Next on TVOntario, Doctor Who

Originally published on Torontoist on November 22, 2013.

The cover of Star Week’s 1976/77 fall television preview issue was loaded with bombs. The makers of featured TV series like Ball FourCosHolmes and Yoyo, and The Nancy Walker Show had little inkling their shows would quickly be scuttled by poor ratings. Other new series mentioned in the magazine had better long-term prospects, including a British import TVOntario had put in the timeslot before Elwy Yost‘s Saturday Night at the Movies.

How was Doctor Who—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week—introduced to Toronto viewers that fall?

From Star Week:

A BBC-produced science fiction series which has been running in Britain since 1963, this half-hour weekly series stars Jon Pertwee (the third actor to take the role) as the title character, a Time Lord, one of an advanced race of beings from the planet Gallifrey with extraordinary intellectual and psychic powers. Dr. Who has travelled through time and space via a machine called the TARDIS to the planet Earth in the 20th century where, as a special advisor to UNIT (a United Nations intelligence group), he uses his powers to outwit an endless array of monsters and villainous forces.

So began a 15-year run on the province’s educational broadcaster. As the show, created by Toronto native Sydney Newman, celebrates its golden anniversary, here’s a look at how TVOntario handled the series that enticed (and scared) a generation of viewers with its eerie theme music and carnival of monsters.

TVO wasn’t the first Toronto channel to air the series. CBC purchased the show’s first 26 episodes in late 1964. “Now perhaps my Canadian in-laws will really believe me when I say I am an actress,” Jacqueline Hill, who played the Doctor’s original companion, Barbara, joked to the Globe and Mail while en route to Toronto to visit her husband Alvin Rakoff’s family. Following the BBC’s lead, CBC scheduled the show in a late Saturday afternoon slot for a six-month run, beginning in January 1965.

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Toronto Star, October 29, 1977.

TVOntario’s run of the show began with part one of The Three Doctors on September 18, 1976. To fulfill its educational mandate, the broadcaster issued a resource handbook with suggested discussion themes and reading lists. On air, each show ended with a segment that explored topics suggested by the episode. (This was better than the addition made by Time-Life Television for American syndication: annoying narration, provided by actor Howard Da Silva, inserted into the soundtrack. It referred to the title character, whose name is “the Doctor,” as “Doctor Who.”) Hosted by futurist Jim Dator, these pieces filled a three-to-eight minute gap. Wearing a “Dr. Dator” t-shirt, he discussed the Doctor’s childlike treatment of his companions or eulogize the demise of his third incarnation.

When TVOntario introduced fourth doctor Tom Baker’s episodes in 1978, you might say Dator also regenerated. He was replaced by writer Judith Merril, the namesake of the Toronto Public Library’s speculative-fiction special collection. Though the pay was low for television, it was better than what she earned freelancing. Merril served as the “Un-Doctor” in 108 segments over the next three years. “I like to take something that was said or happened on the show and add some new information to it or stimulate the audience’s critical centres in some other way,” she told the Star in 1980. Merril hoped her pieces encouraged viewers to think critically and question authority—always the Doctor’s modus operandi.

While Merril initially enjoyed the segments, changes behind the scenes led to disenchantment. Her final producer wanted to use ChromaKey green screen in the studio instead of shooting on location. He also wanted her to wear costumes and tighten her scripts. Merril later reflected on the end of her run:

We did a few good shows that year, but it was a lot more work. I decided I would need to get a hell of a lot more money to keep doing it the way he wanted. They responded, “You’re absolutely right. You should be getting twice as much. But we just had another budget cut. I think we’ll do without the extros altogether.” That was that for my career as a Doctor Who specialist.

One Doctor Who story arc Merril found particularly problematic was The Talons of Weng-Chiang. While often acclaimed as one of the top stories of the Tom Baker era, the serial, influenced by everything from penny dreadfuls to Pygmalion, includes actors in yellowface makeup. The Chinese Canadian National Council for Equality complained about the story’s stereotyping. Its president, Dr. Joseph Wong, observed that the story included “everything from an evil Fu Manchu character to pigtailed coolies and laundrymen who submissively commit suicide on their master’s orders.” The story was pulled prior to airing in November 1980. A TVOntario official admitted that the move was censorship, “but in a good cause.” The BBC’s Canadian rep apologized for offending anyone, but noted that the show was made for a British audience who, because of a different mixture of cultures, might not be offended by the same things.

