The Secrets Buried Under City Hall – Gambling in old Chinatown

St. John’s Ward, known mainly as “The Ward,” was the landing ground for nearly every immigrant group in Toronto from 1830 to 1950. Covering the area bounded by College, Queen, Yonge and University, by 1900 the Ward was the most multicultural neighbourhood in the city. Around 1910 the Ward became a mainly Chinese neighbourhood. Canada’s Head Tax, enacted in 1885, meant that every Chinese immigrant had to pay a fee of up to $500 to enter the country. This racist policy had the effect of limiting the number of Chinese women and children who came to Canada, and when the Exclusion Act of 1923 came into place (effectively banning all immigration from China), Chinese communities across Canada were mainly young bachelors. It wasn’t until 1947 that the Exclusion Act was lifted and Chinese families could be reunited in Canada.

Head_Tax_certificate

Head Tax Receipt, 1917

What these young Chinese men did with their time was a point of great contention. With long working hours, often limited English language skills, and few families for social support, many men gambled. While gambling has never been completely illegal in Canada (except on Sundays), many laws attempted to restrict gambling to middle class and elite whites. The police targeted Chinese men for gambling, and every Sunday from the 1890s into the 1950s they would raid Chinese homes and businesses, looking for gamblers. With a community of only 2,100 people at the time of the immigration ban, some men were arrested several times a year.

 

In the 1920s, lots of middle class white Canadians played the Chinese game mahjong, and it was an international craze. Every Sunday afternoon in the suburbs around Toronto, white Canadians could be found in the suburbs playing the same game that landed Chinese men in jail in the early hours of that morning. The arrests of Chinese men for gambling made the news every week, and so did rumors of “hatchet men,” Chinese thugs fighting gang wars, and even of mysterious pens that shot poison gas.

1926: Marion Andrews, Feebee West and Mary Barnett play mah jongg on the Venice Beach. This photo was published in the Aug. 22, 1926 Los Angeles Times.

1926: Marion Andrews, Feebee West and Mary Barnett play mah jongg on the Venice Beach. This photo was published in the Aug. 22, 1926 Los Angeles Times.

But attitudes changed over time; by the 1930s there were articles in the Toronto Daily Star and Peterborough Examiner about how unfair the application of gambling laws were, and letters to the editor defended Chinese men as good citizens unfairly targeted by racist laws. In 1947 the newspapers started listing the men’s ages in arrest reports, and almost all of the men were between ages 48 and 75. Suddenly, the threat of gang wars seemed less credible, and more people started speaking up in defense of Chinese immigrants. Things had come a long way from the 1910s and 20s; The incongruity of pensioners playing at being hatchet men and taking part in dangerous tong wars, shooting cartridges of knockout gas at each other from exploding pens stretched the credulity of even the most prejudiced readers. With the demolition of the Ward and old Chinatown to make way for new City Hall in the 1950s and 1960s, the perception of Chinese immigrants changed from being dangerous gangsters to upstanding citizens and a model minority group.

Rear of 21 Elizabeth Street, 1913. City of Toronto Archives.

Rear of 21 Elizabeth Street, 1913. City of Toronto Archives.

Opening Week for New City Hall, 1965. City of Toronto Archives.

Opening Week for New City Hall, 1965. City of Toronto Archives.