Was this the first Chinese restaurant in Toronto’s Junction?

On November 17, 1919, The Globe ran an odd article about a scuffle in a Junction restaurant. The event highlighted how a restaurant worker, potentially an owner, asked some patrons to stop smoking in his establishment. The customers disagreed and threw his own plates at the man before fleeing.

While the events are bizarre, the article features several notable details that, taken with other sources and context, paint an interesting picture of historic Toronto. First, it informs of one of the first Chinese-operated restaurants outside the central core of Toronto and perhaps the first restaurant in The Junction neighbourhood. It references the Chinese population and restaurants of the city in the early 20th century. Finally, it alludes to the general depiction and treatment of the Chinese community at the time.

“Chinaman is pelted with own crockery” The Globe, November 17, 1919.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives

The first significant detail in The Globe article is the “restaurant at 2,904 Dundas Street West”. The name of the cafe is not given, but the potential proprietor is listed as a “Ying Buck”, who is unfortunately described as a ‘Chinaman’ and ‘Celestial’ with ‘Manchurian blood’.

The name of the restaurant in 1919 is tricky to identify. The City of Toronto Directory for the year 1919 lists a “Chinese Restaurant” at 2904 Dundas Street West. In the year prior, the address previously hosted a “Gus Freeman, restaurant.” The early City Directories did not explicitly name Chinese entreprises or their proprietors, which makes their identification through this source challenging. Eateries were simply listed as “Chinese restaurant.”

1919 City of Toronto Directory showing 2904 Dundas Street West.
Source: Toronto Public Library

The actual name of the Chinese restaurant can be somewhat identified through other sources. The City of Toronto Archives displays a “Amo Cafe” in an image of Dundas Street West looking west of Mavety Street in 1923, which is consistent with the address 2904 Dundas West.

Dundas looking West at Mavety Amo Cafe, 1923.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

References to “The Amo Cafe” are scarce in other sources, but the next appearance of the restaurant were in October 1929. The Globe and Toronto Daily Star outlined another bizarre scenario in which the cafe’s owner, this time a Charlie Chong, was held up in front of patrons by two youths after midnight on October 28.

“Restaurant Robbed By Two Armed Youths” The Globe, October 28, 1929.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

Several wanted ads connected to 2904 Dundas Street West pointed to the address as a Chinese restaurant. In May 1919, a restaurant at 2904 Dundas published a wanted ad for an ‘experienced waitress’, possibly at a time when the restaurant was recently open or about to open. In 1925, a chef at 2904 Dundas placed an ad looking for work, seeming self-identifying as ‘Chinese’ and ‘experienced.’

By the 1930s, the restaurant at 2904 Dundas Street West was finally named in the directories. First, it appeared as “Ging Ing restaurant” in 1931. Then by the middle of the decade, “Amo Cafe” is named with proprietor “Bing Ing” (possibly the same individual as Ging Ing). It is not clear whether what the restaurant was called between 1919 and 1922, but it was almost certainly a Chinese restaurant. The Amo Cafe is listed in the City Directories until 1969, the last year of digitized directories in the Toronto Public Library’s collection. It may have been open longer. Unfortunately, there are not many other details identifiable about the cafe, such as the menu, employees, or what it looked liked beyond some descriptions of the kitchen being located in the rear.

The other addresses and names outlined in the article also tell us a bit more about the world around The Amo Cafe in the Junction. While Ying Buck, the owner of the Amo Cafe, does not appear in any other sources, C. Ham – or at least his address – shows up in the 1919 City Directory. At 21 Hook Avenue, a Mrs. Margaret Ham is listed, which may be a relative of Ham. The surname appears to be of Chinese origin.

1919 City of Toronto Directory showing 21 Hook Avenue.
Source: Toronto Public Library

Detective Hazelwood and Police Station No. 9 are also in the sources. Hazelwood is named in several crime-related news items. The police station was also known as Keele Street Station. Dundas Street West was complete with many everyday establishments: eateries, butchers, banks, candy shops, bicycle shops, grocers, and more. The restaurant, the police station, and Ham’s potential residence could all be found in a kilometre radius.

Fire Hall, Toronto, Keele St., west side south of Dundas St. West, 1953.
Source: Toronto Public Library
1924 Goads Fire Insurance Map showing Amo Cafe, Police Station No. 9, and 21 Hook Avenue.
Source: Goad’s Toronto

The existence of the Amo Cafe within this Junction neighbourhood is particularly curious as it was not an obvious location for Chinese restaurants for the time. The 1919 City Directory had a subsection for Chinese establishments under its category of restaurants. In this subsection, 2904 Dundas West is the only restaurant listed on its street, and the only one listed outside of the core of Toronto. The majority of restaurants were listed under Queen Street, Yonge Street, and York Street. The early Chinese community settled in Toronto in The Ward on Elizabeth Street near Queen Street. It is not clear if there was a notable Chinese population in the Junction in the 1920s and beyond.

1919 City of Toronto Directory showing Chinese Restaurants.
Source: Toronto Public Library
Elizabeth Street and Louisa Street, looking north on Elizabeth Street, Toronto, Ontario. Young Sai Tong and Co., teas, is shown on Elizabeth Street, northeast corner of Louisa Street, 1925.
Source: Toronto Public Library
Restaurant staff and customers gather at soda fountain and in booths, ca 1937. The window displays ‘restaurant’. The business is unknown.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The diction and content of The Globe article is also worth mentioning, because it is unfortunately representative of media characterizations of the Chinese community of Toronto at the time. ‘Chinaman’ and ‘Celestial’, now racial slurs, were common descriptors. For example, there are 3,639 results for searches of ‘Chinaman’ in the The Globe’s newspaper archive for 1900 to 1929. Ying Buck’s “Manchurian blood”, although perhaps not a common racist phrase, is also a questionable choice of words as Manchuria is a region within China, but there are not enough details to know if The Globe knew of the man’s origin.

News articles about Chinese restaurants in Toronto in the early 20th century also seemed to lean towards unfortunate events, like the 1919 scuffle and 1929 robberies of The Amo Cafe. Even the headline “Chinaman Pelted With His Crockery” highlights a level of violence and sensationalism. Robberies, gambling and drug raids, mobs, fines, and explosions make up some of the topics of newsworthy events. There also seems to be a general sentiment of distrust of and mystery about Chinese establishments and the Chinese quarter.

“Dozen Clubs of Toronto’s Chinatown near Queen and York”, Toronto Daily Star, January 31, 1914.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

Today, there are plethora of Chinese restaurants in Toronto. Its community is large and vibrant. Gains have been imperfect and disgusting societal biases still remain, but one can hope the world of today is a step up from the attitudes of the time of the Amo Cafe. In an interesting turn of events, 2904 Dundas Street West is a Chinese restaurant in 2022, resuming a century-old legacy for the historic property.

2904 Dundas Street West in 2021
Source: Google Maps

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