Another consequence of Doctor Who’s run on TVOntario was the inadvertent preservation of some episodes of the series from permanent destruction. The BBC was in the habit of junking tapes during the 1970s. When TVO returned several Jon Pertwee episodes to the BBC in 1981, they served as colour replacements for the black-and-white film copies Auntie Beeb had retained.

For years, the show continued to send sensitive young viewers diving behind the couch in terror, and to convince fans to knit long scarves and dress like cricketers, until TVOntario lost the broadcast rights to YTV in 1989. The show briefly resurfaced on TVO in 1991 so the station could use up the remaining repeat rights associated with the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy stories. Doctor Who disappeared from the station for good following the final part of Delta and the Bannermen on September 26, 1991.

Sources: Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002); the October 29, 1964 edition of the Globe and Mail; the September 11, 1976, October 1, 1980, and November 6, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 7, 1980 edition of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, October 29, 1964.

Like many Ontarians of my age, TVO was my introduction to Doctor Who. When I was very little, I was fascinated by the title sequence and weird music, then switched the channel. I dimly recall seeing Jon Pertwee (third doctor) episodes on Detroit’s WGPR (channel 62), and never saw any black and white installments until PBS stations within our range began airing the series – I’m pretty sure my introduction to Patrick Troughton (second doctor) came via fuzzy reception from Bowling Green, Ohio.

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Star Week helped nail down Doctor Who’s initial airdates on TVO. It also offered an interesting glimpse into Saturday night television at the dawn of the 1976-77 season.

None of the shows spotlighted on Star Week‘s cover had staying power. Clockwise from top left:

Bill Cosby – Cos. Sketch comedy/variety show. Cancelled November 1976.

Tony Randall – The Tony Randall Show. Sitcom about a widowed judge. The only show featured on this cover to last more than one season, surviving until March 1978.

Nancy Walker – The Nancy Walker Show. Sitcom about L.A.-based talent agent. Cancelled December 1976. Walker quickly resurfaced as the star of Blansky’s Beauties in February 1977.

Jim Bouton – Ball Four. Sitcom inspired by Bouton’s controversial best-selling book about life as a pro baseball player. Cancelled October 1976.

David Birney – Serpico. Drama inspired by the Al Pacino movie. Cancelled January 1977.

John Schuck and Richard B. Shull – Holmes and Yoyo. Sitcom about a cop and his robot partner. Cancelled December 1976.

Dick Van Dyke – Van Dyke and Company. Sketch comedy/variety show whose cast included Andy Kaufman. Cancelled December 1976.

Robert Stack – Most Wanted. Crime drama. A Quinn Martin production. Last wanted in August 1977.

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Here’s the full Saturday preview page.  

Doctor Who wasn’t the only British import TVO added discussion points to. As shown here, the 1968-70 ITV drama Tom Grattan’s War was supplemented with bonus material featuring Andrea Martin, then appearing on another show which debuted in September 1976: SCTV. I’d love to see how Martin illustrated particular points about a young Londoner’s adventures set against the backdrop of the First World War. I’m guessing Edith Prickley didn’t make an appearance.

What aired against the Time Lord’s TVO debut? For Toronto viewers, music, music, music. Hee Haw (channel 2) featured Tammy Wynette, The Waltons star Will Geer, and Kenny Price. CFTO (channel 9) ran Canadian Stage Band Festival, featuring big bands from schools and post-secondary institutions across the country. Dolly Parton’s short-lived Dolly! (channel 7) guest-starred “Captain Kangaroo” Bob Keeshan. Grandparents enjoyed champagne music with Lawrence Welk on channel 29, while the disco set grooved to a steady stream of dancers and stylin’ fashion on CITY-TV’s Boogie.

After the post ran, I received an email from a reader who passed on the story to Dr. Jim Dator, who clarified his association with TVO and Doctor Who. Dator was on a two-year absence from the University of Hawaii, and worked with the Ontario Educational Communications Authority (OECA, as TVO was originally known) on their contribution to Science Council of Canada’s Canada as a Conserver Society project [PDF]. Upon returning to Hawaii, he shot one year of extros there before Judith Merril took over.

