In Toronto, Chinese Grocery Stores Defy the Whitewashed Cityscape

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This essay is the second piece in the “Commons for Whom?” series, which investigates the role of identity, ethnicity, accessibility, and coloniality in the politics of the commons. Inspired by the ASLE + AESS 2023 conference theme “Reclaiming the Commons,” our series “Commons for Whom?” especially engages the implicit “we” in calls to reclaim common, public, and outdoor spaces. “Commons for Whom?” is a collaborative, cross-platform series, published across Edge EffectsNiCHE, and Correspondences. Series editors: Addie Hopes (NiCHE), Ben Iuliano (Edge Effects), Rebecca Laurent (Edge Effects), Weishun Lu (Edge Effects), Kelly McKisson (Correspondences), and Richelle Wilson (Edge Effects).

The first recorded Chinese person to arrive in Toronto, Canada was a man by the name of Sam Ching. It was the year 1878, a time when the city was not yet familiar with the waves of immigrants that would soon arrive. In those early years, the Chinese community in Toronto was small, numbering a few dozen. In just a matter of decades, as the promise of work on the Canadian Pacific Railway drew thousands of Chinese immigrants to the country, the community grew quickly. Many of these early immigrants started laundromats, restaurants, and grocery stores. In 1910, three Chinese grocers were in operation: Quong Sang & Co. Groceries at 190 York Street, Wing Wo Chung Groceries at 192 York Street, and a third shop at 203 York Street. By 1924, 15 grocery stores and an additional 10 produce shops were run by Chinese immigrants.

The first Chinatown in Toronto was located near the intersection of Elizabeth and Dundas Streets, and the various Chinese-run establishments functioned as important community spaces for the Chinese community who were largely excluded from mainstream society. In these “other” places, congregating “Others” opposed and inverted the whitewashed cityscape. Today, the Chinese diaspora is scattered throughout the Greater Toronto Area and Chinese grocery stores number in the hundreds, if not thousands. In these stores, we can see the entanglements of cultural histories, languages, socio-economic conditions, built environments, and complex food systems. They also function as significant community hubs, where Chinese Canadians encounter and engage with the food traditions and practices of their ancestors, while also forging new, creative relationships among themselves and with others.

The practices that shape these grocery stores are enmeshed within histories of dispossession and displacement of Chinese communities in Toronto and throughout Canada. The discriminatory laws and policies faced by Chinese Canadians in the past led directly to the development of these stores as a means of defiance and survival. As readers will see in the slideshow below, these fugitive spaces represent a powerful expression of Chinese Canadians’ resilience and resistance to systemic oppression. We can understand them as a kind of commons — especially rich sites of community for people who, like their first predecessors on Turtle Island, continue to be excluded from (whitestream) public space.

  • Man wearing a white grocer's apron stands in a parking lot near a man wearing black near the open truck of a car.
  • People stand in line near a seafood counter at a brightly lit grocery store.
  • A person puts vegetables into a plastic bag in a grocery store aisle near a large red column
  • People shop near a display of bright green vegetables.
  • People work behind a meat and deli counter.
  • Women in a purple coat and a man wearing a baseball cap select vegetables from full shelves.
  • Women wearing face masks stand near a blue cart under bright florescent grocery store lights.
  • Three people with their backs to the camera shop among aisles packed with brightly-colored pink and red food pacakges.
  • A person in a white apron talks with a customer standing near large red baskets.
  • A full display table in the center of aisle 7. A hanging black sign says the aisles contains Asian, Soya Sauce, Rice, etc.
  • People stand in a bread aisle marked with multiple languages.
  • Three people stand together talking in a small group near bright packages marked with Chinese characters.
  • Two grocery store workers in green smocks stock boxes in a neatly organized display.
Feature Image: Foody World | 8 William Kitchen Road A, Scarborough.

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Steve 4. Tu

Steve (he/him) is a PhD student and ante-/anti-disciplinary researcher at OISE (University of Toronto). His research interests include philosophy of higher education, multispecies ethnography and the other-than-human turn, critical plant studies, post-qualitative inquiry, research-creation, possibility studies, new animism, and anti-Asian racism. You can find him in the Paracosmoscene.

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