Life in the Ward
Two excerpts from a new anthology offer a glimpse into Toronto’s lost immigrant ghetto and the communities who called it home
Toronto’s early Chinese restaurants attracted both gourmets and goons
In the late 19th century, Chinese immigrants began to settle in cities throughout Canada (except in B.C. and Alberta). Unable to get waged jobs because of the colour of their skin, they mostly went into two lines of work: laundries and cafés. The cafés required more startup capital, and involved long hours, remaining open from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week. The owners often lived on the premises to keep costs down.
Sing Tom opened Toronto’s first Chinese café in1901, at 371⁄ Queen St. W., opposite E.J. Lennox’s towering
2 new city hall. According to the City of Toronto Directory, there were 19 Chinese restaurants by 1912, about half in the Ward. Only 10 years later, the figure had risen dramatically to around 100 cafés.
The Ward had restaurants serving Chinese food, as well as Chinese-run cafés serving western fare. According to author Mariana Valverde, moral reformers circulated warnings about the “lure of the Chinaman,” particularly the connection reformers felt they had to opium and white slavery. Some xenophobic Canadians therefore viewed these spaces as dens of iniquity that posed a danger to the public, particularly to innocent young white women.
Still, white customers did frequent these restaurants, drawn by the exotic cuisine and affordable prices. In 1917, Globe food critic Peter McArthur, in his column “Food Values,” expressed his appreciation for the more unusual dishes. “Even when I go to a Chinese restaurant the mystery of chop suey no longer holds me,” he wrote. “I seek the darker mysteries of Yet Goy Main or Egg Foo Young.”
Journalist Bruce West, who also dined at these cafés during the1920s, reminisced about his experience as a teen eating at a Chinese restaurant on the second floor of a building on Elizabeth St. West described it as painted a “violent shade of green,” with a coal stove in the middle of the room. He further reflected that he enjoyed watching the cook prepare the meal on an assortment of chopping blocks and huge skillets from his vantage point at the table. He said diners could get a “sumptuous” Chinese meal for 75 cents and enjoy “exotic odours wafting out of the kitchen,” evoking memories of Hong Kong or Shanghai.
In addition to food critics, Chinatown’s restaurants were also a draw for some celebrities. Arlene Chan notes that Edward G. Robinson and other Jewish vaudeville actors often dined at Chinese restaurants after performing at Shea’s Hippodrome during the 1920s. Robinson revealed that his favourite spot was located at 121⁄ Elizabeth, which was owned by Hung
2 Fah Low and Jung Wah. While this restaurant had mostly Chinese clients, Anglo-Torontonians represented the bulk of the clientele for most of the Chinatown cafés.
Although most proprietors were law-abiding businessmen, they confronted considerable harassment from government and police. For example, in1908, the city threatened to deny licences to Chinese restaurants that hired white women. Then, in 1914, the province introduced similar legislation. Neither the municipal nor the provincial legislation was well enforced. By 1923, 126 white women were working in 121 Chinese restaurants in Toronto. In 1928, a protest was held to challenge this seemingly racist Ontario statute. The owners, in fact, had the backing of 80 white women employed in Chinese restaurants as waitresses.
Besides the regulatory controls, police frequently raided Chinese restaurants that served alcohol or allowed gambling, especially after the1916 passage of the Temperance Act.
For instance, in1918, Youk You, the owner of a restaurant at 12 Elizabeth St., was arrested for selling Chinese whisky in teapots for 25 cents. The police seized two suitcases of whisky and charged him with breaching the law; You was released on bail for $500. Chinese restaurateurs continued to face harassment for alcohol offences even after the legislation was repealed. Chong Wan, the owner of a café at 11 Elizabeth St., had his business padlocked in May 1929 for allegedly selling liquor on the premises, presumably without a licence.
Gambling was also common in Chinese establishments, since many bachelors enjoyed playing popular games of chance such as “fan-tan” and “pai gow.” As a result, the police made numerous raids, particularly on Sundays, for violation of the Lord’s Day Act.
One took place at a Chinese restaurant at Elizabeth and Albert Sts. during the summer of 1919, with 27 men playing fan-tan. They quickly posted $15,000 bail, a staggering amount for that period.