While I did co-teach a course at New College, and was given a visiting professor title in UT Department of Industrial Engineering (of all departments) thanks to Arthur Porter, and was also affiliated with the Department of Adult Education of OISE, thanks to Roby Kidd,  it was OECA who paid my salary. The Dr. Who stint was the final TV production I did for OECA, and the clip you sent of my swan song was actually filmed in Honolulu.

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Toronto Star, November 6, 1980.

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Toronto Sun, November 7, 1980.

Coverage of TVO’s pulling of The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Greeting Easter 1910

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on April 3, 2010.

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Toronto Sunday World, March 27, 1910.
A description of Easter 110 years ago, courtesy of the Globe:

When the world is beginning to awaken to the fact that spring with all its revivifying and gladdening influences is at hand, when the earth is delivered from the bondage of the iron hand of winter, it is appropriate that paeans of praise and thanksgiving should rise from every Christian church the world over. Yesterday afternoon in Toronto in nearly four hundred churches special choral services were held, and every pulpit spoke forth a message appropriate to the day. Toronto looked like a new city yesterday when Easter raiment and Easter hats, as though by the waving of a magician’s wand, changed the dull streets of a few days back into avenues full of life and colour. No other flower blooms into being quite so suddenly as that which decks the maiden’s hat on Easter Sunday, and none of the birds of spring make their appearance in quite the unheralded fashion of the one that sings his silent song from its perch amidst the foliage unknown to science that adorns some of the new spring creations. It will still be some time before the trees begin to leaf, the early flowers to peep above the sod, and when they do the process will be a gradual one, but the women of Toronto yesterday anticipated the process and bloomed forth into the raiment of spring in a single day.

The city’s newspapers that weekend were full of flowery prose, extensive listings of the songs heard at four hundred churches, and a few other stories we’re going to share.

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Muddy St. Clair Avenue West, east of Avenue Road, 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 19. A researcher’s note on the back of the photograph reads, “This photo appeared in the Toronto World, Sunday, May 15, 1910, under heading ‘Beautiful Toronto Street Much Favored by Horsemen, Cyclists and Pedestrians–Three Views of St. Clair-avenue.’” Based on this photo, we’re guessing the copywriter had their tongue firmly in cheek.

In its Good Friday editorial, the Globe wrote about the controversial widening of St. Clair Avenue from a two-lane road into an artery that could handle multiple lanes of traffic and a streetcar line. The sticking point was who would pick up the cost: the city or taxpayers?

Some of the property-owners say that they moved to the avenue to be far away from street cars, laden wagons, automobiles, and all the other dusty and noisy features of city life. They do not want to attract them by widening the street—largely at their own cost. The dreaded traffic will come, however, whatever the width of the street may be, for it is the only artery that serves an area which is being rapidly populated. If the traffic must come, willy-nilly, it is better for all concerned that the street should be made spacious enough now to make it adequate for all time to come.

Despite concerns that the project would be caught up in bureaucratic bungling (the impression given by the editorial is that city projects constantly sailed through various levels of government only to be stymied by one unhappy official or board), the widening eventually went ahead. Whether it was made wide enough is a question to ask anyone with an opinion on the St. Clair right-of-way project.

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The Telegram, March 28, 1910.

Speaking of streetcars, Toronto Railway Company general manager R.J. Fleming announced a series of new lines that looped around City Hall and crossed the Don River. Among the routes were two that began the process of connecting the many short streets that later formed the path of Dundas Street from Bathurst to Broadview. The eastern route along what was then Wilton Avenue and Elliott Street was hoped to relieve pressure on Queen Street as the number of commuters from Riverdale grew, as well as to allow a new crossing of the Don River to be built. The loops around City Hall were designed to lessen congestion created by the thousands of employees heading to work at Eaton’s and Simpson’s. According to the News, city council disagreed with the proposed line for University Avenue “for scenic reasons” and because of the noise it would create in front of the new site for Toronto General Hospital.

And now, a word from our sponsor…

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Mail and Empire, March 25, 1910.

