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Toronto’s Cultural Landscape and Ethnic Economies: Revitalization of Chinatown

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A “Chinatown” is an ethnic enclave of Chinese people who have established their population in an urban setting, often seen in a prospering city like Toronto. Being a multicultural city, the immigrants who have slowly migrated over time have come to see that the acceptance of their culture has been controversial yet have still managed to establish themselves throughout the years as a cultural community and eye-catching tourist destination. Change is an ongoing factor for residents and business owners of Toronto’s Chinatown West as older businesses have continued to come and go and the environment around them faces constant growth and transformation. New modernized franchises and retail stores have started to merge their way in led by young entrepreneurs who seek to elevate the experience created for visitors and residents of Chinatown. An expedited advancement in new establishments for residential and commercial purposes has populated the area around their community which in their comfort, faces very little physical change. However, the future heritage of Toronto’s Chinatown West has the opportunity to be as lively and dynamic as other flourishing Chinatowns around the world if an interest in refreshing the look and feel is proposed. Gentrification has been viewed as a process of refining a district while depriving an urban neighbourhood of its sacred character becoming a blander version of what used to be. The goal is to preserve the current culture and legacy preserved while attempting to improve the economic well-being and vitality of the area. Revitalization of Toronto’s Chinatown West will enhance the social vibrancy, economic vitality and public state for locals, visitors and businesses to enjoy an inviting and thriving community. Revitalizing without gentrification taking over will ensure that the community involvement, sustainability, transportation and general well-being of the area has a diverse and distinct healthy identity. In order to properly revitalize the current state of Chinatown without allowing the qualities of renewal to destroy the image it has created; the city of Toronto needs to evaluate the human and physical geographies of the society and discover what can make the future heritage of Chinatown a promising one. Human geography is a study that looks into the analysis of people and their communities, cultures and interactions with the environment, such as the Chinatowns in Toronto. In order for the revitalization of Toronto’s Chinatown to be effective, some adjustments can be made in relation to how the nature of the existing community with the presence of second-generation residents reacts to the freshening up of their home. 

Foreign-born people account for nearly half of the population of Toronto (Toronto Population). The originating story of the first Chinese immigrant to settle in Toronto was Sam Ching whose presence represents a cultural milestone for Chinatown as he was the first recorded Chinese resident. The first Chinese business was started in the late 1870s on Adelaide St. E where people gradually gravitated into the area in order to form the original Chinatown on Elizabeth St. The Chinese settlers opened laundromats which was an occupation that remained dominant for a few decades. Racism and discrimination against Chinese migrants played a role in how the formation of a Chinatown was created and why it was so important. Torontonians of the early 20th century viewed the small community and Chinese population as “lesser” to say the least with many residents of that group facing a difficult time in finding a comfortable place (Bradburn, 2016). Efforts to reduce their existence in our modern society would be viewed as unacceptable given that Toronto has a present multicultural act in place on behalf of living in Canada. According to statistics Canada, ethnic Chinese makeup 3 percent of the Canadian population and are the country’s fastest growing ethnic group in accordance with the accelerated immigration. 

The people who make up the population of Chinatown are not only Chinese, but East Asians, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese people where a majority of the demographic is Cantonese-speaking. Some may find that because of the existing culture that exists in Chinatown that it may not be as easy to adjust into the environment if one were to choose to move there or open a new business. An article referencing the evolution of Chinatown includes a statement from Craig Wong who states, ‘As an outsider, you’d kind of see the other people and their businesses and you wouldn’t get to know them,’ he says, continuing with ‘I think I feel the real warmth of Chinatown being here and being in business’ (Cheung, 2018). Being a traveler coming to explore Chinatown is seen as destination hot spot whereas the residents and business owners view it as their home. After years of establishing an enclave amongst many other ethnical suburbs in Toronto, the people of Chinatown find comfort in what is a safe and culturally significant place to call home. When walking throughout the town, the atmosphere amongst the public is quiet. Observance is key when being present amongst people as soft nods and shy greetings speak to how the natural atmosphere is. In reference to an interview with an established business owner and member in the community, Tonny Louie states “The old guards are getting old, and their children don’t want to continue their family business. It gives new opportunities to others from outside of the community. Chinatown is changing every day. Change is the only constant”. Revitalizing Chinatown in respect to the current state means recognising the aura that has been set in place and allow the values of the culture to remain true. Addressing the issues of the community and building upon the strengths that exist already will brighten the life of the people coming to the community and those living within it. New businesses and retail spaces should try to find a connection within the atmosphere that strives to represent what Chinatown means to them, rather than simply choosing a destination for financial benefit. Chinatown still has so much life and even though the cost of living is rising, residents have faith that life in the area will continue to grow and flourish (Cheung, 2018). 

