Next month, a lion will dance and shake its way down Spadina Avenue during the annual Chinatown Festival once more.
It’s a vibrant and popular local tradition that features cultural performances, food, artists, music and much more. The lion dance is believed to bring good luck and prosperity, and given the challenges facing Chinatowns throughout North America, this essential Toronto neighbourhood needs it. As does the entire downtown.
Toronto’s Chinatown stands as a testament to the enduring spirit, vibrant culture and contributions of the city’s Chinese community. But will it survive another generation? Maybe not.
Toronto’s Chinatown is not alone in its challenges. Chinatowns across North America are facing threats of gentrification and affordability, not to mention a rise in anti-Asian racism.
In a display of solidarity, representatives from various Chinatowns gathered earlier this year to address these shared concerns and explore strategies for revitalization. The representatives highlighted the need for collaborative action from local governments, community organizations and the public to protect these vibrant areas.
“An important way of celebrating the achievements of Asian-Canadians is by investing in our Chinatowns and the entrepreneurs who make them succeed. Today’s historic investment preserves an important piece of Asian-Canadian history as we work to create a more inclusive Canada for today and for generations to come,” said Mary Ng, Canada’s minister of international trade, export promotion, small business and economic development.
The city is moving forward with the next phase of a study on Chinatown as well as the creation of a greater citywide Cultural Districts Program that looks for innovative ways to preserve and support local culture across several neighbourhoods.
The Chinatown study, according to city councillor Ausma Malik, in whose ward Chinatown partly sits, is currently in Phase 2, where community engagement is taking place through broad consultation led by a facilitator. The aim is to identify community vision and priorities. In the coming months, the city will work on incorporating feedback and developing a draft framework to present back to the community.
Phase 1 began in September 2022, Phase 2 started in the spring and will continue until fall, and Phase 3 will occur from fall to the following summer.
“We are looking at the development and the growth in the area in a thoughtful way,” said Malik, “and one that appreciates and centres community concerns. We know that Chinatowns have been under threat for a long time. And what we’ve been hearing from community members and folks who have been engaged in what the preservation of Chinatown looks like is to really make sure that we are getting ahead of this.”
Easier said than done. There are multiple development applications in the area that will impact local business and residents and a provincial government intent on pushing housing forward at lightning speed.
Gentrification and urban development pressures threaten the character and affordability that Chinatown offers. Striking a balance between revitalization and preservation becomes crucial.
Toronto placemaker and urban policy expert Jay Pitter spearheaded a proposal that outlined the Cultural Districts Program and its importance. Pitter writes in the executive summary of the need to protect and promote affordable housing options within cultural districts, and that’s something Malik said she is hearing as well.
“What we’re hearing from community members, from local businesses is that we want to make sure that we are minimizing displacement,” Malik said, “and that we are preserving what the neighbourhood has been for so many low-income newcomers to be able to imagine a future in the city.”
Supporting local businesses within Chinatown is also essential for its economic vitality, and the city could and should be asked to create incentives and programs to assist small businesses and attract investment.
“The motto of our city is “Diversity, our strength,” said Malik. “One of the most exciting parts of our city are the neighbourhoods that we have that speak to that cultural heritage, that speak to the stories of the people who decided to make Toronto their home.”
Let’s make sure we stay true to that motto, beginning with Chinatown.