The other major story from east of the Don was a coroner’s inquest into the death of laundryman Mah Yung from typhoid at the Don Jail. Yung was arrested on March 12 at his store on Parliament Street, where, according to the Globe, “other Chinamen” called the police when Yung “had gone out of his mind and was breaking up the furniture.” Though an autopsy determined Yung’s state was caused by a typhoid-induced delirium with symptoms resembling insanity, the arresting officer didn’t call a doctor, as Yung did not appear to be in any pain. Although a law passed a few years earlier indicated anyone suspected of mental illness shouldn’t be locked up with anyone charged or convicted of a criminal offence, that’s precisely what happened to Yung when he reached the jail. His condition varied over the next few days, with most accounts noting that he repeatedly got out of bed, put his clothes on, and then reversed the process. After nearly a week, Yung’s condition deteriorated rapidly and he was rushed to Toronto General Hospital, where he quickly succumbed to peritonitis that set into a ruptured bowel. The inquest determined that medical facilities at the jail were grossly inadequate and the physicians had not taken enough care in diagnosing Yung’s true ailment—insanity, partly determined by rumours heard by Yung’s friends that he might have spent time in an asylum in Vancouver. As a News editorial noted, “the fact that the victim was a Chinaman does not render any less satisfactory the breakdown of the medical machinery in connection with the Toronto prison system.” While the inquest was under way, local health officials downgraded a boiled water alert, as the count of bacteria in the city water supply that led to Yung’s condition had dropped.

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Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 192A.

On a lighter note, the News also provided an update on the reconstruction of recreational facilities at Hanlan’s Point that were damaged or destroyed by fire the previous summer—“the sound of hammer and saw and the general bustle and activity at Hanlan’s Point these days reminds one forcibly of the springtime scene in a young but growing town in the Prairie Provinces, where they sprout up and stretch out as if by magic.” The $250,000 of improvements made by the Toronto Ferry Company included a doubling of the capacity of the baseball stadium, improved fire protection, and the installation of a new roller coaster at the amusement park:

Two cars start off together on opposite sides of a platform, are hauled up the steep incline and then tear away on their mad course a mile and a half in length, including all the circuits and curves, which they cover in three and one-half minutes. The speed is that of a railway train, and if that, together with the up-jerks and down-jerks, is not enough excitement, a little more is provided by the apparent race with another racing car on a parallel course close by. The Racer Dips are specially strengthened and provided with side guards to prevent any possibility of a car leaving the course.

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The News, March 26, 1910.

If riding the Racer Dips was too much excitement for a leisurely activity, why not take part in a play? The News provided tips from Toronto Conservatory School of Expression director F.H. Kirkpatrick for budding thespians on how to properly run an amateur dramatic club. Most important: find a director or stage manager who “must be dominant, firm, tactful and possessed of an infinite degree of patience.” In terms of suitable material, “it is almost unnecessary to suggest that one cannot portray that which is without one’s experience. Consequently it would be wise to avoid dramas that call for the portrayal of deep and subtle emotions.” Fitzpatrick felt that “plays of simple plot, somewhat rapid movement, normal characterization and clear situations” were appropriate for non-professionals. Ideal genres included farce, situation comedies, and “plays of a simple heart-interest.” He also believed many clubs ignored the crucial elements of choosing the right pictures to post on the stage, which we suspect may have helped distract audiences from the cliched action in front of them.

Sources: the March 25, 1910, March 26, 1910, and March 28, 1910 editions of the Globe; the March 25, 1910 edition of the Mail and Empire; the March 26, 1910 and March 28, 1910 editions of the News; and the March 26, 1910 edition of the Telegram.

Shaping Toronto: Chinatowns

Originally published on Torontoist on February 4, 2016.

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Marking the end of the Second World War in Chinatown, August 12, 1945 (two days before the official declaration was signed). City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 98337.

A glance at the listing for Adelaide Street East in the 1878 city directory shows a mix of Anglo-sounding businessmen whose trades range from contracting to insurance. The name at number 9 stands out: Sam Ching & Co, Chinese laundry. Mr. Ching’s presence was a cultural milestone, as he was the first recorded Chinese resident of Toronto.

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Page from the 1878 city directory listing Sam Ching’s business at 9 Adelaide Street East.

Since Ching’s era, Toronto has included several Chinatowns, a term which has evolved from its original negative connotation. As Library and Archives Canada observes, “’Chinatown’ was coined in the 19th century as a European concept to signify an undesirable neighbourhood full of vice, and peopled by an inferior race.” That proper Torontonians of the early 20th century viewed the city’s small Chinese population—just over 1,000 in 1910—as lesser beings puts it mildly.

