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.

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