Documenting Toronto's changing Chinatown
by Natsumi Yokura
In 1878, a man named Sam Ching opened a laundry in downtown Toronto. Over the years, a Chinatown grew around his storefront. When the district was razed by the City decades later, many of its residents gravitated a few blocks west, forming a sizable new enclave.
Today, some believe that the community is again under threat, this time because of its aging population—many newer immigrants have settled in the suburbs—and gentrification.
Trinidad-born, Toronto-based photographer Morris Lum has spent years exploring the dynamics shaping this and other Canadian Chinatowns. We asked for his perspective on cultural identity and organizing in downtown Toronto.
What are your goals as an artist examining Chinatown?
The conception of the project came after seeing a traditional Cantonese banquet-style restaurant in my local Chinatown one day just shut down and close its doors for good. Since then a new Northern-style Chinese seafood restaurant has taken its place.
For me it was interesting to witness the cycle of change of the two businesses and to think about, on a larger scale, who and what occupies Chinatown at any given time. This raised more questions about the definition of Chinatown. Is it defined by the physical space—the walls, the ornamentation, the signage? The people who occupy it—residents, merchants, tourists? Or is it all of the above?
My way of resolving many of these questions began by photographing and documenting the stories about the many facets that make up a Chinatown. I've been trying to build an archive of Chinese spaces and Chinatowns as they change and disappear. To me the photographs activate memory, good and bad, and speak to how Chinatowns exist and evolve.
What do you see as your role—if any—in Toronto’s Chinatown?
Outside of the photographs, I think my role as an artist/researcher is to help bring stories together and to share awareness and concerns surrounding Chinatown. The work that I am producing aims to build stories about the history of the Chinatown community. At the same time, I hope that the photographs spark discussion about preserving and growing Chinatown.
Toronto’s Chinatown is not so different from some of the other Chinatowns in metropolitan cities. Toronto has several Chinatowns, but the main one, Old Chinatown, has moved from its original location (in the Ward, at Elizabeth Street and Dundas Street) to where it exists today on Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street. Chinatown was forced to move shortly after the Second World War to make way for the new City Hall.
Through my research I’ve tried to document the reminisces of Old Chinatown. I’ve met with local historians and community leaders to think about what it means to be displaced. My role within the community as an artist/researcher is to bring these questions forward—and to hopefully create a dialogue around potential barriers of growth.
What are the major challenges and opportunities facing cultural organizations in Chinatowns?
There’s definitely a disconnect between the youth organizations and the established, longstanding cultural hubs. The mandates for many of these organizations often don't align, which can cause conflict. On the one hand the established organizations are challenged with succession planning, and on the flip side youth organizations are having a hard time gaining credibility and recognition within the community.
One of the roles that artists can take on is that of the go-between, negotiating with the longstanding and youth organizations. The challenge for cultural organizations is learning how to work collaboratively. There just needs to be a willingness to do so.
With more and more condo development in the core of the city, it’s becoming difficult for cultural hubs to stay downtown. As a result, many of the cultural hubs, specifically artist spaces, have relocated to the edges of the city.
In the short term, Toronto’s Chinatown is not at risk of losing its identity, but there is always that potential. What I would like to see is a collaborative effort from the various players that make up Chinatown—including members from city council—to have active dialogue about what they envision Chinatown to look like ten, twenty, and thirty years from now.
How can the city government or other power structures help cultural organizations and artists like yourself? Do you see ways they could do more to either help people achieve specific missions or support urban culture more generally?
I think governments/municipalities and other power structures have a real opportunity to utilize the youth and more established organizations. These organizations are doing the groundwork to mobilize and build community.
Cultural organizations are the glue; they have the potential to connect the Chinatown community with the city. They help to bridge language barriers, communicate vital information, and create social engagement outside of commerce. Cities need to recognize the importance of cultural organizations and invest time, money, and infrastructure to help them grow as fixtures in Chinatowns.
All images by Morris Lum. Top image: Wong Kung Har Wun Jun Association, Toronto, 2016.