A blend between old heritage and new growth is the essential balance to creating a successful society of people. For Toronto, the history of the city is seen through the physical changes that have existed in order to illustrate the progression of the urban city’s growth and transformation. In analyzing the trail that brought Chinatown West to its current location, the path stems from the multiple Chinatowns that have and still do exist in Toronto today. Toronto’s original Chinatown, or “First Chinatown” that was established along Elizabeth Street is now home to Toronto Civic Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. The present-day Chinatown West that has been distinguished from Chinatown East is located between Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue. When settling towards Dundas as a major Chinese community, the population grew with the addition of many Chinese-language signage placed on their storefronts. Those in the area who were of Jewish decent migrated out of the area and by 1979, the special identity of Chinatown was established to protect them from redevelopment. In today’s society, gentrification is a predicted outcome that can be expected to take place in many major cities. Numerous residential and commercial developments are currently underway in and around the community of Chinatown West and the rapid changes do not go unnoticed by residents and business owners who call that part of Toronto home. Those who are comfortable with the environment they grew up with see the changes being made as an impact on their culture. “This gentrification is not only affecting the businesses and the restaurants that you see around here but it’s also impacting the people and the community,” explains Mike Carter, a tour guide in Toronto who has lived in the Spadina and Dundas area for nearly a decade. Changing the character of a neighbourhood through the arrival of new residents and developments is what needs be avoided in seeing a cultural landscape of Toronto as sacred. 

Certain elements of Toronto’s Chinatown are what make the landscape unique to its neighbouring communities. The colours, symbols and significant landmarks are what creates the atmosphere of a true Chinatown. The removal of the diagonal parking, which was a signature of the street distinguishing the area from others, was replaced with the streetcar lanes making a remembered element of the town lost to those who can remember and invisible to those who would never know (Flack, 2017). A once loved food market located on 310 Spadina Ave. was recently replaced with a high-end designer clothing store hoping to bring in new clientele to the area. It becomes difficult to see that once loved establishments that represent a community of people and hard work is replaced with luxury designer clothing simply to appeal to the needs of the general public. The visual of a modern storefront cannot compare to the vibrancy and life that accompanies a family owned food market, bringing in people to gather and socialize amongst eachother. The Spadina gateway is considered to be an entry in Toronto’s city core of Chinatown West and a clear identifier for the ethnic enclave. When the transformation of commercial and retail areas also appeared in the gentrification literature, scholars go for a broad definition of gentrification that includes ‘renovation and redevelopment on both residential and non-residential sites’ (Shaw, 2008). Homes should be modified while still maintaining an original image of how they were created. 

The revitalization of Chinatown should become a healthy downtown environment where elements such as the dragon gates are still recognized as an important part of Chinese culture with the addition of new elements brought in by newcomers. Transportation and mobility throughout the boundaries of Chinatown should be enhanced and maintained and used as a way of bringing people and allowing them to immerse themselves into the community of people. Spaces around the area such as the popular establishment of Dragon City mall can be organized for more social engagement that aims to connect heritage and retail together. Storefronts can incorporate a significant element that makes them unique in their own while still acknowledging the area in which they are placed. With a boost in physical change, an exciting path will lead people into a cultural phenomenon that is made to last for generations to come. Toronto is known as one of the most multicultural cities with a strong focus on culinary and cultural diversity. 

Chinatown represents one of the most exciting neighbourhoods to explore with a combination of ethnic shops, restaurants, stalls and produce markets containing food from the Asian community. The sensory experience is immersive when it comes to sight, sound and tastes that are imprinted within the environment. The future of heritage of Chinatown is one that will prosper with the combination of the original settlement environment that is paired with a vibrant collection of new culture of people and experiences, changes as necessary for a growing community. The streets within the town are known for walking around and stopping in and out of shops, an unhurried atmosphere that allows visitors to linger throughout their visit which is something that has existed for many years. The aura that completes Chinatown is one of a kind and the preservation of culture through changing times is essential to keep the memory of this ethnic enclave alive. 

Works Cited 

  • Appleby, L. (1986, November). Chinatown at the Crossroads. Retrieved from Toronto’s Archival Materials. 
  • Bradburn, Jamie. “Shaping Toronto: Chinatowns.” TORONTOIST, 4 Feb. 2016,
  • Campbell, M. (2019, August 29). Some residents fear gentrification is erasing Toronto’s Chinatown. Retrieved from toronto/. 
  • Cheung, Adrian. “See How Toronto’s Chinatown Has Evolved through the Decades.” CBC, 15 Feb. 2018, through-the-decades-1.4534503 
  • D, Christine. “7 Facts You Didn’t Know About Toronto’s Chinatown.” Secret City Adventures, 29 June 2016,
  • Flack, Derek. “What Chinatown Used to Look like in Toronto.” BlogTO, 30 Dec. 2017, Retrieved from
  • Human Geography: Defining Human Geography. Retrieved from
  • Keung, N. (2019). Chinatown bends newcomers and gentrification – without breaking. Retrieved from origsite=summon 
  • Oriental Harvest. Photograph, Toronto. Retrieved from harvest-toronto
  • Shaw, K. (2008). Gentrification: What It Is, Why It Is, and What Can Be Done about It. Geography Compass, 2(5), 1697–1728. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00156.x 
  • Sheppard, S. (2012). Why Is Gentrification a Problem? Toronto Population (2019). Retrieved from 

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