This is the first in a series of posts by students in OCAD’s Cities for People summer workshop (click the link to read a bit about what the class was about). This East Chinatown post was researched and written by Kevin Liu, Jennifer Yim and Houtina Chim. Be sure to click on the detailed psychogeographic map of the neighbourhood at the end.
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Any true Chinatown is an experience for all senses. You smell a concoction of everything from live fish, cardboard boxes full of bok choy, to whiffs of barbecue-sauced pork. You hear the grocery store workers boast of discounts in thick rural Chinese accents, and you see an array of amateur signage in a jumbled assortment of colours and languages. We walk through the intersection of Broadview and Gerrard often, passing by without a second glance. Chinatown is Chinatown, we think to ourselves. But take a closer look into East Chinatown, and you’ll realize that although signs may be up, the interiors are largely empty—reminiscent of what was once a much livelier neighbourhood.
You’ll begin to notice the shops that are left. These mostly tend to be grocery stores and Vietnamese restaurants. The ones that aren’t Vietnamese have remained relatively unchanged for over a decade.
The tale of East Chinatown is one of decline that accelerated ten years ago during Toronto’s bid for the 2008 summer Olympic games. Proposals to build the Olympic village near East Chinatown raised its surrounding property values. But as we all know, in 2001, Toronto lost that bid to Beijing; and in turn, down went the property values until the development of the film studios by the southern Portlands. As land value rose again, the Chinese living in the community took the opportunity to sell their houses for more than double what they originally bought them for and with the returns moved up north amongst the new generation of established Hong Kong immigrants.
Today, you don’t have to go to a Chinatown to get kai lan (Chinese broccoli) or Hoisin sauce. They can be found in T&T Supermarkets or smaller chains of Chinese grocers all across the city. Even some Western grocery stores may stock a good amount of specialized Asian food ingredients.
While the demographic of the surrounding area has changed, the stores largely have not. The newer Chinese generation, the few that are left in the area, are more attracted to the clean and friendly T&T Supermarket on Cherry Street. Many of the new residents that have since moved in have no interest in pirated Hong Kong television dramas, or phone cards, or kai lan. They’re also given an array of food options outside the immediate area that are in direct competition with East Chinatown. They can eat on the Danforth. They can dine, drink espressos and visit galleries on the gentrifying Queen Street East. Or they can drop by the renovated stores at Gerrard Square. For many who walk through East Chinatown, it’s not their intended destination, but the in-between transition zone to a destination.
And if you aren’t from the area, why would you travel to East Chinatown? Spadina Chinatown, too, has phá»Ÿ and ethnic grocery stores. It oozes with identity and the area is much larger in comparison, with wider sidewalks and plenty more pedestrians. But perhaps most importantly, it’s in a better location. The Spadina Chinatown is just a walk away from various shopping strips, clubs, theatres, museums and galleries, and a network of other ethnic neighbourhoods.
As we sit down with a waiter from one of the Vietnamese restaurants—a resident of East Chinatown for ten years and a part-time real estate broker for the area, he begins to tell us an anecdote about the changing social climate. An excerpted audio of the conversation can be heard above.
Far out east, with its intended demographic gone north, East Chinatown is on the brink of extinction. While the two Green P parking lots by the main intersection have gotten a little boost in forms of public art and the western Green P finally fulfills the promise of a Chinatown gate depicted within an iconic mural painted nearby ten years prior, the area is still in desperate need of revitalization.
What should be done? Should the streets be cleaned, injecting character in order to attract a new crowd? Are there ways of shaping East Chinatown to be more relevant to the new inhabitants of today? Can East Chinatown be something not offered by Spadina, Steeles, or Cherry Street? And if the “China” within “Chinatown” be better left to naturally shrink, what sort of place should it become?
Click for our psychogeographic map of East Chinatown’s living, dead businesses and their smells.
(Note: The above image file is fairly large @ 1.7 MB and was made for print so there is will be some orientation awkwardness online)