The evolution of Chinatown in Toronto

Toronto's beloved Chinatown

Toronto is Canada's largest city and one of the most multicultural cities in the world. This is a city where diversity is celebrated, evidenced by the numerous ethnic neighborhoods within its city borders. Here, you can find East and West Chinatown, Little Italy, Greektown, Little India, Little Jamaica, Koreatown, and Little Portugal, to name a few. One can essentially travel the world without ever leaving the city.

Today, we're taking a deep dive into the history of Chinatown to better understand how it came to be, and how it evolved into the culturally celebrated neighborhood that it is today.

Chinatown toronto
West Chinatown, Toronto

The first Chinatown was located around Nathan Phillips Square

In the 1890's, Toronto had a booming immigrant population coming from Italy, Eastern Europe, and China. These immigrants settled in and around what we know today as Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital, and the Toronto General Hospital. Back then, this area was known as the “Ward”, which was notoriously dominated by overcrowded rooming houses, cheap rents, and teeming with newcomers of visible minority.

A Toronto city directory shows that Mr. Sam Ching was among the first of the Chinese immigrants working in Toronto. He ran a hand-laundry service downtown at 9 Adelaide Street East in 1878. By 1909, Chinatown emerged as a cluster of Chinese businesses along the present day area of Nathan Phillips Square, on Elizabeth Street, north of Queen Street.

Chinatown toronto
Mr. Lee Hong's laundry, 48 Elizabeth Street 1912, City archives

Chinatown moves west

By 1947, Toronto voters approved spending on a new civic square and city hall, and so, Chinese businesses began the relocation process west towards Spadina avenue, where rent was still relatively cheap. As many as two-thirds of the buildings between Elizabeth Street and Dundas Street were expropriated for the project. In the following decades, West Chinatown continued to expand with the influx of Chinese immigrants due to the lifting of Canada's racial exclusion act.

Chinatown now covers many city blocks, serving as a vital market hub and tourist attraction offering delicious authentic, dim sum, Chinese BBQ, handmade dumplings, noodle restaurants, souvenirs and trinkets, as well as a variety of Asian produce.

A history of discrimination

There is no arguing that discrimination is real, and that there is still so much work left to do, as a society, and as individuals. If history has taught us anything, it is that change and progress is possible - but we must work for it and challenge the status quo.

  • 1885 - after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Government of Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, in an effort to reduce Chinese immigrants. The act charged each Chinese immigrant to Canada a head tax of $50 (that's roughly $1,300 today). The head tax steadily rose to $100 in 1900 and finally $500 in 1903 (roughly $14,000 today).
  • 1914 - Ontario passed a law making it illegal for Chinese employers to hire white women, fearing Chinese employers would take advantage of white women. The law was not enforced until 1928.
  • 1919 – a mob of 400 people stampeded through Old Chinatown smashing glass windows and looting Chinese stores.
  • 1923 - the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which essentially closed the doors to Chinese immigrants completely.
  • 1941 - Two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, China declared war on Germany and Italy. China and Chinese Canadians became part of the Allied War Effort. WWII marked a turning point in race relations in Canada. After the war, Chinese Canadians across the country received the right to vote.
  • 1947 - the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. However, immigration restrictions on the basis of race and national origin were not fully eliminated until 1967

Cheap eats and happy hour deals

Chinatown is known for its cheap eats and authentic regional Asian flavors. Check back when physical distancing measures are lifted and we'll show you some great spots. In the meantime, here are some ideas to get you drooling.

King's Noodle Restaurant - 296 Spadina Ave, Toronto

This place has been around for over 20 years and for good reasons. Take your pick of delicious wonton, BBQ duck, chicken, or pork in noodle soup and you'll soon understand.

$10 or less Everyday
King's Noodle

Rol San - 323 Spadina Ave, Toronto

Fulfill your cravings at this beloved neighborhood, all-day Dim Sum joint.

$4-6 a dish Everyday
Rol San

Big Trouble - 460 Dundas St W. 2nd fl, Toronto

This hipster chinese cocktail bar serves up cheap drinks, good music, and great vibes. Closed during COVID but check back with us soon for great happy hour specials when they open.

$4-5 drinks Happy Hour
Rol San

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Last Updated: June 30, 2020
Quy T.

Quy T.

Co-founder of Dealiem, data enthusiast with a passion for building products and finding great deals.

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