Chinatown Sextet - Chinatowns in the Greater Toronto Area - 3

by Robert Tompkins, Jan 19, 2002 | Destinations: China / Guangzhou
Shopping in Toronto's Richmond Hill Chinatown.

Shopping in Toronto's Richmond Hill Chinatown.

Shopping in Toronto's Richmond Hill Chinatown.

(Third of Three Parts)

5. Richmond Hill

Canada's immigration policy in the early 1990s encouraged successful business people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and The People's Republic of China to relocate, and rather than settle in Scarborough, they opted for more expensive homes in Markham and Richmond Hill.

Given the Chinese propensity for superstition and obsession with prosperity, the connotations associated with the name Richmond Hill undoubtedly played a role in attracting residents and businesses to this town; indeed, the Richmond districts in both Vancouver and San Francisco also have a large Chinese population. The largest commercial concentration is along the Highway 7 corridor in the vicinity of Leslie Street.

The arching façade of The Times Square Mall, at the northwest corner of Highway 7 and Leslie Street, boasts over a hundred shops and restaurants either indoors or on the perimeter of a parking lot that is bedlam on weekends. An enclosed second floor walkway links the main mall to the Times Dynasty, a popular dim sum restaurant.

By happenstance, we learned the effect on cuisine as a result of the wave of predominantly Hong Kong immigrants, beginning during the economic boom of the 1980s. Toronto's dim sum scene, which had remained essentially unchanged since the 1920s, was transformed. New restaurants were built, especially in the Richmond Hill and Markham areas, and the chefs were all Hong Kong trained. Expatriates were delighted

"When we first saw the carts stacked with steamer baskets being wheeled into the dining hall, we were jubilant and exuberant, for this is what we were used to back home," recalled a retired school teacher who arrived in Canada in 1966. "We really appreciated the late comers for their long missed cooking. We had tried North American Chinese take out once, in the early years," he added, emphasizing the word 'once' and shaking his head. "It was an attempt to link with our culture. We didn't try it again."

"There was a taste gap for about fifteen years," concurred a Richmond Hill dentist who also emigrated from Hong Kong in 1966. "The highly skilled pastry chefs are the foundation of a good dim sum restaurant," he continued. "They must be paid handsomely and treated well. Their prowess is very much in demand, and they can be enticed away by other establishments. And the customers would follow."

A block west of The Times Square mall at West Beaver Creek Road is Jubilee Square, another thriving plaza built around a jammed parking lot. Two large and busy eateries found here are The Golden Court Abalone Restaurant and Ambassador Chinese Cuisine; both have line ups at busy times.

Further west along the corridor are two vibrant plazas, Golden View Centre and Golden Plaza, located on the east and west side of Chambers Road respectively. In the Golden Plaza especially, parking lot anarchy is common as patrons flock to an always-crowded grocery store that has fresh produce, a large butcher and fish counter, and aisles bursting with sundry canned, dried, bottled, and frozen goods. There are two Vietnamese restaurants, a congee house, a noodle house, and two Chinese restaurants crammed into the jam of space that also houses a Ten Ren Tea outlet, an acupuncturist and herbalist, a hardware store and a booming lotto ticket outlet.

We entered a traditional apothecary and Doris asked for something to relieve a sore throat. She was given a container of tablets with the tongue-twisting name "Synthetic Niu-Huang Chieh-Tu-Pien"; the herbalist explained they should be taken with lukewarm boiled water, and cautioned, "It tastes quite bad, but it will help." (Doris later confirmed his warning, proclaiming, "It tastes like dirt. Like sugar coated earth." Thereafter, the medicine was referred to as "Dirt Pills", but Doris will attest to their efficacy.)

On the south side of Highway 7, are a number of enterprises presently under construction. The recently completed Commerce Gate plaza promises to be as animated as its counterparts. Already there are two bubble tea emporia-Tryst Bubble Tea and a branch of Tea Shop 168. The Taiwanese-born frothy drink containing black gelatinous tapioca balls lurking at the bottom of the glass and slurped up through oversize straws, comes in scores of exotic flavours like lychee, passion fruit, mango, taro, and watermelon.

