Time travel with Arlene Chan: author traces Toronto’s Chinese-Canadian history in virtual lecture

In 90 succinct minutes, the decorated historian tells the story of the early Chinese population and her own family’s settlement in Canada
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TORONTO — On December 5, acclaimed historian and writer Arlene Chan delivered a virtual lecture titled, “The Chinese in Toronto: Then and Now,” chronicling the history of Chinese settlement in the city and in Canada at large, starting at the turn of the 20th century. The Zoom-hosted event was organized by community organizations, Friends of Chinatown and Tea Base, with about 140 attendees in the virtual audience.

Chan’s lecture was divided into three sections: a historical overview of Chinese migration to Canada; a virtual “tour” of Toronto’s three Chinatowns; and a study of grassroots organizing by the local Chinese population in the last century. She concluded the 90-minute event by opening the floor for a Q&A session. 

Chan’s presentation was enlivened with archival photos and video footage of Chinatown in its infancy, many of which are tethered to her own childhood and family history. 

Elizabeth St and Dundas St, looking south. Arlene Chan’s family restaurant Kwong Chow Chop Suey House is pictured in the top right corner. (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)
Jean Lumb in front of Kwong Chow’s illuminated sign. (PHOTO: Toronto Star Photograph Archive)

Having authored seven books on the history and customs of the Chinese-Canadian population, Chan is the definitive authority on the social and cultural history of the settlement and evolution of the local Chinese community. Chan is also the daughter of community activist Jean Lumb, the first Chinese-Canadian to receive the Order of Canada.

In addition to owning her own business, Lumb was the de facto spokesperson of Toronto’s Chinese population in the 20th century, liaising with all levels of government on behalf of her community especially in matters of land usage. In her decades of advocacy, Lumb had established Chan’s family foothold in their activism for the nascent Chinese population’s political and social affairs in Toronto. 

Chan wove her own family history into the narrative of her lecture, paralleling her own coming-of-age experience with that of Toronto’s Chinese community.

Chan delivering a presentation to 140 Zoom participants (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

The Gold Mountain and Oriental Exclusion

Much of the Chinese’s early history in Canada was characterized by hollow optimism, promises unfulfilled by the Canadian government and the myth of upward social mobility in the west for which many sought but few attained.

Chan started her history lesson with the first wave of Chinese immigration in 1858, the Gold Rush era, when China was ravaged by drought and famine. It was during this time the impoverished Chinese communities started venturing westward to the so-called “Gold Mountain” in pursuit of a better life.  

“Hundreds of Chinese people came over to try to find their own wealth in that Gold Mountain,” she said. “Few struck gold.”

The second wave of immigration was prompted by the call for labourers in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, notorious for its exploitative and perilous working conditions. Chan’s grandfather was one of the railway labourers, arriving in Canada in 1899. 

“The loss of life was so great,” Chan said about the drilling and blasting of the Rocky Mountains, “These tunnels were known as slaughterhouses because a lot of Chinese lost their lives in trying to set the dynamite and later, nitroglycerine.” 

It was no secret that these migrant workers were expendable and Chinese people were reviled by the Canadian state, as confirmed by the Sinophobic legislation introduced once Chinese labour was no longer desired.

Pictured: A Lee Don Head Tax document, which would have been required for the re-entry in Canada so the holder would not have to pay $500 again. According to Chan, $500 was enough to purchase a house at the time. (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

Chan went into extensive detail of the Sinophobic history in Canada’s legislation, namely the 1886 Chinese Head Tax to discourage immigration and then the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, which halted immigration until 1947. The anti-Chinese sentiment in the general population was further fomented through political cartoons in newspapers.

“The systemic discrimination and prejudice against the Chinese was rampant,” Chan said.

Caption: “The same act which excludes Orientals should open wide the portals of British Columbia to White immigration.” (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

As Chan time travelled through the bleak beginnings of Chinese settlement, attendees relayed their real-time reactions through Zoom’s chat function, particularly to reprehensible moments of history. “Wow” and “OMG” were common phrases sent in the chat that punctuated Chan’s key points.

Some attendees even said they wished these parts of history had been part of public school curriculum, lamenting the erasure of Chinese-Canadian history in popular discourse.

Chinese resilience and Chan’s family genealogy

Chan told stories of the early Chinese population’s resourceful and adaptive spirit: many immigrants had to take on menial work that they would not have performed back home. The two principal Chinese businesses were restaurants and laundries.

“They were able to pool their money together and then open up these businesses with very little experience and learned on the job,” she said. Many laundry owners would reside in the same building to save money on rent and send their earnings to families back home.

In the early 20th century, the local Chinese population found camaraderie and belonging in associations, “the backbone of our early Chinatown.” Associations were based on familial, regional, or political affiliations, and many family associations, such as the Wong Association and the Lum Association, are still situated in their original location today.

People would go to their respective associations for services like securing employment, finding a place to live, arranging burials in ancestral villages, and borrowing money, as banks would not lend to Chinese people at the time, according to Chan. These associations would also serve as ad hoc community spaces where Chinese could socialize with others to gather and play mahjong.

