Koreatown: Eating Our Way From Past To Present Old Koreatown, Toronto
On May 6, 2023, choa magazine led roughly 50 people on a “food-and-history” walk through Tkaronto’s Old Koreatown. The walk explored the intersections between the development of the local Korean diaspora, colonization, national and local policies, culture, food and identity. In collaboration with Jason Lee, the Chairman of Koreatown BIA and the 2nd-generation owner of Korean Village, this tour was led as part of the Jane’s Walk Festival 2023.
The group gathered on the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anisnabeg, the Chippawa, the Wendat peoples, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
The United Church and Canada's Multiculturalism Act of 1971
The earliest Koreans in Canada were male seminary students in the 1940s who settled around the University of Toronto.
1966: 100 Koreans living in Toronto
1968: Bloor United Church opened its doors and becomes an important space for the first wave of Korean immigrants to Canada in the 1970s, which was facilitated by the Multiculturalism Act
1975: 10,000 Koreans living in Toronto
Recognizing the United Church’s simultaneous role in the operation of residential schools, the last of which only closed in 1996.
Also recognizing the Canadian Government’s simultaneous separation of Indigenous children from their families and communities in what is now called the “Sixties Scoop.”
The Native Youth Resource Centre, located in Old Koreatown and established 30 years ago, has also been an important institution for Tkaronto’s growing Indigenous population
"Origins" of Koreatown: Bloor Meat & Grocery, PAT Central
1973: PAT Central opens its doors, becoming Canada’s first Korean supermarket
Sun Ok Lee first had the idea for a Korean grocery business when packing lunches for her sons and their friends became too expensive in the early 1970s.
Bloor Meat & Grocery has also been providing wholesale kimchi to the Korean community since the early 1970s before PAT Central was established.
Recognizing the impact of Japanese Colonization (1910-1945) on culturally significant foods in Korea and now in Canada.
Cornerstones of Koreatown: Hodo Kwaja & Korean Village
Home to the city’s best-known hodo kwaja (walnut cakes), madelines, hoddeok (brown sugar pancakes), and other Korean snacks.
1992: The store was founded by Jong Sik Lee and has been owned and operated by the Lee family ever since.
2000: The Lees import their current mechanical kwaja maker, which has been in daily operation and maintenance by Jong Sik ever since. Having worked in the hospitality industry in Korea, entrepreneurship and mechanical engineering are both sustenance skills that Lee has had to learn in Toronto.
Over the past 30 years, Hodo Kwaja has seen a significant shift in their customers, with an estimated 80% of their customers being non-Korean.
While the Lees delight in seeing the different customers that enjoy their food, they also maintain a regular customer base of multigenerational Korean families and old friend groups who have been visiting for the same order of kwajas and coffee for decades.
1978: Korean Village was founded by Ok Re Lee and Ke Hang Lee to become one of Canada’s oldest Korean restaurants.
The founders had no prior experience in the food industry, as Ok Re was an actress and Ke Hang was a fitness instructor in Korea, before immigrating to Canada.
2020: Ok Re Lee passes away and the ownership is transferred to Jason, her son, who now manages the restaurant to carry on his mother’s memory by serving her food to customers who come from near and far.
A Changing Landscape: Chung Chun Rice Dog & Yupdduk
2020: Chung Chun Rice Dog opens its doors, becoming the first Canadian franchise
Chung Chung Rice Dog and Yupdduk are among the recent Korean franchises in Toronto, which have benefitted from the popularization of Korean food and culture. While they’re a step from the traditional foods from Hodo Kwaja and Korean Village, they reflect the larger appetite and customer base for fusion takes on Korean food.
Mobilizing Support in Koreatown
The establishment of Korean-specific institutions was a radical way to organize support for the growing Korean neighbourhood.
1981: KEB Hana Bank Canada is established for Koreans who had difficulty obtaining or navigating conventional financial services.
1 in 4 Koreans in Canada work as entrepreneurs, making these institutions critical to supporting Koreans in establishing a life in this country.
Other institutions established in Old Koreatown: Korean Journal, Korean YMCA, the Korean Canadian Women’s Association, Korean Senior Citizens Society.
Where Do We Go From Here: Toronto Public Library, Palmerston Branch
1971: Toronto Public Library (TPL)’s Palmerston branch opens as one of the five locations catering to children in underserved areas during a period of great expansion for the TPL. Since then, it has housed one of the largest Korean collections in the city.
1977: the Korean YMCA opens its doors
1970s-1980s: the library served as one of the main sites for the Korean YMCA’s English language, citizenship, income tax, and other cultural programming.
Since then, both the Korean YMCA and the library’s children’s Korean collection have closed to reflect the changes in the neighbourhood.
Prior to establishing its identity as Koreatown, the area was mainly home to diasporas from Greece, Central and South Americas.
Example: the building of the Hana Bank used to be a beauty salon first owned by Spanish immigrants, then by Greek immigrants, before converting to a bank. The building of Korean Village, originally constructed in the early 1900s, has a history of being a bakery, grocery, fruit store, and Greek restaurant before becoming a Korean restaurant.
Today, there is a declining number of Koreans living and/or working in Old Koreatown as the physical space sees greater representation from Indigenous, Portuguese, Chinese, Latin American, and 2nd- and 3rd-generation communities
1990s: Canada experiences a second wave of Korean immigration due to Korea’s economic depression
This wave was composed of a greater number of wealthier and more educated Koreans who prioritized property ownership and good schools for their children. At the time, it was easier to find both in areas like North York. This led to the development of another Korean enclave around the Sheppard and Finch area.
2016-2019: Honest Ed’s closes for condominium development, bike lanes are added to Bloor Street, “express” K-marts open several locations Downtown.
These changes made it more difficult for families from out-of-town to drive into Koreatown and the neighbourhood observed a decline in regular Korean customers.
Tangible changes for the business owners: picking up different languages and relationships from their diversifying customers, reconsideration of their main products, establishment of new fusion or international foods, international language schools, etc.
Koreatown now is becoming more symbolic in our collective imagination rather than being a practical place to live and work for the Korean community. While it can be viewed as a decline of a neighbourhood identity, this also opens up space and opportunities for other communities to occupy these spaces. What does this mean for the cultural communities in Toronto? Should these neighbourhoods be protected as defined entities? If so, how and by whom?
Apps to help identify and map Indigenous Nations, territories, treaties, and languages: Native Land and Whose Land