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Toronto Through the Eyes of Sook-Yin Lee

Welcome to the inaugural "Toronto Through the Eyes Of", a new blogTO column [hold your applause, please, you're far too kind]. Each Wednesday, we will cozy up to the city, exploring it through the eyes of a local celebrity, hero, do-gooder, or simply winning individual. Hope you enjoy.

For many a transplanted Vancouverite, Toronto-bellyaching is a popular pastime. They get misty-eyed as they recall winters spent in the powdery bliss of Whistler. Drool seeps from their mouths as they debate amongst themselves which Vancouver sushi joint serves up the best all-you-can-eat. (For the record, it's Richmond Sushi.) They scoff at The Beaches, recalling seemingly better, bygone days wiled away at Kits Beach, Jericho and English Bay. Ahh, yes, the forever disgruntled 416er from the 604.

Such is not the case with Sook-Yin Lee. The star of John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, which premieres this Friday, bade farewell to Vancouver for a VJ gig at MuchMusic in 1995. Today, she is a gung-ho Toronto cheerleader. The CBC show host (Definitely Not the Opera), musician (Bob's Your Uncle, Slan), filmmaker (Unlocked, Girl Cleans Sink), actor (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Art of Woo), and all-round overachiever (see select list of accomplishments in preceding brackets), has found her version of bliss--it's called Kensington Market-- in the city the rest of Canada loves to hate.

When she first arrived in Hogtown, Lee settled into an apartment at Adelaide and John. To this day, she still shudders at the memory.

"It was horrible. I've been very lucky and blessed to have wonderful communities around me from as far back as I can remember, and there was no community feel there. It was more a nightclub feel," recounts Lee. After several years of having drunkards eating Mr. Pong's takeout on her front steps and the perma-stench of hot dogs from vendors outside in her apartment, Lee had had enough. She decided to pick up and move, this time making her nest in Kensington Market. She hasn't stopped raving about it since.

"I love my neighbourhood. It's full of children who hang out at my place, and my friends, and there are so many artists, fashion designers, musicians and visual artists... It's a really wonderful community that I have here," sighs a contented Lee. "I have traveled to many places in the world and, while I can't say that I love everything about Toronto, I must say that Kensington Market is the best neighbourhood that I've ever come across."

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Sook-Yin Lee on Toronto

My favourite place...

...for breakfast: I love going for breakfast. Bellevue Diner (61 Bellevue Ave, 416.597.6912) is great. It's in my neighbourhood and it's really awesome because they have a fantastic breakfast there. And on Sundays, when everywhere else is crammed to the rafters, you can come in here and have an awesome breakfast without having to wait. They give you fruit and all kinds of stuff, and it's a very good price. People are friendly, they have a really nice patio but, for some reason, there's never a lineup.

...for lunch or dinner: Recently, my favourite place for dinner is The Rice Bar (319 Augusta, 416.922.7423), also in the Market. I tend to be a bargain hunter and I like good food at bargain prices. The Rice Bar is very, very healthy food and you can get dinner for $10.

...for drinks: I go to Local 666 in my neighbourhood.

...for dancing: I like to find places where there's not a big trendy scene because, sometimes, when I dance with a lot of trendy people, I end up feeling self conscious or like a big ol' nerd. So I try to go to low-key places. Me and my friend [local filmmaker] Andrea Dorfman like to go to the basement of Revival (783 College W, 416.535.7888). Not the upstairs, as that can be loud and very collegiate, but the basement. There's this kind of strange scene. There play RnB and hip hop and stuff, but sometimes, there are strange groups of single Chinese guys from the suburbs or social rejects hanging out. I like that. You can always be guaranteed a space on the dancefloor, where you can really bust a move.

I also really like Thursdays at Octopus Lounge (293 Palmerston, 416.929.7214). I've been there on other nights where it's kind of this horrible meat market, but on Thursdays, it's really awesome. People there are just loving to dance and not being freaky on you.

...to unwind: My house.

...to get inspired: [laughs] My house... It's 11-feet wide and it's over 100 years old and it's got a beautiful little secret garden in the back. It's just enough for one person and it's very sweet. I also have a very nice cat that I live with, Hannah.

Everyone should know about: There's a really fantastic place on Augusta. It's a Mexican food supply store. You've got to go there and go all the way to the back where you'll see this older Mexican lady making tamales and other really good food. It's really affordable and delicious. And I wish I could remember the address and I'm really sorry I can't, but it's on Augusta on the east side of the street, just north of Baldwin.

Biggest pet peeve about Toronto: There's too much cement in the downtown core. I remember when I first came here, it was like, "Holy sheesh - these people really, really work a lot." No wonder why they call it the working Hogtown! And the thing is the transportation system is very efficient and it sort of just ushers people through the intestines of the city. They don't have a lot of time to talk--they're moving quick, going back and forth to work. So the quality of life could be a lot better by environment. We should go to some of the ugly, neglected, concrete areas of the city, take a hammer to it and make a nice little square to sit in. It would be wonderful. You see that, in NY, the population density is so high and yet you can sit down in a nice patio in each neighbourhood, and read a book, and just have a second. I think that would really add to the quality of life.

An ideal day in Toronto would consist of: Let's see...I'd wake up and I'd stretch. Then I'd have some good food. I make this thing called mush - involving all kinds of grains and yogurt and yummy stuff. And then I'd get on my bike and ride around. The day would have to involve my bike, because I really like riding it. And I think I would have to have a picnic with friends at the park in Kensington. That's so lovely, you bring a bottle of beer inside a paper bag, some food, some wine, and some books. And you just hang out with your friends, who are usually hungover from the night before. You read books, play games, and play around in the park. That's a good time for me, for sure. If it was a hot day, I'd go over to the public pool and go for a swim. Then I'd probably take a bath. And go on a fantastic date somewhere. Dates are nice. [pauses] And it would be a successful date! With a nice person, having a good time, walking around, maybe checking out some architecture, having some good food. Maybe, in the end, lying in my backyard ["With the date?"] Yes, with the date. With the date, looking up at the stars and doing some...uhh, fun stuff...

Finish the sentence "Toronto is..." a rock band from the 70s. [She repeats "Toronto" in her best swaggering Elvis-slash-announcer voice and chuckles.] Yeah, Toronto, the rock band. I think they're from the 70s or the 80s. You know, Toronto. And it was in a forward font.

Definitely Not the Opera can be heard Saturdays at 1:00pm on CBC Radio One.
Shortbus, in which Lee plays a sex therapist who's never had an orgasm, premieres this Friday. Lee will be introducing the film at 10:00pm screening at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland, 416.646.0444).
Lee is also in the middle of recording her next album, Lovebolt, and is developing her first feature movie, Year of the Carnivore, with Screen Siren Pictures.

[Images credit: Regina Garcia (1st photo), Think Films (Shortbus movie poster and 2nd photo)]


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