Both the respectable and gutter press hyped up the “yellow peril,” editorializing on how the eastern mindset was alien to western concepts of democracy and good citizenship, and how the Chinese would corrupt morals via gambling and opium. Efforts to curb their presence in the laundry and restaurant trades ranged from licensing fees to unsuccessful attempts by City Council to deny business licenses. Paranoia led to provincial legislation preventing Chinese-owned businesses from hiring white women, lest they be sold into white slavery. The Rosedale Ratepayers Association wanted to keep Chinese laundries out of their neighbourhood, adding them to the long list of things people don’t want in Rosedale.

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100-110 Elizabeth Street, April 8, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 178.

While there had been small clusters of Chinese along Queen Street (one at George, another at York), by the end of the First World War a stable community established itself in The Ward, the neighbourhood west of Old City Hall which, despite its great poverty, had welcomed numerous immigrant communities. Elizabeth Street between Queen and Dundas served as this Chinatown’s spine, lined with businesses, restaurants, and societies. It mostly served single men, thanks to a series of harsh immigration measures preventing families from joining them. These laws escalated from head taxes to the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which all but banned entry to Canada for two decades.

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56-48 Elizabeth Street, April 8, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 171.

Over that time, the “almond-eyed Celestials,” as the Globe dubbed Chinese residents during the early 1920s, endured frequent police raids on gambling houses, a riot, and periodic rumours of imminent tong wars. If anything, the gambling dens offered lonely people social space, work, and shelter during hard times. Viewed as a threat to the existing social order, the Chinese found Chinatown a refuge they felt accepted in.

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Globe and Mail, October 14, 1948.

Major changes came after the Second World War. The end of the Chinese Immigration Act led to a slow reunion of families. Provincial liquor law reforms allowing cocktail bars provoked a restaurant boom in Chinatown. Locals and tourists dined at Kwong ChowLichee GardenNanking TavernSai Woo, and other eateries which benefitted from both the new booze rules and increasing interest in Chinese-Canadian cuisine.

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Globe and Mail, June 17, 1969.

There were also new threats. The City acquired properties at the southern end of Chinatown to build the current City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. By 1967, the city’s development commissioner recommended that the remaining buildings be replaced by municipal structures. Lead by the likes of Kwong Chow owner and community activist Jean Lumb, the Save Chinatown committee fought to preserve what was left. Lumb presented her arguments to the Star:

One reason why we feel there should always be a Chinatown in a city the size of Toronto is simply that there has been one, and to have it lost would be strongly felt. Its existence has its effects on people, especially as long as there are new Chinese immigrants coming every year. We should have a spot for them to start from, a place where they can be among their own people, hear their own language spoken. The Chinese people are quiet and reserved; it takes them longer than many other immigrants to make friends, to get used to new ways.

Some people say a Chinatown encourages ghettos and this is a reason why it shouldn’t be, but that’s not so. It just gives the people a sense of belonging. It’s a nice environment for them until they’re ready to go on their way more and fit into the Canadian community.

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Toronto Star, August 28, 1971.

After a series of deputations in 1969, City Council decided to keep what was now known as Old Chinatown. Efforts to keep the neighbourhood alive during the 1970s included Dragon Mall (a pedestrianized Elizabeth Street, à la the Yonge Street Mall) and earning recognition as a tourist destination. Over time, large scale development projects crept in and the remaining Chinese businesses closed. By the 21st century little remained beyond historical plaques marking where the neighbourhood had been.

Meanwhile, the gradual loosening of immigration rules during the 1960s prompted an influx of arrivals, especially from Hong Kong. As the old Chinatown shrank, a new one grew to the west along Dundas and Spadina, replacing the Jewish community which was moving north. By the late 1970s this area was recognized as downtown’s primary Chinatown, marked with cultural motifs and Chinese-language street signs.

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Corner of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East, sometime between 1975 and 1988. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 383, Item 1.

For those who found Spadina too pricey or touristy, there was Chinatown East, which emerged at Broadview and Gerrard. Starting with the opening of Charlie’s Meat in 1971, the neighbourhood’s affordability attracted businesses which served an increasing number of migrants from mainland China and Vietnam.

