East to West: Chinese Heritage in Toronto

[從東方到西方: 多倫多的中國文化遺産]

Chinese war relief rally in front of Yuen Hing Company during World War II/MHSO Collection/CHI-201316

The story of Toronto’s Chinese Community begins in the mid 19th century, when gold rushes brought Chinese settlers into western Canada from California and China. In the 1880s, many Chinese men found work doing hard labour for the construction of the Trans-Canada railway. With the completion of the railway, Chinese labourers gradually made their way eastward, across the mid-west to central Canada and beyond, settling in various cities along the way. By the late 19th century, the first Chinese had appeared in Toronto, marking the beginning of a community that would soon grow to become a major feature of the city’s cultural landscape.

During this same period, other Chinese settlers arrived in Toronto from New York and Chicago, gathering together on York Street, between Wellington and Front Streets. During these early, formative years of the community, Chinese men responded to a local demand for laundry facilities, and soon opened laundries along Queen Street, King Street and Adelaide Street. Their storefronts marked the first clear signs of their presence in the city, though they advertised a trade that was not imported from China, but rather established as a practical and creative way of earning an income in their new city. Individuals like Sam Ching, Sam Leu, Sam Sing and Tan Gee operated the first laundries in the city, leading to the first Chinese Community along Elizabeth Street, and Toronto’s first Chinatown.

Learning English was a necessary step for the Chinese in improving their lives in Toronto. Many from the first wave of settlers took language classes at local churches and at the YMCA. Beverley Street Baptist Church and Toronto Chinese Presbyterian Church on Beverley Street, Cooke’s Presbyterian Church at Queen and Mutual Streets, and the Toronto Chinese United Church on Chestnut Street became primary gathering places for members of the Chinese Community. Acting as centres of acculturation and places of transition, they helped newcomers learn the ways of their new society. When they were forced to leave the original Chinatown centred on Elizabeth Street north of Queen to make way for the area’s re-development, the community was re-established at new centre along Dundas Street west of Elizabeth Street, and eventually along Spadina Avenue. Along the way, Chinese Torontonians formed numerous clan associations, benevolent societies, newspapers, credit unions, and various businesses.

As one of the most visible non-European communities in Toronto during the early 20th century, the Chinese helped set the stage for other cultural groups that arrived later. Despite hardships, discrimination and racism, Toronto’s Chinese Community secured a place for themselves in the city. They helped to challenge restrictive immigration policies, including the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act, that resulted in separation from family, as well as low social mobility and limited civil liberties.

Their determination to become accepted members of society was further put to the test after the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) and the victory of the Communist Party of China in 1949. This major shift in the political culture of the homeland had an impact on the Chinese Diaspora, fostering internal divisions and testing loyalties. It also increased the level of hostility towards the community in Toronto where, due to the tensions of the Cold War, attacks against them increased. In this context, an association known as the Hong Luck Kung Fu Club was formed to encourage self-defense. It is now the oldest Kung Fu club in Canada.

It was not until the 1970s that the Communist Party of China was officially recognized by the Canadian government. This act, combined with changes to national immigration policies, created a channel for another wave of migrants from China. Many who fled the Chinese Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War had moved to Hong Kong, and from there moved to Toronto as refugees through a United Nations program.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the number of Chinese in the city grew exponentially, with Torontonians of Chinese origin becoming one of the largest cultural groups in the city. Cultural infrastructure and institutions were already in place to receive this wave of Chinese immigrants. The community is now widespread and a fundamental feature of the cityscape. The fascinating heritage of the Chinese in Toronto has recently been well-documented by Arlene Chan. Her work as librarian, researcher and a story teller highlights our city’s rich cultural diversity.

Chinese Storefronts on Dundas Street East/MHSO Collection/CHI-86050


Arlene Chan, The Chinese in Toronto from 1878 ‘From Outside to Inside the Circle’, (Natural Heritage, 2011).
Richard Thompson, Toronto’s Chinatown, MHSO Collection
Harold Wright, The Chinese in Toronto, A personal Appreciation, MHSO Collection
Valerie Mah, An In-Depth look at Toronto’s Early Chinatown 1913 to 1933, MHSO Collection
Wyn Chivers, A Needs Study of the Chinese in Kensington, MHSO Collection
Valeria Mah, ‘The Chinese in Toronto’, Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, No. 1, (Spring/Summer 1984), pg. 36-37.
Lee Wai Man, ‘Dance No More-Chinese Hand Laundries in Toronto’, Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, No. 1, (Summer, 1984) pg. 32-34.
Daniel Mah, ‘Early Chinese Sports in Toronto’, Polyphony: Sports and Ethnicity, Vol. 7, (Spring/ Summer, 1985). pg. 120-123.

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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