The city of Toronto, it’s often said, finds its identity in diversity. Diversity Our Strength: it’s our official motto. It is an idea that seems impossible to overstate. But, walking through a vibrant neighbourhood like Korea Town – nestled in Toronto’s historic Annex – it may be difficult to imagine a time before this strength through diversity was fully realized.
Across Canada, May is Asian Heritage Month. In honour of this, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration has partnered with Heritage Toronto to provide a guided tour, exploring the history of Korean immigration to our city and celebrating one of the key features of our city.
Tour guide Jason Lee is the vice chairman of the Korea Town BIA, and, having immigrated to Toronto from Seoul with his parents at three months old, had a chance to see the area come into its own.
“Seeing it now, it’s just exploded,” Lee says. “There was only my mother’s restaurant, and another Korean restaurant were the only two restaurants in ’78, ’79.”
To sum-up what Korea Town has become, Lee says: “expansion, expansion, expansion.”
Canadian Citizenship and Immigration sponsored the tour, not only because of Asian Heritage Month, but because this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice, as well as the 50th anniversary of Canada’s diplomatic relations with Korea. The federal government has declared 2013 the Year of Korea in Canada, and Toronto has a crucial role to play in that history.
“The first Korean immigrant in Canada was in Toronto,” says Tracie LeBlanc, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson. “So there’s a lot of really strong links.”
“We were trying to find a way to involve Torontonians in learning more about Korean history in Canada.” LeBlanc says. “So we thought that this would be a really great way to offer a free walk, and it’s really interactive, and citizens just get to learn more about the culture and the immigration experience of Koreans.”
LeBlanc says, since 1997, $13 million has been invested into settlement services for newcomers to Toronto’s Korea Town neighbourhood.
The walk is one of 58 Heritage Toronto Tours planned for 2013, and the organization’s chief historian and associate director Gary Miedema says there is a diverse range of tour subjects, as well as bus and cycling tours. Heritage Toronto has been organizing the tours for 19 years now.
What makes a tour?
“Somebody like Jason [our guide] makes a tour!” says Miedema. “It’s people who know the story, who are passionate about it, who’ve done a lot of work to understand the history of the neighbourhood and who can tell those stories in a really interesting way.
“There’s nothing like the stories of the city from someone who knows them and cares about them passionately.”
Jason Lee has that passion. All the way along the tour, he would stop to talk to locals, friends, and business owners – to check-in with them, or just to say hi. His work for the BIA is purely volunteer.
“We’re all working towards one common goal,” Lee says. “That’s: working hard, achieving success, you know? Just, ultimately, enjoying what we do.”
Lee says having a range of support services, financial advice, even a Toronto-based Korean language newspaper, is essential for newcomers’ success.
“It’s all set up. So, whether you’re a senior citizen, whether you’re a Korean student, whether you’re a new Korean family looking to open a new business: you’ll know right away that there is a Korea Town and that there is Korean presence in the city.”
“It all helps in terms of the initial process of adjusting.”
What does it mean to be a Korean-Torontonian? Lee sums it up in one word: “proud.”
Around 50 participants met at 300 Bloor St. West on March 16, to register for the tour.
STOP 1: ALPHA KOREAN UNITED CHURCH (300 Bloor St. West)
Recovering from a number of wars, in the 1960s Korea received aid from Canadian United Church missionaries. This made Canada a welcome immigration destination for Korean people. By 1978, 10,000 Koreans had moved to Toronto. The AKUC was key to helping these newcomers settle.
STOP 2: KCWA FAMILY AND SOCIAL SERVICES (27 Madison Ave.)
Originally founded in the 80′s to promote women’s rights, the KCWA expanded their services to provide help to Korean families, youth and seniors, and, as Lee says, “provide a community outlet for people in need.”
STOP 3: BLOOR SUPERFRESH (384 Bloor St. West)
Entrepreneurship, Lee says, is one of the defining features of the Korean immigrant experience.
