Immigration, Assimilation, Ethnicity and All That Jazz

What exactly is “Chinatown”?

Posted by chinesecanuck on August 19, 2008

Many Greater Toronto Area sites boast that there are several Chinatowns, including those in the suburbs. But are the Chinese areas in Markham, Scarborough and Mississauga truly Chinatown? To some, “real” Chinatown is in the downtown areas of Toronto, along Dundas and Spadina or the “Eastern” Chinatown in the Riverdale area. The “Chinese enclaves” in Markham, Scarborough and Mississauga are, on the other hand are suburbs that just happen to have many services catering to Chinese speaking communities.

The “real” Chinatowns downtown have a unique feel to it in every sense of the word. And it feels historical, a little like something out of a Wayson Choy or Amy Tan novel. Markham (or other suburban “Chinatowns), on the other hand, feels like any other suburb, where house prices start at around $350K. Markham is fairly middle class all-round, while “Old Chinatown” is mixed – generally students, “Old Chinatown Chinese” (i.e. seniors who came decades ago), and higher-earning hipster types. There’s obvious poverty there.  It’s often dirty.  The two largest income groupings are either over $100K/year or between $10,000 and $19,999.

Many suburbanites don’t consider Old Chinatown safe, especially at night. When I was in high school, I was warned over and over not to go down there. I wasn’t even supposed to wander around during the day.  Perhaps this is why these people don’t want to claim the suburban Chinese areas as “Chinatown.” It’s all about rep, you know. And in Confucian cultures, you just can’t lose face. People in the old country know about “Chinatown” (meaning downtown) and if you tell them you live there, they’d think that you’re not successful (unless you’re a student at th University of Toronto).

So this brings us back to the original question. Are the suburban Chinese communities “Chinatown,” or does Chinatown have to reflect the the immigrant/”ethnic” stereotype of being dirty, poor and “other”?

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4 Responses to “What exactly is “Chinatown”?”

  1. I think that the traditional image of a “Chinatown” fits your inner-city desciption. I never think about it as a poor area, just as having a strong Chinese cultural vibe.
    The title given to the suburban centers seem a bit racist to me. Do the inhabitants refer to their area as a “Chinatown” or is it called that by outsiders?

  2. “Chinese enclave” is pretty much a media term. Residents in the 404/7 area of Markham may refer to the district as being “Chinese”, but I’m not sure if they call it an enclave, per se. They definitely do not call it Chinatown.

    Other “ethnic enclaves” include Woodbridge, Maple (both Italian), Brampton (South Asian) as well as Thornhill (Jewish). I’ve never really thought of it as racist. Why do you say that?

  3. I’ll have to agree with you on this one. It seems like somebody started the Wikipedia article, and then nobody challenged it. Chinese people in Markham don’t call it “Chinatown”; it seems to be called that by outsiders. Like “Chinatown”, “ethnic enclave” also seems like term given by outsiders.

    Since we are both bothered by this, let’s try to fix the Wikipedia article.

  4. MR said

    Actually there are plenty of recent immigrants, generally poorer, who settle in Chinatown. It’s not all elderly people from decades ago. Check the City’s neighbourhood stats, lots of recent immigrants from Mainland China. There are plenty of rooming houses and apartments there.

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