By the mid-1980s, new Chinatowns developed in the suburbs. The influx of new businesses and residents revealed that fears of the “yellow peril” were far from dead. Agincourt became a flashpoint in 1984, as a wave of immigrants from Hong Kong (on the move as the end of the British lease on the colony in 1997 loomed) arrived. Some longtime residents were alarmed by the new faces around them. “I don’t want to be biased or prejudiced but I don’t think they should be allowed to come into a neighbourhood and take over with such force,” 30-year resident Mildred Jackson told the Star. A heated community meeting ostensibly about parking issues related to the recently-opened Dragon Centre and two other plazas at Sheppard Avenue and Glen Watford Drive degenerated into jeers and racist remarks. The tone may have been set by the meeting’s chair, who referred to the “rape of our community” and that “we should not actively encourage any group to cling together as an enclave” (he later wrote the Star to protest that his remarks were taken out of context). Flyers distributed to homes asked for tougher immigration policies, alleging links between new arrivals and crimes across the Pacific.

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Dragon Centre, Agincourt, February 2016.

Backlash against emerging Chinese business and commercial areas continued over the next decade as new enclaves emerged in Markham and Richmond Hill. But Agincourt also pointed the way to the nature of later areas, from large restaurants to Asian-themed shopping centres like Pacific Mall.

In a book profiling Canadian Chinatowns, Paul Yee summarized how the role of these neighbourhoods changed from a necessary presence to ensure the community’s safety to being woven into the urban fabric.

Some Chinese saw old Chinatowns as living monuments to a turbulent history and to the fragility of equality. Others saw them as sites where Chinese culture was preserved and shared. Both these views supported the building of cultural facilities there. In a sense, old and new Chinatowns bridged the historical divide between Chinese Canadians, because more and more people appreciated Chinatowns’ different functions and freely visited them.

Additional material from The Chinese in Toronto From 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle by Arlene Chan (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); Chinatown by Paul Yee (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2005); the July 6, 1922 edition of the Globe; and the March 8, 1969, May 14 1984, and May 29, 1984 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, October 11, 1907.

The fear of the “yellow peril” in action – one of the more jaw-dropping (from a modern perspective) editorials regarding the place of Chinese in Canadian society during the early 20th century.

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The Globe, July 6, 1922.

A profile of Chinatown, which tosses off a “gee, aren’t they cute?” vibe.

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Chinese victory celebrations, parade on Elizabeth Street, August 26, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 98604.

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1969. Click on image for larger version.

The article from which Jean Lumb’s defense of maintaining a Chinatown was quoted from.

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Toronto Star, August 27, 1971. Click on image for larger version.

An early 1970s look at Old Chinatown, which discusses some of the remaining businesses, the Dragon Mall pedestrian zone, and several recipes inspired by local grocers.

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Globe and Mail, June 27, 1975.

One of the first major projects as Spadina became the heart of downtown’s Chinatown was China Court, which opened in August 1976. Within a decade, it was razed for the cold concrete of Chinatown Centre.

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Globe and Mail, August 2, 1976. Click on image for larger version.

The building at 346 Spadina Avenue has gone through numerous incarnations, from the Labor Lyceum, to a series of Asian restaurants beginning with Yen Pin Place.

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Toronto Star, May 29, 1984.

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Toronto Star, June 1, 1984.

The Star’s coverage of a testy meeting in Agincourt, and reaction from readers. The paper also published an editorial criticizing attendees for their remarks, observing that the parking issue was one Scarborough’s city council was attempting to fix.

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Toronto Star, June 16, 1984.

A few weeks later, meeting chairman Dr. Douglas Hood defended his actions, claiming that coverage was a smear job which took several remarks out of context. Having covered community meetings over the years where the yahoos came out in full force, and reading about similar meetings in the 905 belt a decade later, I’m tempted to lean toward the paper’s interpretation of events.

“There Are Opium Dens in Toronto”

Originally published on Torontoist on November 30, 2011.

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The Empire, June 30, 1892.

When Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) mused in Monday’s  Sun about the possibility of opium dens lurking within some Toronto massage parlours, we couldn’t help but conjure up pulpy images of seedy locales dripping with racist Yellow Peril stereotypes. Which got us thinking: did Toronto have a problem with opium dens back when Asians were always quoted in pidgin English and readers devoured tales of drug lords like Dr. Fu Manchu?

As a late-19th century newspaper expose succinctly put it: “There are opium dens in Toronto.”