As well as the police harassment, Chinese restaurateurs were also often victims of pranks and abuse by white locals. Some customers would order a meal, eat and then leave without paying. When one young man tried to dodge the bill at a Queen St. W. café, the owner and a waiter chased him. The culprit sprinted by a policeman, who jumped onto the running board of a passing car and cornered him on Pearl St. On hearing the café owner demand payment, passersby took up a collection to pay for the meal. Police released the young man because the café owner did not press charges. Were these bystanders protecting one of their own against “losing” to the despised Chinese?
Other troublemakers shouted obscenities, sang loudly and pounded the tables to drive away customers. One deliberately slammed a café door hard to shatter the glass. The reason? The owner hadn’t made change fast enough.
In still another incident, café owner Harry Quon ducked a punch by William Lund, who then broke furniture, poured coffee and soup onto customers, and hurled lids, stools and dishes. John Shore refused to pay 20 cents for a bowl of soup. He offered 15 cents instead and told the owner, Yok Lee, to fight for the balance. When Lee appeared in court, he had several stitches in his head and a blood-soaked collar.
Such abuse demonstrated the contempt that some white Torontonians directed toward Chinese residents, who were called “chinks” and “Chinamen.” The harassment became especially visible in October 1919, when a crowd of young ex-soldiers raided a Chinese restaurant at 199 Queen St. W., where they broke the windows and threw the cash register into the street.
Amonth later, veterans triggered another major riot on Elizabeth St. They paraded around Chinatown, throwing stones at Chinese shops and restaurants. They later explained to the police that they wanted to take revenge on a restaurant owner at 33 Elizabeth St., who they felt had insulted them when they were eating at his restaurant by calling them “white dogs.” Police used batons on the crowd but made no arrests. The soldiers immediately headed to city hall to talk to Mayor Tommy Church, who told them to disperse. Following this violence, the Chinese consul general from Ottawa asked Chief of Police H. J. Grassett for special protection for the community.
During the 1940s, some Chinese restaurants fell into disrepair and disrepute. The WK Café, at 56 Elizabeth St., owned by Mah Keung and Henry Mah, lost its licence after the Police Commission described it as a “dive and cesspool,” as well as a suspected meeting place for criminals and prostitutes. The owners’ lawyer cheekily argued that “police did not have to chase all over Toronto after criminals because they knew where to find them in the restaurant.” Other owners said they couldn’t oust undesirable visitors because they couldn’t afford to lose the business.
Curiously, Elizabeth St. experienced a restaurant boom during the late 1940s and 1950s. The first large facility to open was the Nanking in 1947, with the Lichee Garden Restaurant and Club opening soon after, in 1948. Lichee Garden boasted an enormous, elegant dining room, with capacity to serve as many as 1,500 customers a day. It had a band and offered dining and dancing until closing at 5 a.m. Both establishments mainly catered to a western clientele. Ads for these businesses were published in the mainstream as well as select ethnic newspapers, like the Canadian Jewish Review.
Other large competitors who moved into the area in the 1950s included Kwong Chow, the Golden Dragon and Sai Woo. These modern restaurants were not only larger and more sophisticated than their predecessors, but also renowned for their cleanliness, and their authentic and abundant menus. Ironically, by the end of the 1950s, Chinese investors had spent more than a million dollars in improvements to Chinatown on Elizabeth St., despite the city’s moves to demolish the area. Many of these restaurants survived and even thrived, but were forced to relocate to nearby Kensington Market by the 1970s and 1980s.
Chinese businesses on Elizabeth St. in 1937. Much of Toronto’s original Chinatown was later razed to make way for development, including the new city hall.
Joe’s Café and Chop Suey on Elizabeth St. in the Ward, photographed in 1937. Most of the restaurants in the area depended on an Anglo-Canadian clientele.
A list of unnamed Chinese restaurants from the City of Toronto Directory in 1922.
Excerpts from The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto's First Immigrant Neighbourhood published by Coach House Books. Essays copyrigh © their individual authors; collection copyright © Coach House Books, 2015.