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6. Markham

The town of Markham, north of Steeles Avenue to Highway 7 and east of Woodbine Avenue, has the largest population of Chinese residents in The Greater Toronto Area, and the town is responding with an ever-growing number of commercial centres to serve the expanding community.

In spite of Toronto's multicultural pride and harmony in diversity rhetoric, changing demographics in Markham, as was the case in Scarborough, created animosity. Markham's resentment was given voice on the political level in 1995 when the Deputy Mayor, Carole Bell, echoed the sentiments of "dozens of individuals who are the backbone of Markham" and who purportedly perceived Chinese theme malls as ethnic ghettos that excluded non-Chinese. In comments reminiscent of the resentment that existed in Vancouver a century ago, the Deputy Mayor created a controversy when she remarked regarding the Chinese influx, "a lot of people don't want to be here. I wouldn't move [to Markham] and would leave because of it." Although many mayors in the region expressed outrage at the remarks, both the deputy mayor and mayor refused to apologize to the deeply hurt Chinese community.

We have visited many Chinese malls and plazas on dozens of occasions and have never felt excluded; indeed, Chinese Canadians have gone out of their way to chat, be friendly, and make us welcome.

At Kennedy Road and Highway 7, there is such a concentration of stores that local Chinese have nicknamed the site Mong Kok, after the Kowloon locale that was once reputed to be the most densely populated area in the world.

Although the Markham area has numerous outdoor plazas, many of which have indoor components, three centres form focal points.

Market Village, at Steeles Avenue and Kennedy Road was constructed in the early 1990s; counting both the row house style buildings that fringe the huge parking lot and the indoor portion, there are about 170 stores. A spacious food court allows a selection of Thai, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese cuisines as well as a variety of Chinese provincial specialties.

The Golden Food Mart, an immense grocery store, has an entire side of an aisle displaying various brands and sizes of soy sauces - dark, light, shrimp or oyster or mushroom flavoured, sweet, hot, vegetarian, naturally brewed.

We stopped at Fan's Court, a very busy dim sum restaurant bordering Market Village's parking lot. The standard table setting of cup, plate and bowl, along with chopsticks on a paper napkin sat on top of many layers of disposable plastic tablecloths.

"You want fork?" asked a waiter using the refrain that appears to be standard for non-Chinese customers. Again, our opting for chopsticks brought a thumbs up, and our "Joe Sun. Lay Ho Ma" brought a smile of delight. One cart-pushing lady approached our table shaking her head as if anticipating our response; with a wide grin and still shaking head she revealed a basket of steamed chicken feet.

At the table next to us the four elderly patrons performed a ritual that we have witnessed on several occasions. They each removed the lid of the teapot, dipped their chopsticks into hot tea, and then wiped them dry with the napkin; then the cups and bowls were filled with tea and then poured back into the pot. Without being asked, a waiter quickly replaced the teapot with a fresh one.

There was a line-up at reception and patrons were being given numbers. Unfazed, a number of those at tables calmly sipped their tea while reading The Sing Tao Daily, one of three Chinese newspapers available in The Greater Toronto Area. In spite the growing crowd at reception, no effort was made to hurry them up. When a table did become available, however, the teapot and any steamer baskets were removed before the top layer of plastic tablecloths was bunched up with chopsticks, bowls, cups, and plates inside. New accessories were quickly laid out and the table was ready in less than thirty seconds.

Our tally sheet indicated that we had ordered twelve items; the bill for two came to just under $20, and that included a sampling that we brought home to be micro waved later.

Also located at Steeles and Kennedy and sharing the same parking lot with Market Village is the Pacific Mall; constructed in the late 90s, the two-level, blue hued structure has become a landmark. Over one hundred and fifty glass enclosed stores line wide aisles named after Hong Kong streets; the mega mall is climate controlled and bright with sunlight, providing an ideal shopping environment during the wintry months.

Virtually every store has discounted prices that are well below those found elsewhere and competition often allows further negotiations, regardless of whether the purchase involves shoes, cameras, or eye glasses. "I can discount," is an often-repeated mantra.

The upper level of the Pacific Mall is largely devoted to food - there is an extensive food court with dozens of stalls as well as a number of restaurants. At the southern end of the second level, there is the Pacific Heritage Town, where a number of stalls reminiscent of Hong Kong's Temple Street Night Market vend the same variety of merchandise as the boutiques downstairs. The entrance façade features red columns, golden pagoda-style roof, a moon gate, and a waterfall.