Bloor Superfresh, which is a Korean family business, is a key example, and prominent landmark in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.
Lee points to Ins Choi’s successful play “Kim’s Convenience,” (originally a Toronto Fringe hit which was remounted for Soulpepper Theatre’s 2012 season), as a story typical of newcomers trying to establish themselves in Toronto, and the dedication Koreans have to their businesses.
Lee’s own parents refuse to retire, and their own Korean Village Restaurant is open on Christmas.
“I work eight days a week, 365 days a year,” Lee jokes.
STOP 4: THE PALMERSTON LIBRARY (560 Palmerston Ave.)
We are now in Korea Town proper. This library was built in 1971 as a way to provide greater access to children’s collections. Formerly affiliated with the YMCA, the Palmerston Library would provide ESL courses, to assist immigrants with a variety of tasks.
Currently, there are over 2,000 Korean language pieces, (including print, audio, and video), in the Palmerston branch’s collection.
STOP 5: KOREAN EXCHANGE BANK (627 Bloor St. West)
In the late 80s, a need was recognized by the Korean Consulate, and the Korean Cultural Association, for access to financial services, without the language barrier.
The Korean Exchange Bank helped families, students, seniors, and especially entrepreneurs to find their financial footing in a new country.
Currently, there are four branches in Toronto, three in Vancouver, and others planned in places like Calgary, for a soon-to-be total of nine, nationwide.
STOP 6: KOREAN VILLAGE RESTAURANT (628 Bloor St. West)
Lee’s family’s business. Lee’s mother was gracious enough to provide the entire tour group with green tea flavoured rice cake. One reporter ate the cold dessert so fast, he got a brain-freeze, but decided he didn’t care, because: delicious.
STOP 6: THE KOREAN JOURNAL (633 Bloor St. West)
Toronto’s own Korean language newspaper has existed for over 30 years. Lee says newcomers, many of whom can not read english, rely on the Journal for news about their new home, as well as their native Korea.
STOP 7: JONG RO KOREAN BOOKS AND MUSIC (650 Bloor St. West)
You ever heard of Psy? Of course you have. And his likeness is in the window, proudly displayed.
“That’s not me,” Lee jokes, noting Korean popular culture has seen international interest in the past few years.
Jong Ro is a family-run business where, since the mid 90s, people can find Korean cultural offerings, in a variety of mediums.
STOP 8: HODO KWAJA (656 Bloor St. West)
More food! Hodo Kwaja provides delicious walnut cakes. Sort of like two baby waffles, wrapped around a special filling, these things are insane…ly good. Participants were offered a choice of red bean, or mashed potato. One reporter went with the more familiar red bean filling, and immediately regretted not being more adventurous. Sources say the reporter will return for the mashed potato cake.
STOP 9: P.A.T. CENTRAL (675 Bloor St. West)
“If you ask me what it stands for,” Lee says. “I have no idea. It’s just called P.A.T.”
This Korean grocery store provides supplies, meats, and prepared foods necessary for a truly Korean feast. If you don’t want to make your own kimchi – a huge undertaking, Lee says – then P.A.T. is the place to get it, ready-made.
Cooking, Lee says, is a source of pride for Korean people. P.A.T. opened in the 70s, and now has five locations to serve Koreans’ culinary needs.
Lee also said it can be difficult to expand Korean immigrants’ palates – he only recently convinced his mother to try shawarma, and taught her to make grilled cheese sandwhiches.
STOP 10: KOREAN SENIOR CITIZEN’S SOCIETY OF TORONTO (476 Grace St.)
The tour’s last stop, with the sun just setting, was at the south east corner of Christie Pits Park. An inauspicious building – with no sign, due to renovations – this little house on Grace Street has provided services to Korean seniors since 1973. With over 2,000 members, Lee says – in spite of the missing sign – the place is well known in the community.
“They’re still there to pass the torch,” Lee says. “They’re still there to teach.”
Lee will be hosting a second Heritage Toronto Tour of the area, August 18.