Past Pieces of Toronto: China Court

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on July 1, 2012.

The Traveller’s Encyclopaedia of Ontario, 1979.

As the future of the ethnic shopping mall is debated in the media, one of the first to grace Toronto’s landscape is all but forgotten. A glance at the exterior of Chinatown Centre on Spadina Avenue gives no hint of its immediate predecessor, an attraction deemed worthy of mention in the provincial Traveller’s Encyclopaedia: “Constructed and decorated by craftsmen brought in from Hong Kong, this sparkling assortment of authentic oriental pagodas, gardens and Chinese boutiques makes a new focal point for the Chinese community in Toronto.” Despite such attention, China Court operated for only a decade—the victim of grander visions from its developers.

Once a private estate, the property at 208-210 Spadina Avenue was redeveloped during the 1920s and became a sales and service centre for General Motors trucks and coaches. By the early 1970s, the changing demographics surrounding Spadina made it an attractive site for developers targeting the Chinese community that was moving westward from its historical base around Dundas and Elizabeth Streets. A Chinese-themed shopping mall seemed like a winning prospect for one of the first new large-scale projects that would hit Spadina.

China Court’s opening on August 28, 1976 was marked by a parade of dancing dragons and lions that ran to City Hall and back. A newspaper ad declared that “China Court is an authentic Chinese shopping facility where you’ll find everything from fashions to delicately carved marble ornaments. Watch as experienced chefs prepare exotic delicacies in the Chinese Food Boutique. Or just enjoy a stroll in the Oriental garden.”

Toronto Star, August 24, 1976.

Food was one of the mall’s main attractions. According to a 1982 Globe and Mail profile, China Court’s ample parking lot was a huge draw, making it easily accessible for grocery shoppers on the run. The mall was considered friendly for newbies to Asian ingredients that weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now—they could “roam around and look at prices, produce and pickled eggs” at their own pace then relax afterwards with a pot of tea and pastries. Among those who enjoyed such post-shopping pleasures was CBC journalist Adrienne Clarkson, who found China Court and its main supermarket Chinamart a convenient one-stop source for items needed to make special meals.

On the other hand, China Court’s premiere restaurant, Jade Garden, was panned in a guide to Chinatown eateries. On the four-star scale Martyn Stollar used in his 1979 book Exploring Chinatown, the Jade earned half of one. While he felt much thought had gone into tastefully furnishing the premises, “one wished that half so much concern were evident in other areas of its operation.” Stollar found that drawing a server’s attention was a “full-time occupation” and that “the overbearing, inefficient and intrusive service is among the poorest I’ve encountered.” Food-wise, he felt it ranged from middling to awful, and not worth pricing that made it one of Spadina’s most expensive restaurants.

Barely half-a-decade into its life, China Court’s future appeared murky. Owner Manbro Land Holdings proposed replacing the modest-sized mall with a $25 million complex incorporating a department store, shops, restaurants and condos that would be more appealing to newer, wealthier immigrants. A murder in the parking lot in July 1981 earned notoriety when 150 people watched a man bleed to death after his throat was slashed with a broken drinking glass. In an unrelated development a month later, federal immigration officials decided to boot Manbro president Tim Sung Man out of the country in 1981. Man had lived in Canada on an extended visitor’s visa since 1976, and the suspicion was that officials were uncomfortable with an article in a Hong Kong tabloid several years earlier which appeared to link Man’s family with a drug lord (Man and his brothers sued the paper for libel).

Advertorial by Mary Walpole touting Chinatown Centre, Globe and Mail, February 16, 1988.

Man left the country, but later returned to push ahead with plans that some Toronto city planners described as the most ambitious project on Spadina since Casa Loma. The mall was closed in 1986 and the tourist-friendly gardens and pagodas were cleared to make way for the concrete and glass of the Chinatown Centre.

Sources: The Chinese in Toronto From 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle by Arlene Chan (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011), Exploring Chinatown by Martyn Stollar (Toronto: self-published, 1979), The Traveller’s Encyclopaedia of Ontario 1979 (Toronto: Government of Ontario, 1979), the January 27, 1982 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the August 24, 1976, July 13, 1981, August 12, 1981, and April 8, 1985 editions of the Toronto Star.


Photo by Ron Bull, originally published in the August 30, 1976 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.

The description provided with this photo: “Parading in comfort: Pearl Wong and her daughter, Rita, ride in a rickshaw pulled by Gordon Lem in a parade marking the opening Saturday of China Court, a $3 million assortment of pagodas, gardens and Chinese boutiques on Spadina Ave, south of Dundas St. Decoration of colorful bazaar was done almost entirely by craftsmen brought from Hong Kong by developers Manbro Investments.”

Globe and Mail, August 25, 1976.

Financial Post, April 5, 1980.

Globe and Mail, August 14, 1981.

Developer Tim Man (above) points to a model of Chinatown Centre, to be built by 1987. Photo by Rick Eglinton, originally published in the April 28, 1986 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0130417f.

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