Chan’s upbringing in Chinatown seemed to resonate deeply with the audience, who appreciated her anecdotes about dining at traditional restaurants and about hearing her mother’s history on the burgeoning Chinese habitat in Toronto.

“Loving these pictures,” Allison Tse wrote in the Zoom Chat.

“Yes, incredible,” Lanie replied. “I’m loving the personal story interwoven.”

A typical Chinese restaurant of the 1920s, where Chan said she spent a lot of time as a child (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

Chan said WWII was a watershed event for the Chinese population in Canada: over 600 Chinese men volunteered to serve in the army, and those on the home front raised funds for the war relief as well as building millions of dollars in victory bonds. “As a result of all these initiatives, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, and the Chinese finally got the right to vote,” Chan said.

Alexander Cumyow Won, the first Chinese baby born in Canada, casting his very first ballot once Chinese people got the right to vote (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

With the newfound enfranchisement, the Chinese were also allowed to run for public office and enter professions, neither of which they were permitted to do earlier. Chan cited the remarkable stories of Douglas Jung, the first Chinese-Canadian to be elected as a member of Parliament, and K. Dock Yip, the first Chinese-Canadian lawyer, who was a prominent figure in the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

K. Dock Yip in 1945, the first lawyer of Chinese descent in Canada (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

While the Chinese Exclusion Act was abolished, there were still many stipulations that made it difficult for Chinese people to immigrate to Canada, Chan said. For example, you had to be a Canadian citizen to sponsor a family member but many extant Chinese immigrants did not have citizenship. 

In 1960, the community then formed a delegation to speak to then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to negotiate the removal of anti-Chinese clauses and facilitate better immigration policies and family reunification. Although the all-male cohort was reluctant to include a woman, immigration was deemed a “family matter” so Lumb was brought on board but instructed to sit silently.

However, Lumb was offered a moment of redemption when PM Diefenbaker struggled to hear the presentation, and she then relayed the entire brief to him and answered all his queries.

“In the end, all the male delegation praised my mother for being the saviour of the day,” Chan said. “And that was when my mother became the spokesperson for the Chinese community.”

Save Chinatown: sowing the seeds for community activism

In the early 1960s, a sizeable amount of the first Chinatown, about three-quarters, was going to be expropriated for the construction of the new City Hall. The Chinese then migrated along Dundas St toward Spadina Ave to create “Chinatown West,” which started developing in the 1960s and flourished in the 1980s.

Pagoda in the second Chinatown, where the Chinatown Centre currently stands. (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

Once City Hall was erected in 1965, there were more development plans to raze what was left of the Ward – then a neighbourhood with a high concentration of immigrants. “And that meant getting rid of the rest of Chinatown,” Chan said. “But this time, the community fought back.”

According to Chan, there were no community consultations with the residents and business owners who would be displaced by the developments. Vocal urbanists like Jane Jacobs inspired community leaders to found grassroots organizations to defend community spaces against commercial development and cultural erasure.

While the developments were put forth, a news outlet interviewed Lumb for her feedback on the prospective construction as a business owner.

“I’m not quite surprised, but I was really disappointed, and now I’m really afraid that something will happen to Chinatown,” Lumb had told a reporter outside Lichee Garden.   

In 1969, Lumb established the Save Chinatown Committee to preserve the neighbourhood, whose poster and image were used as the webinar’s promotional graphic.

(PHOTO: Arlene Chan)
(PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

As a result of Lumb’s tireless activism, petitions, and community involvement, the Save Chinatown campaign prevailed, and the City of Toronto enforced a moratorium on construction proposals as well as a four-storey limit on building heights. 

According to the Myseum of Toronto, Lumb would later travel to Vancouver and Calgary, as the only woman representative present, to spearhead similar movements to protect their Chinatowns.

Lumb being interviewed about land developments in Chinatown (PHOTO: Arlene Chan) 

The audience was especially taken in by the Toronto Police station’s history for the 52 Division on Dundas St, which was originally planned to be build on Beverley St but was relocated due to community resistance.

“Wow, that’s new information!” Shellie Zhang wrote in the chat. “Didn’t know that,” Joy wrote in agreement.

Chan concluded her lecture with an homage to her mother, a social and cultural trailblazer who has rightfully cemented her legacy in Chinese-Canadian history and, as Chan pointed out, had paved the way for subsequent grassroots organizations like Friends of Chinatown and Tea Base.

Jean Lumb Award recipients posing with Lumb (seated in centre) (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

Tributes to Lumb’s impact are materialized in the Ontario Heritage plaque on Elizabeth St, Jean Lumb Ln, Jean Lumb Public School, and the Jean Lumb Foundation, which has been awarding scholarships to Chinese-Canadian students for 23 years.

“She broke many barriers, being the first Chinese woman to do many things.”

Jean Lumb Ln in Chinatown, near the Great Wall mural (PHOTO: Arlene Chan)

Chan reminded the audience that the history of Chinese settlement in Canada does not exist in a vacuum and is part of a larger story of immigration and colonialism, the one whose reverberations are still felt today. The fortitude of our predecessors, activists or not, are templates we should emulate, according to Chan.

“To make Canada an even better place, we have to fight with the same strength and determination of the pioneer Chinese immigrants.”

Wiki Production Code: A0420

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