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Chinatown

wyliepoon

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T & T: TASTE OF THE ORIENT
Cleaning up on Aisle 1
Will the emergence of a one-stop shop for quality Asian ingredients mean the end of Chinatown, Sasha Chapman asks

SASHA CHAPMAN

Special to The Globe and Mail

October 20, 2007

When T & T Supermarket Inc. moved into the old Knob Hill Farms location on Cherry Street two months ago, the opening of the 41,000-square-foot Asian grocery store caused a sharp intake of breath on Gerrard Street and Spadina Avenue.

Chinatown shoppers began lobbing postings back and forth on the Chowhound website, debating the store's pros and cons. Some were pleased to have a nearby source for marinated pork ears; others suggested it was the final nail in the coffin for the city's downtown Chinatown, already suffering from the Asian community's exodus to the suburbs.

Downtowners like to knock the suburbs for their charmless strip malls and sprawling parking lots, but recently the 'burbs have done a much better job of catering to ethnic appetites. Markham's J-Town offers sushi of every fish imaginable. Farther east, Pacific Mall is a paradise for Chinese food lovers.

In the city centre, Asian options are generally limited to store-hopping along Spadina or Gerrard to cobble together a meal's worth of vegetables and seafood that will perish if not used within a day or two of purchase. That's fine when you have the time to shop daily, but for better or worse, most of us don't have time to scour the city before each meal.

"For most Asian stores in Toronto, there's no spare space," says Jack Li, president of six markets in the GTA. "It would be very difficult to add prepared foods to our inventory."

Toronto has for a long time been a multicultural city, yet one-stop shopping is still shockingly white-bread.

Ethnic foods are one of the fastest-growing markets in many parts of the Western world. And while Loblaws may have traded its bottles of Memories of Jaipur sauce for packaged naan, its grocery selections have generally shrunk since the 1980s.

T &T's formula is simple: It offers all the same obscure specialty items you might find on along Spadina or Gerrard, from dried shrimp and fermented black beans to kecap manis, but in a fully loaded Westernized shopping environment.

It also offers a diet-busting selection of prepared foods, from dim sum to freshly made sushi, something most Chinatown shops can't do.

Mr. Li says the new T & T has affected his business, especially at Hua Sheng and Oriental Harvest, two of the largest grocery stores at Dundas and Spadina. "Downtown, business has been slow over the last few years. A lot of Chinatown customers are moving out to Scarborough," says Mr. Li, who has been commiserating with friends who own shops on Gerrard. "We lost 10 per cent of our sales as soon as T & T opened on Cherry Street." Mr. Li had hoped to recoup some of that loss, but so far sales remain slow.

Dubbed the Loblaws of Asian supermarkets, T & T arrived in the GTA five years ago with a 45,000-square-foot shop in Thornhill and quickly followed up with three 905 shops. The Cherry Street location represents the chain's first foray into downtown Toronto. Though its influence is now being felt in Chinatown, the real competition may not just be the mom-and-pop shops; it could be Loblaws itself.

"Our focus is on whoever is interested in us," says Stephen Pang, marketing and planning manager for T & T, who commissioned a survey at the Cherry Street location last weekend. "We're attracting more white people than traditional Asian clientele - young professionals from nearby condos."

It's easy to see why. The seafood counter rivals those of the St. Lawrence Market, with dozens of selections, from geoduck to cherrystone clams to the liveliest Dungeness crabs in the GTA. The meat counter features every cut imaginable, from oxtails to tripe. The whine of the butcher's saw is nearly constant. Chickens (head and feet still attached) may be heaped in a pile like some prehistoric midden, but flavour and price are without parallel.

Nevertheless, business is still slow at the Cherry Street location, which is marooned south of Lake Shore Boulevard. Although it's only a stone's throw from downtown, it is still out of the way for most Toronto shoppers. (On my last trip, I had to wait several minutes while a drawbridge eased up to let a boat through.) "It's a little bit remote, so it might take us a while to reach our target numbers," Mr. Pang admits. "In the meantime, we continue to search for additional locations in the GTA."

