Exit the Dragon: Once popular mall a piece of Chinese-Canadian history in Scarborough

When it opened in 1984, Dragon Centre in Scarborough's Agincourt area was immediately popular with Chinese-Canadians. But now, the mall is about to make way for a condo project, and an event Saturday will honour its role as a hub for the community.

Event Saturday at Dragon Centre will commemorate role as hub for Chinese community

Dragon Centre Mall doesn't look like much today, but in the 1980s it was a cultural and culinary hub for Toronto's fast growing Chinese-Canadian community. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

It was the first of many Chinese malls in an area of Scarborough that became known as "Asiancourt" instead of Agincourt. 

Now,  Dragon Centre, near Sheppard Avenue East at Midland Avenue, is slated to close, soon to be replaced by two high-rise condos.

"It was actually the first Chinese shopping mall in North America," said Howard Tam, an urban designer and planner with a firm called ThinkFresh Group who is part of a commemorative event at the mall Saturday.

"It opened in 1984, back when Scarborough didn't have very large Chinese community,"

Back then, there was a downtown Chinatown along Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street East, and one east of the Don River at Gerrard Street East and Broadview Avenue. 

"After the mall opened the Chinese community grew significantly, partly attracted by the mall the services and amenities, but also a lot of folks were moving out from downtown and coming to Scarborough," said Tam.

The Dragon Centre mall in 1991. Traffic and parking in the area led to tensions with the people who lived in the surrounding community. By the late 1990s, larger Asian malls in York Region to the north drew customers away. (supplied/Multicultural History Society of Ontario)

Back in the 1980s, there was an influx of Chinese immigrants to Toronto, mainly from Hong Kong as many saw Canada as a safe haven and hoped to establish roots here ahead of the return of the British colony to Chinese rule in 1997.

"At the time the City of Scarborough approved the plan without really thinking that so many people would actually come and it would be such a cultural hub," said Tam.

The mall — which was once home to a roller skating rink — was the place to go to get Chinese herbs, traditional medicines and, of course, food. The food court and restaurant drew crowds for dim sum on weekends, weddings and Chinese New Year banquets.

"From the moment it opened it became an instant hit," said Tam. "And suddenly, basically everybody and their family would show up to this mall who wanted Chinese or Asian goods. And so it became really, really busy."

Howard Tam, an urban designer and planner with ThinkFresh Group, is hoping to gather stories from the community about the Dragon Centre mall. He will be part of a commemorative event at the mall Saturday. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

Traffic congestion and parking issues in the area every weekend spilled out onto neighbouring streets.

"Which of course manifested itself into some racial tensions," said Tam. "There was hate literature distributed in the neighbourhood."

The tensions prompted the city of Scarborough to create a mayor's task force on race relations as well as the multicultural and race relations committee. The Federation of Chinese Canadians in Scarborough was also founded around this time.

Soon, other malls and plazas catering to Chinese-Canadians popped up in the Midland Avenue and Sheppard Avenue area. Tam says Scarborough city council, fearing a backlash, became hesitant to approve any more developments, which pushed investment further north to York Region.

The creation of other larger malls in the late 1990s — the Pacific Mall in Markham and Times Square in Richmond Hill — drew traffic away from Dragon Centre.

Josh Lam, 33, has many childhood memories of Dragon Centre. He got his first pair of glasses at the store in the mall where he now works. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

Chau Chiu, 69, opened Goodies Noodle House in the mall 25 years ago. 

"Oh, lots and lots of people. It had a restaurant, a supermarket, lots of different stores," said Chiu. "Then about 10 years ago, the people is less, less, less."

Josh Lam, 33, works at Advance Optical, one of the few original businesses from 1984 left in the mall. He got his first pair of glasses at the store when he was 12 years old.

"As a kid. I remember coming to the restaurant here to eat with my parents. You'd never find parking. But now, you know, you can always find parking here," said Lam.

Andrea Inakazu ran Zees Hair Design in the mall from 1985 to 1999. She remembers that time fondly, but now she says Dragon Centre no longer feels like home. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

Now, Dragon Centre is very quiet; its restaurants and shops are often empty.

Andrea Inakazu and her husband Eddie ran Zees Hair Design in the mall from 1985 to 1999. They still own Kazu Hair Design in the mall across the street.

"You know everything has changed. I go there on occasion, but it's not familiar to me anymore," she said.

"I have of the memories of those good old days, you know of during the New Year's celebration, there was so much noise and everybody used to get flowers and the smell that was fantastic."

Tam says although no one wants the building preserved, he thinks its significance should be marked somehow.

Along with a plaque, which the city is requesting as part of the redevelopment application, Tam hopes an online project called Dragon Centre Stories will be a living reminder of the role the mall played as a community and cultural hub.

"Lots of people came here. They shopped here, they ate here, they bought their groceries here and it is a place that's remembered by an entire generation of Chinese Canadians." 


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.