Which Toronto Chinatown is better? Uptown or Downtown? I test both.
It is rare for me to visit Toronto’s downtown Chinatown because I live in North-East Toronto, where we have the highest concentration of Mainland Chinese in Toronto. Today we went to MEC.ca (Mountain Equipment Co-op) for cycling gear, so stopped and had lunch in Chinatown at Spadina and Dundas. Having not been there for many years, it was interesting.
Firstly I was amazed at the diversity of people in the Downtown Chinatown. People of all nationalities walk around, shop and eat, just like local Chinese, because they, unsurprisingly are local Torontonians. We saw a wide variety of people visit Chinese bakeries, shop at Chinese grocery stores as well as small “Carry Everything Chinese” variety stores. Initially this was surprising to me, but then again we are in Toronto, where diversity is commonplace and we all get along.
Uptown at places like Pacific Mall (Kennedy/Steeles), and more so at local strip malls and stores, Asianness is the rule. You might see the odd Caucasian or non-Asian individual perusing merchandise, but more likely they are employed at the mall as maintenance workers. Non-Asians in malls uptown truly stand out. Upon reflection, this seems quite odd for multicultural Toronto. More so is the fact that North East Toronto also has a large contingent of Indians and Pakistanis, who are not commonly seen in Chinese stores. The corollary is also true. While I frequently visit Indian grocery stores and restaurants, there are usually no other Chinese besides myself. Though it does not cause me any discomfort nor hesitation, it is notable. People Diversity level: Downtown is better
We visited a local Chinese barbeque restaurant downtown for some roasted duck and roast pork on rice. Though it was nice, it was not over and above the quality I can find uptown. Prices are also not as cheap as in the past. I actually think we can get the same meal for less uptown, but I am a local. I am not complaining, because Chinese food quality here in Toronto is universally pretty good. Barring the occasional health inspection failures that occur both uptown and downtown, visitors to Toronto expect and receive excellent and authentic Chinese food. Restaurant Food Quality and Price: draw
We passed by numerous local grocery stores while in the Downtown Chinatown. A usual quick glance at prices of produce as well as comments from the spouse yielded the same conclusion: Prices both downtown and uptown are about the same. Each store might have their loss leaders, but overall, prices are the same. We cherry picked. Downtown may have a slight advantage in freshness, but this arguable. Uptown stores do not display produce outside and therefore may be incrementally cleaner. Grocery Produce Pricing: even
I am not a neat freak and generally expect low hygene standards in any Chinatown worldwide. Still, downtown Chinatown is noticeably dirtier than uptown. I am unsure why. There is more visible garbage in the streets and a unique rotting smell of grocery produce and Chinatownness. This smell was even noticed by my first weed. Uptown Chinatown is newer, but can also run down pretty quickly. I am sure that it is not because uptown Chinese are any cleaner. Street Cleanliness: Uptown is cleaner
Parking downtown is notoriously difficult, and today was no exception. Chinatown was, as usual, lacking in parking. Uptown there is so much space that parking is rarely an issue. Parking: Uptown is better
My friend David rides a bicycle to buy his groceries from a downtown Chinatown. It is easier to ride a bicycle downtown because streets are more crowded and therefore the speed of cars is slower. There are more Chinese grocers crowded together in higher concentrations downtown. While you can bicycle ride uptown, you risk getting run over by local drivers. Also uptown Chinese grocers tend to be larger and more like supermarkets. You ride to one and do all your shopping, which may not allow you to get the best selection. Shopping by Bicycle: Downtown is better
Yes, there is more to life than Chinatown. Apart from Chinatown, downtown has much more diversity of stores and events that uptown cannot match. Uptown you really need to search for specific stores and then plan to visit them. Downtown can be more exploratory. Other things to do: Downtown wins
The importance of speaking Chinese in a downtown store is less of an issue. At stores uptown, it is very advantageous to speak Chinese. Chinese is the default language uptown, while downtown it can be either English or Chinese. I suppose this is a secondary effect of downtown’s diversity and a real help to those who do not speak Chinese. Predominance of Chinese language: Uptown defaults to Chinese
Suffice to say that visits to either Downtown or Uptown Chinatowns will give you an authentic and interesting experience. Downtown Chinatown is walkable, while uptown Chinatown is cleaner. To judge which one is best I cannot say. Visit both and tell me what you think.