Tucked near the escalator was a small make shift glass fronted booth where Dragon's Beard candy was created. Using much skill along with a dash of magic, the candy maker squirted syrup over a mound of cornstarch and squeezed, kneaded, and rolled the mixture into rope-sized lengths. By pulling and spinning, stretching and twirling, tugging and twisting, he transformed the ever thinning and lengthening strands into whisper thin, metre long gossamer filaments which he pleated into finely chopped nuts before pinching off bite sized pieces which his assistant, in a well choreographed routine, quickly plucked up and arranged in Styrofoam containers to be sold for $5.25 per box of ten.

When we attempted to pay, both looked at us and grinned widely before simultaneously nodding toward a box of bills and change at the end of the counter. Customers were expected to place payment and make their own change, since both the candy maker and assistant were covered in sticky whiteness to their elbows.

First Markham Place, on Highway 7 just east of Woodbine Avenue is Markham's third major Chinese commercial centre. Built in 1998, the still-growing complex has well over a hundred stores and restaurants, either indoors or surrounding a vast parking lot full of cars with at least one number eight in each licence plate.

One of the many restaurants is "Ding Tai Fung" which specializes in Shanghai cuisine. Chefs in the glass kitchen prepare their dishes in full view of the diners. Most of the one hundred and fifty or so items on the menu feature dishes based on a variety of noodle styles. Some of the more exotic items, at least through Anglo eyes, include "Delicious Bloated Fish", "Marinated Pork Ear", "Braised Sliced Bran (sic) with black mushrooms", and "Deep Fried Large Intestines".

The dim sum section of the menu contains twenty-four items and a caution regarding one of these is necessary; the prosaic label of "small steamed buns" belies a delicacy that has serious addictive potential. On the recommendation of Sanne, the restaurant's friendly and pleasant Hong Kong born manager, we ordered them, and when they arrived, steaming, in a bamboo basket, we discovered that they were not buns at all; they were plump wheat dough dumplings containing seasoned minced pork and drooping with broth. Sanne suggested a sauce made by adding red vinegar to shredded galangal. Chopsticks here are flat, allowing manipulation that is virtually drop free. Although a bit inelegant, the dumplings should be picked up by the swirled knot at the top, and eaten whole, allowing them to burst in a flavourful explosion.

On each subsequent sojourn, compelled by our addiction, Sanne welcomed us like friends. During one visit, snow began falling in thick wet flakes and in minutes the cars in the parking lot were blanketed in white. "This is wonderful," Sanne exclaimed with excitement. "It's beautiful. We don't have snow in Hong Kong. I love it!"

Reflecting on the Chinese presence in The Greater Toronto Area, Stephen Siu of The Chinese Cultural Centre observed, "The Chinese community has gained social acceptance and respect from the larger population. Unlike the early immigrants, we don't have to band together in small quarters for self-protection. The satellite Chinese communities show that Chinatown is no longer just an ethnic pocket, but rather intertwined with the whole community."

Near Toronto's twin landmarks, the CN Tower and the SkyDome, there is a monument to the Chinese Railway Workers; the memorial was erected in 1999 and is dedicated to the 17,000 workers from Kwangtung Province who united Canada by building the Canadian Pacific Railway. By depicting workers hanging precariously from a railway trestle, the monument captures the perilous conditions in which the labourers toiled. It is also a reminder that Chinese workers were treated like slaves and given hazardous jobs without regard for their safety; 4,000 workers died during the railway's construction, one death for every mile of track.

During those early years when the first communities were formed in Victoria and Vancouver, the word "Chinatown" was a derogatory epithet reflecting the resentment and prejudice directed towards the early immigrants. No longer a discriminatory label, it now connotes the unyielding spirit, in spite of adversity, of a people who have persevered and prospered. Today the term evokes the vibrancy of a culture forming an integral segment of the patchwork quilt that is the essence of the world's most ethnically diverse city.

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Note: The author would like to gratefully acknowledge the following for their invaluable assistance during the research of this story: Danny Leung, Louis Hui, and Stephen Siu.

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