Life & Arts

Chinatown's flavors welcome Toronto visitors
Special to The News

TORONTO - Visitors walking along busy sidewalks stop to stare at the fast-food windows that display roasted whole pigs and the whole browned chickens. Elderly Asian women in embroidered red jackets shop for mangos and Asian pears in crowded outdoor produce markets. Friendly shopkeepers welcome their English-speaking customers, although most conversations here are with the locals in the dialects of Cantonese, Mandarin or Vietnamese.

This is Saturday morning in downtown Toronto's heavily populated Chinatown, an area along Dundas Street West and Spadina. Home to more than 500,000 people of Southeast Asian descent, it is one of North America's largest Chinatown communities. The start of the new Lunar New Year, on Feb. 18, will be celebrated here for two weeks filled with Asian traditions marking the Year of the Pig, considered a year of prosperity.

To see the area like a native, I am on the Chinatown Foodies Walking Tour with Shirley Lum, the charismatic Chinese-Canadian who runs "A Taste of The World Tours" in Toronto.

There are restaurants advertising Dim Sum (a popular Chinese tasting brunch), shops selling martial-arts videos and bargain-priced T-shirts and the inevitable Chinese laundry. The inviting aroma of warm, sweet dough is a soothing escape from the crisp morning air at our first stop, the popular Jin Cheng Bakery (419 Dundas St. West, 416-596-8878).

I savor the tasty items Lum has selected while she reveals their hidden meaning. Buns filled with pineapple symbolize wealth, desserts with red bean paste are considered good luck for their color, and the pastries covered with sesame seeds promise prosperity and fertility for their golden sheen. I also enjoy the Hong Kong-style tea (black tea, evaporated milk and sugar) because it almost tastes like coffee, and is not bitter.

As we walk, Lum explains that Chinese men came to Canada by boat starting in the mid-1800s in search of gold or to work on the Canadian railroad. They lived in what is now the Financial District.

That settlement grew, and from the late 1800s to the 1960s, the residents occupied the Dundas-Queen Street area. In the 1960s, that Chinatown land was appropriated to build Toronto's new City Hall, and the Chinese population relocated again, to its present day Dundas-Spadina location.

Next, we stop at Po Chi Tong Chinese Natural Herbs (460 Dundas St. West, 416-599-6336), which specializes in dried seafood and natural herbs. I am shocked to see that dried abalone, a fish delicacy popular for New Year's feasts, sells for an astounding $450 (Canadian) a pound. I opt for a far less expensive purchase of loose white tea and a box of organic green tea bags.

As we turn down Spadina, I explore a good selection of bargain-priced children's toys, casual clothing and souvenirs at Sky Trading Co. (334 Spadina Ave., 416-850-1800). Toddler's turtlenecks are four for $10. There are also stuffed animals (think Canadian moose), small trucks and backpacks.

The tour ends with a memorable Dim Sum at the two-story Bright Pearl Seafood Restaurant (346-348 Spadina Ave., 416-979-3988, Chinatown's largest restaurant with seating for 350. Lum helps me order in the traditional style. The friendly wait staff constantly passes by, steering small carts filled with delicious small plates of food. Chicken and pork dishes are featured, as well as long, uncut noodles that symbolize a "long" life. The servers mark what you have ordered and later tally your bill.

"At Chinese New Year," says Lum, "customers will hand out lie see - a pair of the lucky red money envelopes - to their favorite employees as a way of thanking them for great service."

These envelopes are traditionally passed from married family members ("lucky") to single family members ("still needing luck"). The restaurant, she says, will feature martial artists performing the elaborate "lion dance," which symbolizes a cleansing of evil spirits, on Feb. 17-18.

After lunch, Lum brings out her favorite book on the Chinese zodiac and I look up my sign (water tiger) based on birth year, and read my horoscope for 2007.

The tour was great fun; I learned a thing or two about Chinese culture and I can order a mean Dim Sum. If you're thinking of taking this tour, don't eat breakfast unless you have health needs or are a very early riser. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. For a complete schedule of tours, including Chinese New Year weekend, go to or call Lum at (416) 923-6813.