Naomi Duguid, a Chinatown resident and the author of several Asian cookbooks, says she was amazed by T & T when she first encountered it out west seven years ago. "It's brilliant marketing," says the author of Hot Sour Salty Sweet. "People who would normally be intimidated on Spadina feel fine at T & T.

"I'm amazed at how accessible and transparent everything is - there are English-language labels on everything."

Perry Caicco, a retailing expert and former Loblaw executive, calls T & T Canada's premier ethnic supermarket, and says it beats Loblaw companies handily at their own game. "T & T is growing like wildfire with Anglo customers because it understands and presents food in a dramatic way, and with good price points and value offerings," Mr. Caicco wrote in a CIBC World Markets report. "While Loblaw has reduced its food square footage and pared back its offering in fresh and grocery, over at T & T we get stuff like pork tongue, whole geese, black chickens, live exotic fish."

Our Chinatowns may be feeling the pinch, but T & T's arrival in downtown Toronto can only be a good thing for the city. It's high time we got some decent ethnic supermarkets, modern ones that can cater to the narrowing differences between our Asian population (which is increasingly Westernized) and the rest of Toronto.

"Anything that ... brings cultures and cuisines from far away closer to home is a good thing," Ms. Duguid says.

Mr. Caicco points out that T & T's energetic attitude is reminiscent of Dave Nichols's Loblaw companies in the 1980s. While Loblaws recently celebrated the opening of its Milton store by launching prepackaged naan, the Cherry Street T & T hauled a 600-pound tuna through the store. "These efforts get people excited about food, which is what Loblaw used to do."

The freshest in market right now: Chinese greens

If you look at Chinese-restaurant menus in Toronto, you would never suspect that Chinese greens have a season. They do, of course. And many of them are being harvested locally now.

T & T carries about a dozen types of greens, from baby bok choy to gai lan (a.k.a. Chinese broccoli). Although each varies in flavour, from mild to more pungently mustard-tasting, most are best stir-fried with a little ginger and garlic, before tossing with a little sesame oil and soy sauce. It's best not to arrive in the produce section with preconceived notions of which greens you want for dinner; simply choose the freshest you can find.

My current favourite is ong choy, or water spinach. The long, spear-like leaves have a sweet, almost spinach-like taste, and though the leaves soften when stir-fried, the hollow stems remaining appealingly crisp.

Finding local Chinese greens may soon become easier: The Toronto Environmental Alliance is at work compiling a list of Greenbelt farmers who grow Chinese and Southeast Asian produce. Franz Hartman, the executive director of the organization, hopes to publish a Chinese and Southeast Asian guide early next year.
 
What I like about Chinatown is that it has become like an open market, with so many stores selling similar stuff that the competition drives prices down. With all the foreign foods with Chinese labels you actually had to engage in some conversation to figure out what it was and how it could be used. T and T is no alternative, though a great new grocery store. In fact, the idea of a Western style supermarket replacing a district so bustling and ethnic it evokes scenes from the home countries, is bizarre. Chinatown also sells swords, books and films, artwork, 4 shirts for $10 and various other imports. What we have in this neighbourhood won't be replaced if it dies. It's a good thing CityPlace is right there to bring in new traffic.
 
I don't think T&T at Cherry is going to be much competition for the Chinatown at Spadina. People don't go to Chinatown just to get groceries. Also, from what I've seen, the T&T at Cherry caters mainly to a non-ethnic Chinese clientele who are not likely to go to Chinatown in any case.

That being said, Chinatown at Spadina is a shadow of its former self. It is in a sad, painful decline. I don't think the City has ever taken the area seriously when ten years ago local buisness owners were asking the City for help in face of the competition coming from Markham.
 
Ahab:

That being said, Chinatown at Spadina is a shadow of its former self. It is in a sad, painful decline. I don't think the City has ever taken the area seriously when ten years ago local buisness owners were asking the City for help in face of the competition coming from Markham.

Realistically though, there isn't all that much the city can do to help, given the degree of demographic changes. In this case, the accessiblity of the location (on two transit lines; increased residential densities and proximity to U of T) means that it will always be "in demand" - by whom is something the city has no control over. The market will have to decide this one...

