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“Studentification of West Chinatown”

“Studentification of West Chinatown”

by Corals Zheng

Toronto Chinatown, looking east along Dundas St from Spadina Avenue. Photo credit: City of Toronto.

The University of Toronto St. George Campus (UTSG) borders on a number of historic neighbourhoods that continue to house communities of artists, students, families, seniors, and immigrants. West Chinatown in particular serves as one of the last immigrant landing communities in Downtown Toronto that offers affordable culturally appropriate foods, professional services, employment, housing, and a sense of community. However, historic Chinatowns across North America, generally centrally located, are at risk of displacement and erasure with the movement of people and capital back into the city (Semuels, 2019). The increasing development pressure of the former ethnic enclave sparked community activists to push back against displacement and advocate for community control, but who are the gentrifiers? Upon closer inspection, the present neighbourhood change of West Chinatown is marked not by higher-income professionals but linked to the expansion of the higher education institutions (HEI) and their student population, or the “studentification” of West Chinatown. Zheng (forthcoming) documents the growing number of purpose-built student accommodations (PBSAs) in West Chinatown and the arrival of international Chinese chains and franchises that cater to international Chinese students, such as bubble tea and hot pot establishments, that replaces long-time mom and pop shops. While Zheng’s research illustrates the studentification of the locality, it also analyzes how the narrative history of Chinatowns is mobilized by community activists to push for a specific vision of West Chinatown that omit students as stakeholders in the neighbourhood.

The Ward as seen from the roof of one of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. factories, looking southwest with the image centred at the intersection of Elizabeth and Albert street. Osgoode Hall is visible at the top right. Most of the houses and other buildings in this photograph were demolished to allow for the construction of Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. Photo source: William James, 1910 from City of Toronto Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

The creation and legacies of Chinatowns in North America are linked to discriminatory state policies targeting Chinese economic migrants. Beginning with the first Chinese migrants arriving in British Columbia in 1788 for the fur trade, followed by the gold rush in the lower Fraser Valley (1857) and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1885), Chinese lives and labour built the infrastructure that facilitated the confederation of the Canadian state. At the same time, the Chinese were the only population group singled out on the basis of race in state immigration policies with the Chinese Immigration Act (1885) that levied a head tax beginning with $50 and increased to $500 in 1903 (two years’ worth of labour) and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1923-1947) which banned Chinese immigration to Canada (Chan, 2017). The present West Chinatown is itself a byproduct of urban renewal policies of the 1960s that saw the expropriation of the First Chinatown in St. John’s Ward or “The Ward,” to make room for the Nathan Phillips Square and the University Health Network. Over a 10-year period, 75% of the First Chinatown was expropriated and the Chinese businesses moved westward to the current location anchored at the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street, a grand boulevard that saw the change from a Jewish predominate area to the new Chinatown in the 1970s. The Ward, now a high-density vertical neighbourhood, bears little resemblance to the former working-class enclave that was first home to a thriving African-Canadian community and followed by immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe, Finland, Macedonia, and China (Lorinc, 2015).

The existence of historic Chinatowns in Toronto entrenches historical injustices into real, urban space, and it is a narrative mobilized by Friends of Chinatown (FOCT), a group of young community activists, in the fight for anti-gentrification and anti-displacement. However, the studentification of West Chinatown indicates the tension between existing community stakeholders and a new form of Chinese immigrant, the Chinese international student at the University of Toronto (UofT) from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Arlene Chan, Chinatown Historian and President of the Jean Lumb Foundation commented “before it used to be everybody came from Guangdong province, spoke Toishanhua and shared the same customs and traditions. But now. Chinese are coming from all around the world, don't even speak the same language, don't share the same customs, don't even like necessarily eating the same food, it's so different” (Chan, interview, 2021). International undergraduate students from "Asia and Pacific" have increased by over 300% since 2007 (2007-2019) with students from “Asia & Pacific” driving all of the new increases. The growth in “Asia & Pacific” is driven primarily by students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which increased by 600% from 1,736 in 2007 to 12,279 in 2019 (Zheng, forthcoming). This critical mass of Mainland Chinese students is felt near UTSG in the development of private purpose-built student housing, as well as at the arrival of international Chinese chains and franchises, such as CoCo Fresh Tea and Goubuli, which increased from zero in 2009 to 23 in 2019, most of which arrived in the last five years (Zheng, forthcoming).  

Coco Fresh Tea & Juice at Spadina Avenue

The increase of international students in Canada is closely tied to the expansion of neoliberal policies. In 1992, Ontario universities received 83% of their funding from the government, in 2013, this percentage has shrunk to less than 50% (CFS-O, 2015). The decline of public investment has Ontario universities shifting to private sources, such as tuition fees and public-private partnerships (P3s), for funding. More specifically, a dependence on international students as an income source. From 2009 to 2017, international students in Canada have nearly doubled; 13 % of university students are international (Usher, 2018). Tuition fees for international students have risen twice the rate of domestic students, which was valued at 1.25 billion in 2009 to 2.75 billion in 2016, and the “1.5 billion increase almost exactly offset the 1.7 billion fall in government funding over the same period” (Usher, 2018). UofT’s large proportion of international students from Mainland China, and the increasing reliance of international students for operating revenue for many HEIs in Ontario, bring a renewed iteration on the exploitation of Chinese migrants for their capital, labour, and lives. One international Chinese student commented on the amount of tuition paid to UofT, in addition to the University’s lack of investment in affordable student housing, as well as the minimal support provided to international students in their transition, “I think at least that student housing should not be more expensive than renting a condo in downtown Toronto” (Student Interview, 2021). Paul Johnson, the planner updating the University of Toronto St. George Campus Secondary Plan stated, “for the university and, really the city in general, there really is a crisis is not only housing affordability but also in particular, in student housing and affordable student housing” (Johnson, Interview, 2021).

But while international Chinese students are Chinese, they do not relate to Chinatown in the way many Chinese-Canadians do, and this tension is the partial reluctance for local activists to see international students, and students in general, as a stakeholder in the future of Chinatown. A community activist commented, “but do [the international students] have any understanding of this Chinatown [and the history of Chinatowns]? You know, this is the only place where Chinese people can exist, on a legislative policy level, like Chinese people weren't allowed to go to [certain] public spaces or vote, but Chinese international students coming over, it's like, well, everyone's Chinese from where they come from...I think what bothers me is like [the Chinese International students] they don't have to understand where Chinatown came from, I don't know if that's a good or bad thing” (Community member interview, 2021). While on the other end, an international student responded “when you say, like when a CoCo takes down another old business, I think because there are supply and demand here, there are these many international students from China go to UofT for studies. So, yeah, it's like a business opportunity. And I think it's how things will go.” (Student Interview, 2021).

Corals Zheng — Blank Spaces Magazine

At the core of the research is asking what is the future of West Chinatown? Do we still need Chinatowns? How can planners participate in the equitable development of the growing HEI sector? What are the implications of an arrival community situated on some of the most expensive real estate in North America? Lim Chow, a Chinese who came to build the railway, asked the same question in 1964, “Chinatown is a good place, why can’t it stay? I don’t understand” (Kerr, 1964).

Corals Zheng is a second-year Master of Environmental Studies in Planning Student at York University, with a concentration in Urban and Regional Development. Her research interests focus on land-use in Toronto, and her master’s project seeks to examine neighbourhood change and the studentification of the West Chinatown neighbourhood. This research was funded by Mitacs and the Canada-China Initiatives Fund at the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR) with the supervision of Professor Luisa Sotomayor as part of the StudentDwellTO project.

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