Tucked behind Toronto City Hall’s curved towers, on Elizabeth Street, is a modest patch of greenery outfitted with bright red benches and blossoming tulips. It’s from this spot — once a parking lot— that historian Arlene Chan reconstructs an image of Toronto’s first Chinatown.
Chan draws on a mix of personal history and research to inform her audience, who joined her Heritage Toronto tour of Old Chinatown on May 14. A librarian turned writer, Chan offers a glimpse into the lives of the city’s early Chinese immigrants.
“Why was there a Chinatown? Why was there such a tight-knit community?” asks Chan, before answering her own question. “It was because the Chinese were isolated. ”
Now and Then explores the stories beh ind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
One man reaches up towards the large wooden log—big enough to crush him—and braces himself against the trestle. Another man stands high on top, directing the log with just a rope, pulling it up to build the next tie on a railroad. This scene would have been common across the country as workers built the Canadian Pacific railway from coast to coast in the 1800s. Now, these men, cast in bronze, stand near the Rogers Centre in Toronto, as a permanent reminder of the thousands of workers—many of them Chinese labourers, overworked and underpaid—who died building that railroad.
Arlene Chan was all smile on Saturday, when two Ontario Heritage Trust plaques were officially unveiled to honour her mother, Jean Lumb, the community activist who fought to preserve Toronto’s Chinatown decades ago.
“I think it’s so important because my mother was one of many of the early pioneer Chinese who really helped to turn around people’s perceptions about the Chinese in Toronto,” said a beaming Chan.
Her mother assisted in changing immigration laws and rallied to save Chinatown when it came under threat from construction of the new City Hall, she added.