After coming to Toronto as a young child and growing up all around the downtown area, I’ve noticed that many of the places I used to find iconic, exciting, and above all different have become a part of the shared fabric of the city. The things that seemed like vivid, self-contained worlds when I first arrived have gradually zoomed out to show me a bigger picture, and it’s getting harder and harder to imagine the city as anything but that organic whole. Places like the CN Tower, St. Lawrence Market, Little Italy, and our seven Chinatowns add up to a city that is, once you get to know it, much more than the sum of its parts.
Yet it is easy to forget how much history lies behind places like these, and of the struggles it took to integrate Toronto’s many pieces. In The Chinese in Toronto from 1878, and in her upcoming book The Chinese Community in Toronto: Then and Now, Arlene Chan reminds us of some of these struggles, and of how much the city has changed since the early days when Chinatowns were a response to widespread discrimination.
As much as it tells the biography of a neighborhood and community, Chan’s book also reflects on what has gone into the development of Canada’s national identity. We as a nation have moved from the Chinese Exclusion Act and infamous head taxes on immigration into a country that projects values of diversity and human rights around the world. In Chan’s telling, the flourishing Chinatowns of Toronto become microcosms of multiculturalism in Canada. From shelters against discrimination, Chinatowns grew into hubs radiating across the city and helping drive the development of Canadian values.
The history of Chinese communities in Toronto is also, as Chan writes, a very personal story for her. The book’s subtitle, From Outside to Inside the Circle, refers partly to her mother’s childhood experiences attending a racially segregated school. Chan has delved through archives to trace the evolution of Toronto’s Chinatowns, revealed through dozens of striking photographs and detailed research, all compellingly told. Chan tracks down vanished landmarks like the first Chinese-owned property in Toronto, and ugly reminders of more established citizens’ efforts to shut out Chinese businesses and residents from their neighborhoods. All told, it gives a stark look back at the adversity overcome by communities that are now an essential part of Toronto’s character.