Over the course of three days in the early summer of 1892, the Empire titillated readers with the account of a fearless reporter’s journey into the underworld of Toronto’s opium dens. Guided by a reformed “opium fiend” from Chicago, the uncredited journalist promised to astound the public “with a surprise approaching incredulity.” In the neighbourhoods where dens were located, police and residents claimed ignorance of their existence: “Some went as far as to pooh-pooh the very idea that they could exist in moral Toronto without the fact becoming known to the morality department at least.” While partaking of opium was once so socially accepted that raw materials were advertised in the Globe, by the 1890s it was seen as a shameful activity presided over by Chinese immigrants.

The media often laid the blame for the dens solely on their operators and usually glossed over the culpability of their white patrons.

In order to access the dens, the reporter had his guide bring a letter of reference written in Chinese from a den owner in Chicago. They were denied entry to dens located at 18 Queen Street East and 42 Jarvis Street (which the duo blamed on their healthy appearances), but they succeeded when they reached the premises of Sam Lee at 321 Parliament Street:

The exterior of the shop is very unpretentious indeed, and its interior is no better. The front window is closed up with shutters, and the place has the appearance of being kept by a man whose interest in life is gone. As the ex-smoker entered the shop the old man at the ironing board sighed, and again bent down to his work on the bosom of a shirt. The letter was shoved over to him, and he stopped ironing long enough to read it. After perusing its long columns he folded it up, raised a face wasted by 40 years of opium smoking. Wearily he shook his head.

“Me no smokee,” was his answer, in a husky voice.

The guide and the old man questioned each other for several minutes before access was granted to a narrow, musty stall in the corner of the store. The partitioned-off area contained a bed, pillows, and all of the equipment required to enjoy opium. A lengthy description of how to smoke the drug followed. Among the other users they encountered, at least one was deathly afraid that their Sunday school teacher would find them patronizing a den.

As the pair visited other dens, word spread around the proprietors and they were soon denied access. The reporter concluded that despite the suspicion he encountered, and their own occasional opium-taking, the Chinese community in Toronto were “a much superior class to those who are found in American cities. But for their extreme suspiciousness they would probably be a hospitable lot of men, quite as anxious to do a suffering ‘fiend’ a kindness as to take the few cents charged for the favour.” His final thought was that “no good would follow the extension of the horrible fetish of whose dominion only a glimpse has been given.”

News of the exposé spread as far as Saint John, New Brunswick, where the front page of the Daily Sun proclaimed that “now that the dens have been pointed out, it is quite likely a police crusade will be in order.” It wasn’t just yet; as a police officer admitted to the Empire, there weren’t any laws prohibiting the use of opium or den keeping, which left the force powerless.

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A squalid scene next door to an opium den. Slum interior, 152 York Street, January 20, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 1.

The legal situation changed in 1908, when federal Minister of Labour William Lyon Mackenzie King drafted the Opium Act, which criminalized trafficking and possession for sale. The law seemed squarely aimed at the Chinese community, especially in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, as other provisions of the act allowed respectable pharmacists to continue selling opiates with no problem. The first charges in Toronto under the new act were laid in July 1909, when Lee Chung Lung of 154 York Street and Tie You of 169 Richmond Street West were fined $100 each for operating opium dens on their premises. Police Magistrate Rupert Kingsford warned that the two men were being let off lightly, as future offenders would be jailed. Ten found-ins were also brought to court, but their charges were dropped as “the keeper is most to blame, getting those poor wretches into his place to smoke that stuff.”

Over the next two decades, the Chinese community complained of receiving harsh treatment from the police whenever people were found in opium or gambling dens. Charges were often reduced or dropped by judicial officials with paternalistic streaks toward the Chinese. Stories about opium gradually faded from the news, and seem so far in the past now that even if Councillor Mammoliti’s current claims are true, the nature of the issue makes his concerns fit neatly with his penchant for bizarre actions in the name of the public good—can we expect to see him park outside a suspicious parlour with video camera in hand?

Additional material from Discrimination and Denial: Systemic Racism in Ontario’ Legal and Criminal Justice Systems, 1892-1961 by Clayton James Mosher (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), and the following newspapers: the June 30, 1892, and July 2, 1892, editions of the Empire; the July 1, 1892, edition of the St. John Daily Sun; and the July 28, 1909, edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The complete Empire series on opium dens. Because of the size of the files, you’ll find them via these links:

June 30, 1892 front page.

June 30, 1892 page two.

July 1, 1892 front page.

July 1, 1892 page two.

July 2, 1892 conclusion of series.