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Toronto: The City and Chinatown Essay


The term “civilized” comes from the term “civis” and it means city. Thus, in antiquity a person is considered civilized if he or she has come in contact with a city or lives in one. It is not difficult to see that in the 21st century the most important man-made invention are not the technology driven gadgets and other scientific breakthroughs of the modern era.

It is an ancient discovery and it is the ability to build a city in order to contain all that man has created and at the same time allow the possibility of millions of people sharing limited space. The following is a discussion of city life and some of its curious attractions, chief of which is Chinatown.

The City

A city can be defined in a very simple way. It can be defined based on statistics, the population, the income, and other forms of demographic tools. But it can also be seen and understood based on profound measures, something that numbers and computers cannot grasp; it can only be sensed through what is uniquely human.

There is one avid student of cities all over the world and as a result he was able to write down one of the most moving description of how a city is perceived through human senses and he said:

Looking at cities can give a special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be. Like a piece of architecture, the city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time. City design is therefore a temporal art but it can rarely use the controlled and limited sequences of other temporal arts like music. On reversed, interrupted, abandoned, cut across. It is seen in all lights and all weathers (Jacobs, p.101).

Truly, indeed a city can be assessed as easily as looking at the map or by visiting famous landmarks. But every city is unique and there is no way to understand its complexity with just one visit. Only the local residents can provide the most compelling and complete commentary of their respective cities. A historian can do the same but they will bore you with facts and leaves you wanting more of the human element of any story telling.

A city can be taken in with leisurely walks and the unhurried pace of a person happy with his thoughts and not the anxious fast-pace movement of a businessman. A city is complex and at the same time those who are familiar of its sights and smells may feel that there is nothing extraordinary to say. They often wonder at the excited chattering of tourists pointing at something new and yet for those who had been living in that area it is nothing but ordinary.

Although cities are integral part of modern existence the opinion regarding cities can be simplified into two. The first one comes from those who consider it a tremendous blessing that mankind had discovered the art and science of building cities.

These are people who cannot live without the hustle and bustle of city life. These are the people who cannot stay put in their own homes and would long for the sun to go down because nightlife is meant to be experienced downtown.

A major part of those who are in love with cities are those who cannot imagine what life would be like without the modern amenities. In cities like Singapore and London the residents take pride in their efficient transportation systems that there is actually no need for private ownership of cars. The freedom to move with ease from work to home is something that they treasure.

Aside from mobility the most common term to describe cities is the word convenience. Take for example the ability to walk a short distance from home and just around the corner is the place where one can buy food and other essential supplies.

If there is nothing else to do on a hot afternoon, the convenience of walking towards a nearby coffee shop is something that ancient men only dreamed of. Those who had mastered the lifestyle of the urbanite could not give up their Internet connection, coffee and tea enjoyed al fresco and of course the convenience of buying gadgets, books, and other things that people do not really need.

Cities are teeming with life and buzzing with activity because it has been discovered that people attracts other people (Jacobs, p.101). It is still a puzzle as to why this occurs and many are saying that when city architects and city planners get together to build an ideal city they “operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet” and yet the reverse is oftentimes true because it seems that people love to watch other people (Jacobs, p.101). This helps explain the influx of people in cities especially in emerging economies.

But on the other side of the fence are those who hate cities. They complain about overcrowding, pollution, high cost of living, pesky neighbors, and other problems depending on which side of the world they are in. It can be said that these people are in the majority.

It is easy to understand the clamor to live in the countryside or in small towns. The desire to move out of cities has become so strong that it has been observed as a phenomenon. According to experts it is called counterurbanization and it is defined as “the shift in population movement from urban to rural areas and that more people moved from metropolitan areas to small towns and rural settings” (Pitzl, p.39). There are many social problems associated with urbanization

One of which stems from the idea that crime can easily flourish in a place where its residents could not establish a sense of community. Thus, crime easily takes root if the families living in close proximity to each other were unable to build meaningful relationships.

It is a common lament for those who had to work two shifts per day and when they come they have no more energy to make small talk with their neighbors. In the morning and evening rush, their humanity was left in their place of work. As a result urban centers are oftentimes seen as a cold place in terms of the warmth of personal relationships.

It can be argued that there is a push and pull that drives people out of the city while at the same time attracting newcomers. For the push that finally jettisoned many people into the more idyllic life of the countryside, the loneliness and isolation created by living in the fast lane is the main reason why many longed for a new life in the suburbs or in the rural areas.

