fong Yong, had previously been in “an insane asylum” in Ontario and had been released.
Racism also coloured business problems faced by Chinese immigrants.
The Laundry Association of Toronto, composed of white business owners, was upset by the competition posed by Chinese laundries which offered cheap rates and quick turnaround. Toronto City Archives notes on its website that in 1902, the association asked council to levy a license fee: “It wanted to stop Chinese newcomers from starting more laundries.” By this time, close to 100 Chinese laundries were operating in the city.
At first the city’s property committee approved a license fee of $ 50, no matter the size of the business. This unduly hurt the smaller Chinese-run outfits. But Toronto’s first African-Canadian politician, Alderman William Hubbard, didn’t think that was fair, and got the fee reduced to $ 5 to $ 20, depending on the laundry size.
Restaurants, which also had relatively low start-up costs, had been the other primary occupation for Chinese immigrants, ever since Sing Tom opened Toronto’s first Chinese café at 371-2 Queen St. W. in 1901, opposite Toronto’s city hall (now the Old City Hall).
But again, racism reared its head.
To run the restaurants, low-cost part-time help was needed. By 1910 there were more than 1,000 Chinese in Toronto but the majority were men, because of the Head Tax. Most men wanted full-time work, but white women were willing to work part-time in Chinese restaurants.
However, this revived fears of opium corruption and white slavery — even if not backed up with any stated facts. As author Chan puts it, contact between Chinese men and white women was discouraged: “The fear was that Chinese were an amoral and evil influence on innocent girls and women . . . ”
In 1908, Toronto’s city solicitor advised the Board of Police Commissioners to refuse licences to Chinese restaurateurs who employed white women. Chinese restaurant owners protested and the policy was rarely enforced. Then, in 1914, the province of Ontario passed a law (similar to those enacted around the same time in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia) forbidding Chinese businesses from hiring white women.
Not surprisingly, Chinese restaurant owners protested vigorously and in essence, won the day. The law stayed on the books but was rarely enforced.
But in 1928, the issue came up again. It may have had something to do with the ongoing increase in Chinese restaurants (from 32 in 1917 to 202 by 1923). Again, Chinese businessmen objected, calling it a “national insult.’’
Also, contributing to the raw feelings was the fact the federal government’s Exclusion Act was in place. The 1923 Act banned all Chinese immigration (with exceptions, like diplomats) and forced all Chinese, even those born in Canada, to get identity cards (it would stand until 1947).
An August 25, 1928, front page Star story quoted one unnamed Chinese spokesperson as saying the law against hiring white women was “unfair and unequal. We pay the same taxes and are as good citizens as anyone else in the city, so why should we be treated thus?”
Again, the furor died down and the situation went back to the law being on the books but not enforced.
Most people who went to Chinatown cafes — which specialized in Chinese, not Canadian, dishes — weren’t thinking about the colour of their server’s skin — they just wanted good affordable food. Chan says in her book that many visiting vaudeville actors in the 1920s loved going to Chinatown restaurants. Actor Edward G. Robinson apparently swore that “12 1/2 (Elizabeth St.) was the best place to eat” in the 1920s. The actor, who performed on stage at Shea’s Hippodrome Theatre, was referring to two restaurants — Hung Fah Low and Jung Wah, which shared that address.
Over the years, certain dishes made for western tastes — chop suey (meaning “mixed bits”), chow mein (fried noodles) and egg foo young — became as popular in Toronto Chinatown restaurants as they were in cities elsewhere.
Of course, during Prohibition, Chinatown restaurants — like others across Toronto — were sometimes raided by police. In 1918 police arrested Youk You, owner of a restaurant at 12 Elizabeth St., for selling Chinese whisky in teapots for 25 cents.
On Nov. 18, 1919, the Star reported that a mob of 400 men and boys descended upon “Hop War Low’s café at 31 Elizabeth St., stole $ 300 in cash” and then ran on, smashing store windows. Police restored order but no arrests were made.
By 1921, Toronto had the third-largest Chinatown in Canada with 2,019 Chinese men and 115 Chinese women, according to Statistics Canada.
But the Depression — which rolled across Canada from 1929 to 1939 — took its toll. By the early 1940s many Chinatown restaurants had folded or had fallen into disrepair. Chinese laundries had given way to larger-scale enterprises, home appliances and laundromats.
Urban change was afoot. City funding to redevelop The Ward and build a new City Hall and Civic Square at Terauley St. (Bay St.) and Queen St. W. was approved in 1947 — the same year that Chinese Canadians were granted the right to vote federally. The Canadian government repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act at the end of the Second World War because it contravened the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. This meant those Chinese who were Canadian citizens could apply to sponsor family members — only 2,055 of 34,627 people. Full liberalization of immigration policy didn’t come until 1967.
The plan for the new City Hall meant expropriation and destruction of most of the buildings in Chinatown. By 1958, two-thirds of Chinatown was destroyed. Today a few buildings on Dundas St. W., Elizabeth St. and Hagerman St. survive.
The opening of Toronto’s new City Hall in 1965 did not end the talk of expropriating the remaining buildings on Elizabeth St. But this time the Chinese community fought back and in 1967 a Save Chinatown Committee was established. It was a coalition headed by restaurateur Jean Lumb. Their passionate plea to city council in 1969 to save what was left of Chinatown — one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city — was successful. Other demolition proposals in 1970 and 1975 were also quashed. Lumb received the Order of Canada in 1976 for her efforts.
Some of the businesses relocated to the Spadina Ave. and Dundas St. W. area, now called west Chinatown. It’s one of five Chinatown “hubs’’ in the Greater Toronto Area, according to the Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Area website. The other four are at Broadview Ave. and Gerrard St. in the east-end, Markham-Richmond Hill, Scarborough and Mississauga.
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