AoD
 
I'm a bit of a chinatown pessimist. It has been in structural decline for 20 years now. On a recent trip to Vancouver I noted how their downtown chinatown seems to virtually no longer exist as a functioning commercial neighbourhood, or at best one just clinging to life. On the brighter side there are actually some restaurants in the downtown chinatown here that are adapting to the new reality that their client base is no longer chinese.
 
A lot of the business in downtown Chinatown these days seems to come from the fact that Chinese restaurants are much more willing to be open late at night. Many of them are busier at 2am than at 6pm.
 
Vancouver's Chinatown seems a lot more run-down than that of Toronto. It's true the Chinese community has spread out but I wouldn't say Chinatown is in decline - it is still a reception area for mainland Chinese and a lot of Chinese families live in the area.

What didn't happen was an influx of Hong Kong elites. Middle and upper class Chinese had no desire to live in a traditional Chinatown, so they moved to places like Willowdale and Markham. The downtown Chinese population is poorer and more working class.
 
Actually the truth is more along the lines that what was once Chinatown (at Spadina) was slowly being converted to what the Chinese community call "Vietnam town".

With the end of huge gaps in our refugee system and the point based system in Immigration, those coming from China/Hong Kong are no longer as "poor" as they used to be. Owning a home (especially big suburbanite home) is a priority and compared to the prices across seas, it's nothing in comparrison.

Of course this "dream" as I call it usually ends up going bad at some point. One I can see that is going to happen is to an acquaintance. 4 women, mom and 3 daughters (all daughters mid to late 20's) achieve a dream of buying a big home in Markham this year. It takes all 4 of them to be able to maintain this lifestyle.

The oldest of them I would say looks like is ready to be married in a year or two (dating long time, settled, blah, blah). The youngest also seems to be getting to that stage as well in 2 or 3 years time.

Yeah, you can see where this will probably go.

I have seen it in my own family as well, families from Hong Kong / China put too much stake into getting a big home (cause that is an impossiblity in the homeland) and when people get married and move out, it causes a rupture in relationships.
 
Actually the truth is more along the lines that what was once Chinatown (at Spadina) was slowly being converted to what the Chinese community call "Vietnam town".

Actually that's more urban myth than fact

http://www.toronto.ca/demographics/pdf2/cpa78.pdf

According to the 2001 census, there were TEN times as many ethnic Chinese in that area as ethnic Vietnamese. And the overwhelming majority of recent immigrants were from China, not Vietnam.

The 2006 census figures on ethnicity and immigration will be out next year. Maybe the ratio of Chinese-Vietnamese has narrowed somewhat but I don't think the change has been THAT drastic.
 
Actually that's more urban myth than fact

http://www.toronto.ca/demographics/pdf2/cpa78.pdf

According to the 2001 census, there were TEN times as many ethnic Chinese in that area as ethnic Vietnamese. And the overwhelming majority of recent immigrants were from China, not Vietnam.

The 2006 census figures on ethnicity and immigration will be out next year. Maybe the ratio of Chinese-Vietnamese has narrowed somewhat but I don't think the change has been THAT drastic.


I wasn't talking actual stats, just perceived on the street (I know that those that consider themselves Chinese still are the overwhelming population). To be honest, if you walked into a store, most would be able to communicate in both Vietnamese and Cantonese. This is versus the Agincourt / Markham area where you'd be able to communicate in Cantonese and Mandarin.
 
"With the end of huge gaps in our refugee system and the point based system in Immigration, those coming from China/Hong Kong are no longer as "poor" as they used to be. Owning a home (especially big suburbanite home) is a priority and compared to the prices across seas, it's nothing in comparrison."

I know what you mean but for the record we should indicate that there are housing options in the downtown for low-income individuals that don't exist in Markham or Richmond Hill. Housing is actually very expensive downtown to the extent that people buying suburban dream homes actually can't afford to live in the cramped old victorians of generations past even if they wanted to.
 
I wasn't talking actual stats, just perceived on the street

Actually the truth is more along the lines that what was once Chinatown (at Spadina) was slowly being converted to what the Chinese community call "Vietnam town".

Actually, it's mere perception, not truth. People have an opinion on how the demographics are changing. The stats indicate otherwise.

Regardless, no neighbourhood is fixed in stone.
 

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