China on Two Tanks of Gas

Written by Sandra Hudson

I had no idea that was possible. Well, maybe it wasn’t really China, but Shirley Lum’s history and culinary walking tour of Toronto’s Chinatown is the next best thing. Shirley is a young woman of Chinese descent who, from our perspective, just happens to be No. 1 Chinese tour guide, a historian by training who energizes history.

Our tour began on the steps of City Hall, where the center of Toronto’s original Chinatown had been located. The community migrated westward as the city expanded. Today there is not one, but several Chinatowns scattered about the city and in the suburbs. As we walked the oldest section, she paused now and then to show us photographs of what the streetscape had looked like in earlier times; mostly one and two story clapboard buildings in need of paint. Residences were interspersed among the commercial businesses, which displayed dual language signs such as hotel, laundry, grocery or hardware store.

Shirley heightened our awareness of our surroundings. She invited us to inhale the unusual Chinese cooking aromas that wafted from some of the row houses, or pause to listen to the click of mahjong ivories being shuffled behind curtained windows of a social club, or notice strange vegetables growing among the flowers in the front yards of 19th century townhouses, which had been constructed by a different culture. She pointed out small architectural changes to the homes that helped them conform to Feng Shui, a complicated belief system in which orientation, placement and arrangement of things is vital for creating harmony with spirit forces.

We stopped for a mid-morning snack in Baldwin Village, a cluster of 35 or more small ethnic sidewalk cafes situated along two or three linear blocks — a little gastronomic United Nations. At Yung Sing Pastry Shop even standing room was at a premium. We stood shoulder to shoulder with other patrons nibbling carefully selected pastries.

A few blocks further brought us to the Chinese open air sidewalk market. As one who frequently visits cooking Web sites, I thought I was well informed about meat, fish, fowl, fruits and vegetables. However, I encountered at least a dozen items I had never seen before. For example, vegetable caterpillars, Chinese artichokes, and spiked cabbages looked more like something that had been harvested from the ocean instead of a garden. Many others, though known to me, such as fish and fowl, had been prepared in unfamiliar ways.

Our tour culminated with tea and dim sum in an out-of-the-way second-story restaurant where many families seemed to be celebrating special events. Chinese waitresses roamed the large room with carts full of Chinese savories and sweets. Among them was a gelatinous water chestnut desert I have searched in vain for since experiencing it in San Francisco more than 40 years ago. Delicious!

Shirley explained she has shown us her parents’ and grandparents’ shopping patterns, but she and her friends prefer to shop at Pacific Market and Market Village malls, which sit side-by-side in a northern suburb. She says they are so large, she feels she should wear roller skates when shopping.

On Sunday morning, we visited Pacific Mall on our own. An abutting street was closed off for an Asian festival. The air was filled with oriental music and the joyous giggles of children. It was not the Mall of America, but with more than 300 stores, we were still impressed. There were few English speakers in the hubbub of people. We saw only four or five other Caucasians, each was accompanied by someone of Asian extraction. As grey haired Americans without a sponsor, we definitely stood out. Yet, as a whole, most who caught our eye gave us a friendly welcoming nod or smile.

The place was chock-a-block with consumer goods at marvelous prices. I might have been tempted by some of the electronic items if we had not been traveling. We limited our purchase to a box of dim sum to eat on our journey to Montreal. It was neither low fat nor low carb, but it was yummy. Maybe someday we’ll travel to China, but until then, Toronto, here we come.

Sandra Hudson is involved in arts and culture events in the Iowa City area and statewide. She retired to Iowa City in 1998. She can be reached at