TORONTO -- Visitors walking along busy sidewalks stop to stare at the fast-food windows that display roasted whole pigs and the whole browned chickens. Elderly Asian women in embroidered red jackets shop for mangos and Asian pears in crowded outdoor produce markets. Friendly shopkeepers welcome their English-speaking customers, although most conversations here are with the locals in the dialects of Cantonese, Mandarin or Vietnamese.
This is Saturday morning in downtown Toronto's heavily populated Chinatown, an area along Dundas Street West and Spadina. Home to more than 500,000 people of Southeast Asian descent, it is one of North America's largest Chinatown communities. The start of the new Lunar New Year, on Feb. 18, will be celebrated here for two weeks filled with Asian traditions marking the Year of the Pig, considered a year of prosperity.
To see the area like a native, I am on the Chinatown Foodies Walking Tour with Shirley Lum, the charismatic Chinese-Canadian who runs "A Taste of The World Tours" in Toronto.
There are restaurants advertising Dim Sum (a popular Chinese tasting brunch), shops selling martial-arts videos and bargain-priced T-shirts and the inevitable Chinese laundry. The inviting aroma of warm, sweet dough is a soothing escape from the crisp morning air at our first stop, the popular Jin Cheng Bakery (419 Dundas St. West, 416-596-8878).
I savor the tasty items Lum has selected while she reveals their hidden meaning. Buns filled with pineapple symbolize wealth, desserts with red bean paste are considered good luck for their color, and the pastries covered with sesame seeds promise prosperity and fertility for their golden sheen. I also enjoy the Hong Kong-style tea (black tea, evaporated milk and sugar) because it almost tastes like coffee, and is not bitter.
As we walk, Lum explains that Chinese men came to Canada by boat starting in the mid-1800s in search of gold or to work on the Canadian railroad. They lived in what is now the Financial District.
That settlement grew, and from the late 1800s to the 1960s, the residents occupied the Dundas-Queen Street area. In the 1960s, that Chinatown land was appropriated to build Toronto's new City Hall, and the Chinese population relocated again, to its present day Dundas-Spadina location.
Next, we stop at Po Chi Tong Chinese Natural Herbs (460 Dundas St. West, 416-599-6336), which specializes in dried seafood and natural herbs. I am shocked to see that dried abalone, a fish delicacy popular for New Year's feasts, sells for an astounding $450 (Canadian) a pound. I opt for a far less expensive purchase of loose white tea and a box of organic green tea bags.
As we turn down Spadina, I explore a good selection of bargain-priced children's toys, casual clothing and souvenirs at Sky Trading Co. (334 Spadina Ave., 416-850-1800). Toddler's turtlenecks are four for $10. There are also stuffed animals (think Canadian moose), small trucks and backpacks.
The tour ends with a memorable Dim Sum at the two-story Bright Pearl Seafood Restaurant (346-348 Spadina Ave., 416-979-3988, www.bright-pearlseafood.com), Chinatown's largest restaurant with seating for 350. Lum helps me order in the traditional style. The friendly wait staff constantly passes by, steering small carts filled with delicious small plates of food. Chicken and pork dishes are featured, as well as long, uncut noodles that symbolize a "long" life. The servers mark what you have ordered and later tally your bill.
"At Chinese New Year," says Lum, "customers will hand out lie see -- a pair of the lucky red money envelopes -- to their favorite employees as a way of thanking them for great service."
These envelopes are traditionally passed from married family members ("lucky") to single family members ("still needing luck"). The restaurant, she says, will feature martial artists performing the elaborate "lion dance," which symbolizes a cleansing of evil spirits, on Feb. 17-18.
After lunch, Lum brings out her favorite book on the Chinese zodiac and I look up my sign (water tiger) based on birth year, and read my horoscope for 2007.
The tour was great fun; I learned a thing or two about Chinese culture and I can order a mean Dim Sum. If you're thinking of taking this tour, don't eat breakfast unless you have health needs or are a very early riser. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. For a complete schedule of tours, including Chinese New Year weekend, go to www.torontowalksbikes.com or call Lum at (416) 923-6813.
Although it's not in Chinatown, the Bata Shoe Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into Chinese life with its exhibit, "Watched by Heaven, Tied to Earth: Summoning Animal Protection for Chinese Children," on display until March 11.
The animal symbolism and other designs Chinese women use to protect their young is revealed in these traditionally crafted children's shoes and clothing.
With the gallery's evocative design touches, such as red lanterns hanging from the ceiling and lacquered wood framing, I feel like I am in China. Even "Sex and the City" fashionista Carrie Bradshaw couldn't imagine this 12,500-pair shoe collection, spanning 4,500 years of history.
On display are prehistoric deerskin sandals filled with straw, Elton John's glittery platform shoes and everything in between. As an added bonus, those born in any Year of the Pig (1923 and every 12 years thereafter) will be admitted free from Feb. 6 to March 9. The museum is located at 327 Bloor St. West. For information: www.batashoemusuem.ca or (416) 979-7799.
It's only natural that Toronto, one of North America's largest Asian communities, would create the continent's largest indoor Lunar New Year celebration. About 50,000 visitors are expected from Feb. 16-18 in the Automotive Building, Exhibition Place, located at the Direct Energy Centre, 105 Princess Blvd.
The original Chinese theme now includes other Asian communities that also celebrate the Lunar New Year, such as Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. Visitors can sample Asian specialties in the food court, watch events such as tai chi, martial arts, magic shows and a lion dance, or shop for Asian arts and crafts.
Admission is $10 adults and $8 youth ages 12-18. For more information, visit www.torontocelebrates.com or call (416) 483-8218.
The minute you know you're visiting Toronto, book a table at celebrity chef Susur Lee's monument to Asian-fusion cuisine, Susur. The restaurant's six-course tasting menu ($140 per person; $75 additional for wine pairings), served Feb. 20-24, will include suckling pig and other delicacies. A meal at Susur, hailed by Zagat as "a culinary genius," will feature the heaviest entree first in a sublime feast for the eyes and taste buds.
Next door is the more moderately priced sister restaurant, Lee, which opened in 2004. The a la carte menu, ranging in price from $6 to $17 per item, should also feature some surprises. The average cost of dinner for two with wine at Lee is $150. For reservations, call (416) 603-2205 or visit www.susur.com. Susur/Lee are located at 601-603 King St. West.
Lai Wah Heen, located in the trendy Metropolitan Hotel, reinvents hotel dining. One taste and you'll know why Gourmet proclaims it serves "the best Dim Sum on the continent." For Chinese New Year, the restaurant will introduce a new dim sum menu, with dishes starting at $4; the average dim sum lunch for two will be about $75.
An innovative New Year's dinner menu is planned Feb. 16-25, including suckling pig, shark's fin soup and dried abalone for $138 per person. Unlike some hotel restaurants, overnight guests are not the only diners here. During a recent late afternoon dim sum, many tables were filled by local Asian-Canadians, who know the reputation of the hotel's innovative Hong Kong-born owner, Henry Wu.
The Metropolitan Hotel, located at 108 Chestnut St., a 10-minute walk from the starting point of Lum's Chinatown tour, is a convenient base for exploring this neighborhood. Room rates for February start at $355.
Inquire about the hotel's ultra-extravagant food lovers "East Meets West" overnight package. For information: (416) 977-5000, www.metropolitan.com.
Chinese New Year, I learn, is a culinary celebration with deep cultural traditions. As tour guide Lum would say, "Gung Hey Fatt Choi," which is Cantonese for "kick off with good luck."
If you go
For more information on Chinatown vacations in Toronto, visit www.tourismtoronto.com or www.ontariotravel.net.