Storytellers: Arlene Chan


Written by Catherine Qian

Front Cover of Arlene Chan’s The Chinese in Toronto from 1879: From Outside to Inside the Circle.

Arlene Chan is the author of The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle, a book which documents the history of her community for the young and old. Born and raised in Toronto, Chan is a 3rd generation Canadian from her mother’s side of the family. Her father, who immigrated to Canada at age 13, had to pay the $500 “Chinese head tax”, then required by the Government of Canada as a means to limit immigration from China. Chan’s parents first owned a grocery store before opening a restaurant in Chinatown – two businesses, along with laundries, which were the most common among Chinese entrepreneurs due to restricted employment options. Chan’s upbringing included a combination of Chinese and Western cultures. She attended the public schools in the Chinatown area and attended a special school to learn the Chinese language. On the weekends, she had dance and piano lessons. She was a member of the Girl Guides of Canada and attended church on Sundays at the Chinese Presbyterian Church.

Both of Chan’s parents became heavily involved in the Toronto Chinese Community, including as members of their family associations, which provided loans and supported other Chinese immigrants. They also worked hard to shape the broader Canadian culture around the community. Chan’s father was determined to learn more about Canadian culture. He became fluent in English, and encouraged and supported his wife, Jean Lumb, who went on to become the first Canadian woman of Chinese descent to receive the Order of Canada.

Lumb Family, 1960s. Courtesy of Arlene Chan

Jean Lumb was instrumental in bringing about changes to Canada’s immigration laws and ending the ‘bachelor society’. As a result in part of The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which had restricted most migration from China to Canada, Chinese men  in cities like Toronto ended up isolated and separated from their families abroad. The removal of restrictions on immigration from China, beginning with the repeal of the Exclusion Act in 1947, allowed families to be reunited, and increased the size and improved the well-being of the Chinese Community in Toronto.

These and other stories motivated Chan to research and write her book on Toronto’s Chinese Community. From her youth, she had a hobby of collecting newspaper clippings or taking notes about the journey of Chinese Canadians in Toronto. As a child, she met many important members of the community and grew up during a period that saw massive changes in the status of the Chinese in Canada. Along with her parents’ activism, her exposure to multiple cultures gave her the awareness and personal context through which to understand the tumultuous history of the Chinese in Toronto.

The Chinese have made a vast number of contributions to Canada, from helping to construct the Trans-Canada railway to improving immigration policies. Chan makes the argument that, in Toronto, the Chinese community has had a major impact on the city’s growth and development. In the 1950s for example, the community organized a protest against the expropriation of Chinatown properties to make way for the new City Hall. Their efforts not only managed to salvage parts of a landmark neighbourhood in the city, but also created a precedent for the questioning of future expropriation without citizen input.

Jean Lumb with children Ken and Ted in front of Engs Produce. Courtesy of Arlene Chan

Aside from changes to government policy and legal changes, Chan argues that the Chinese Community has also had a profound effect on the evolution of Toronto’s multicultural identity. As one of the most visible non-European cultural groups in the city, with over a hundred year presence, the Chinese have played an important role in advancing cultural pluralism. Chan notes that in the 1950s, Chinatown became an attraction for curious tourists from across the city. For a $3.00 donation that went to the United Way, tourists were able to watch a printing machine type with Chinese characters, explore local Chinese shops, and end their day with a meal at one of the four largest Chinese restaurants in the area. These tours began to change the mainstream understanding of Chinatown as a type of “immigrant ghetto”, and replaced it with a sense of the area as a vibrant centre of community and culture. At the same time, the Chinese Community, known for its self-sufficiency and closed doors to outsiders, responded by opening up to their curiosity. Within a short period of time, the busy and flourishing neighbourhood of Chinatown became perceived as an integral part of Toronto.

Ordinary people of Chinese descent have also had a lasting impact on our city. Chan tells the story of how when she and her husband first moved out of Chinatown and into their new home in 1976, they were the only non-European family on the street. Well-educated, fluent in English and well-adapted to mainstream culture, Arlene and her family became a source of curiosity and surprise for her neighbours, who often showed their cultural assumptions when they complimented her excellent English. Chan believes that only through personal interaction between people of different cultures can true acceptance and understanding develop. Her family managed to constantly move forward with their lives by not letting prejudice get in their way.

Chan’s narrative about the Chinese of Toronto offers an opportunity for all Torontonians to learn more about how the city has developed and changed overtime. It is important that all cultural groups in the city have storytellers like Arlene Chan, for this knowledge of our past is critical to our intercultural understanding, and the future well-being of the city we call home.

Interview with Arlene Chan, July 23, 2012

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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