Aside from the much needed rest due to the struggles and ailments brought about by a frenzied lifestyle, there is another major reason why there are many attempting to leave the city. In the book entitled Small Town Bound the author highlighted the attraction towards country style living and he wrote:

It might be the scenery that draws you – mountains, rivers, farmlands, or forests. It might be images of a rural lifestyle or the accessibility of recreational opportunities […] It might be memories of a tight-knit community you experienced as a child. Or it might be visions of a place free of crime, traffic, or stress (Clayton, p.7).

The pull factors listed by the author need no clarification. It is easy to understand the positive feelings created by nature every time a person decides to commune with living organisms through hiking, camping, and even bird watching. These are the things that city planners try to incorporate into their designs. But the more successful the planning and the architecture the more expensive is the experience. Thus, it sometimes defeats the purpose because the residents had to work doubly hard to afford the experience.

Another major pull towards rural areas is the idea that these are places suitable for raising families. Parents would do anything to ensure that their children live a happy, safe, and fulfilling life. For those who grew up in a farm or in a small town setting they need not be told twice as to the level of happiness and well-being that is possible for their children. Every time the discussion veers towards children, it can be expected for parents to make their lives the priority.

The only thing that hinders many people to consider moving into the countryside is the availability of job. But the moment this problem is solved one would be amazed at the speed and single-mindedness of the transfer from city to town.

Aside from the idea that their children are healthier and happier in rural areas there is another major reason why families tend to consider moving out of the city and at least settle in the suburbs. According to researchers, there is a positive correlation between urbanization and high crime rate (Stuckey, p. 8).

And the reason for rising criminality in the city can be attributed to the weakening of the social structure and the lack of community within the city. It is therefore important to ensure that cities should not only function as a place that can handle millions of inhabitants, a city must become a place that can nourish the body, mind, soul of all those who call her home.

In cities, where the leaders and politicians partner with residents to build a livable place, the same type of complaints are heard but at the same time people are proud of the place where they live and work. Most cities contain the undesirable characteristics associated with urbanization. But in some of the world’s top urban centers there is an intersection of function, design, and good governance that can easily make the residents smile. In their case it works.

City of Toronto

Some of the most recognizable cities in the world are located in the Western hemisphere. Although the ancient cities of Beijing and Tokyo are included in this list of great cities, the European and American continent boasts some of the most dazzling, entertaining, and intellectually stimulating cities that this planet can offer.

Consider New York, London, Rome, and Paris. There is no need to elaborate why the senses are stretched to the full while visiting these places. Because this study is biased towards Canada then it is fitting to say that some day, the whole world would acknowledge that Toronto easily becomes part of that list.

The Chinese Immigrants and the City

One of the seldom discussed issues – and if it were not openly – is the one concerning the idea of migration and foreigners living in a place that is not their own. And yet they need to call that place home because wherever they came from that place is already a distant memory.

They need to find a way to survive and thrive in a new land. This requires them to have ownership of the land. There is no need to elaborate why this has become a thorny issue whenever the native population views with suspicion and great sense of wariness the incoming foreigner hoping to integrate.

When Europeans came to the American continent during the Medieval Period, the native inhabitants felt threatened and rightly so. In just a few centuries the natives were overwhelmed by the superior forces and technology brought upon by the foreigners.

But aside from that there was much conflict when it comes to cultural differences. Wars were made and bloody conflicts between native born and foreigners became part of a past that others would love to forget. One would think that in the modern world, the European settlers would have a more tolerant view of foreigners trying to integrate. But as soon as they became the majority and no longer the minority, the new inhabitants quickly imitated what was done to them.

As a result the Chinese immigrants suffered the same fate experienced by those who came to start a new life in a distant country. Aside from the uneasiness felt by native inhabitants upon face-to-face interaction with foreign culture, another challenge is the determination of how they are allowed to live in a city owned by another.

Complicating the issue is the sense of ownership common to those who are used to the idea of private ownership of land (Goeman, p.30). In the case of the leaders of Toronto, during the early 20th century, the challenge was how to deal wisely with a minority group determined to establish their own community within the city.

Chinatown

It has been said that people fear the unknown and certainly the same thing can be said of Chinese immigrants. It is always difficult to deal with something that no one understands. The language barrier for instance is a wall that strengthens the separation between two cultures. The moment a conflict arises it requires very little to spark a verbal war or a riot. Consider the simmering emotions of a Canadian politician in 1902:

They come from southern China … with customs, habits and modes of life fixed and unalterable, resulting from an ancient and effete civilization. They form, on their arrival, a community within a community, separate and apart, a foreign substance within but not of our body politic, with no love for our laws or institutions; a people cannot assimilate and become an integral part of our race and nation (Anderson, p.2).

It was not easy to deal with them and there was a lot to learn about their way of life. But the inability to decipher their language and appreciate their culture was something that became a roadblock to end discrimination. The small number of Chinese immigrants in the beginning also added to the mystery surrounding the minority group and prevented a clear understanding of who they are and what they intend to do.

It is interesting to note that in 1878, “as Toronto’s population was approaching 150,000 there was still only a single Chinese man in the city” (Bell & Penn, p.137). This is not ancient history; this is a period in history that everyone can relate because it is familiar to them.

A single Chinese immigrant is something that may be difficult to fathom in the 21st century. But there is more: “By 1921, when Toronto’s population was almost a half a million, the Chinese population was counted at 2,100 men and 115 women” (Bell & Penn, p.137). It can therefore be said that the creation of a Chinatown within the city is an incredible feat. It is a testament to the character of the Chinese as well as speaks volumes as to their culture and worldview.

After more than a century, the minority group was able to assert itself and carve for itself a home in a foreign land. They are at home in Chinatown and that is why they built it. But by doing so they were able to cross the divide between East and West.

According to one observer, Chinatown evokes images “of an exotic world where people different from the rest of us lead, secretive, mysterious lives … the excitement one experiences in stepping into these patches of urban territory comes from the paradox of finding oneself in a wholly foreign land without ever leaving home – the orient a bus ride away” (Zhou, p.xiii). There is no need to elaborate what it feels to be in Chinatown.

At first there was resentment and fear. As mentioned earlier this is expected of human nature, especially when dealing with something that they not truly understand. But afterwards, after the slow and painful construction of Chinatown, the city of Toronto felt a debt of gratitude. Chinatown is not an intrusion but an example of what can happen if people build communities and foster an atmosphere of tolerance.

The searing commentary given earlier as to the interpretation of the presence of Chinese immigrants in Canada was discouraging to many foreigners. There was no welcoming spirit but rather an antagonistic worldview that is puzzling because the present inhabitants were also immigrants who pushed away the owners of the land and forced them to live in settlements until their numbers dwindled. This is especially true when one looks at the United States and its history with the Native Americans.

It should have been expected that a nation build on the hard work of European immigrants would understand the plight of the Chinese people eager to star a new life in their new found home. It is therefore important to understand that the presence of Chinatown is the proof that people do change.

Chinatown is not just an accident that is being tolerated. It has now become a creation that is celebrated in Toronto. It is not only evidence that people can live in peace but it is also the major proof of will happen if the city allowed diversity. Due to the spirit of tolerance fostered by many Chinatown began to thrive in the middle part of the 20th century and now no one dare say that the city did not benefit from the presence of Chinatown.

It is not only a major source of revenue for the city. Chinatown added complexity and character to Toronto city. It is also a testament to the fact that Toronto deserves to be among the list of top cities in the world because of the way it handled its immigrants. Chinatown can be one of the reasons why there are those who opted to stay, rather than to leave the city and migrate to the nearest town where life is simpler and quiet.

Conclusion

A city is more than the congregation of millions of people. It is more than the income and the industries that assures its survival. There is more to the city other than what the eyes can see. There is the cultural and spiritual aspect.

The city of Toronto is fast rising to become one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is a city wherein good governance and the good fortune of having numerous businesses and industries that provide the resources to build a beautiful and functional city. But it is not a city without its struggles.

It went through growth pains and one of the best examples of what its inhabitants had to go through in order to reach its present level of economic success and tolerance among its diverse people groups is none other than the creation of Chinatown.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kay. “The idea of Chinatown: the power of place and institutional practice in the making of a racial category.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers.77:4 (1987): 580-589.

Bell, Bruce and Elan Penn. Toronto: A Pictorial Celebration. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2005. Print.

Clayton, John. Small Town Bound. New York: Xlibris Corporation, 2000. Print.

Goeman, Mishuana. “From place to territories and back again: centering storied land in the discussion of Indigenous nation-building. International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies. 1.1 (Nov. 2008): 23-39.

Jacobs, Jane. “The Death and the Life of Great American Cities” The City Reader. Ed. Richard LeGates and Frederic Stout. New York: Routledge, 1961. Print.

Pitzl, Gerald. Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.

Stucky, Thomas. Urban Politics, Crime Rates, and Police Strength. Washington, D.C.: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2005. Print.

Zhou, Min. The Socioeconomc Potential of an Urban Enclave. PA: Temple University Press, 1992. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Toronto: The City and Chinatown." December 4, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/toronto-the-city-and-chinatown/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Toronto: The City and Chinatown'. 4 December.

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