Why Chinese bakery Yung Sing is one of the most fondly remembered in Toronto
One of the Chinese bakeries Toronto is fondest of has actually been closed for quite a while, but the memories of it are still influencing people baking and creating in the city today.
Yung Sing has been vacant in Baldwin Village for over a decade now, though its iconic signage with yellow lettering remains, albeit papered over on the inside.
The bakery had been serving cheap Chinese snacks since the 1960s, buns stuffed with BBQ pork and tofu, and was a community hub. Its influence has been so lasting it actually inspired a bakery who just started up his own business.
An Tran opened up sourdough micro-bakery Ba Noi around the fall of 2020 and has been in the food business for about as long as Yung Sing has been closed.
"To talk about Yung Sing is to understand my upbringing," Tran tells blogTO. "The influence of Chinese pastries in my life is deep enough for me to want to share it in my menu for my own shop."
He says his discovery of Yung Sing as a teenager was his first encounter with a hidden gem, though he'd been eating Chinese pastries all his life. He recalls visits to Chinese bakeries being the only time he could pick out whatever he wanted: beg for a candy bar at the grocery store, and he'd get rejected and chewed out.
What stood out to him initially was the way the shop was so small and didn't look like much, but everything there felt fresh out of the oven or fryer, and there were only ever a few of each item on display at a time. Despite this, prices were still just as affordable as any other bakery.
"I have a hard time trying to sling baked goods," says Tran. "It's one hell of a way to make money selling something for a few bucks a piece. I can't imagine the hard work that was put into that shop."
He comes from a family of food connoisseurs that love finding the best noodles, pho and dim sum in far flung spots in Mississauga, Scarborough and North York, and was impressed that this unassuming shop tucked away right downtown was one of the best.
"Only after it shut down did I start learning about how old this place was and the impact it had on the Toronto community," says Tran.
"They have supported a large community around them for decades feeding families, students, kids like I was. There was no ego behind it. It just felt like they wanted to make food and feed everyone."
Recently, a customer lent him David Ko's Yung Sing Dim Sum Recipes: A Chinese Snackbook, prompting him to post the artifact on Instagram.
"As I went through this little recipe book I felt like I was being sent back into the past," says Tran.
"There's Toronto history in here, how to use chopsticks section, a sign up sheet for classes in making dim sum. The dude who lent this to me is holding onto a piece of history. It's special like Honest Ed's, Electric Circus, or Speaker's Corner."
The closed shop has inspired not just a baker, but an artist, too.
Jamie Ly is currently at work on her Chinatown Scenes series of paintings (which explores themes of Chinese culture with an emphasis on her experience growing up in Toronto) and incorporated the abandoned storefront of Yung Sing, which she's submitted to AGO's Portrait of Resilience Online Exhibit.
"My goal is to preserve Asian-owned storefronts as a statement on the importance of history, legacy and memory. This is tied to my own experience as a child of immigrants who came to Canada and became independent business owners," says Ly in a statement on the series.
"Despite closing in 2009, Yung Sing's storefront remains in Toronto as a symbol of resiliency, especially with the onset of COVID-19 resulting in increased targeted attacks on Asians and the looming threat to Chinatown's legacy due to gentrification."
Her mom used to pick her up from Orde St. P.S. and take her to "busy, bustling" Yung Sing for after school snacks, an experience she's found is shared amongst other alumni.
"Yung Sing had the best BBQ Pork buns and fried shrimp dumplings. The coconut buns and tofu buns were also delicious," says Ly.
"Over the years, I have longed for the shop to reopen so I could relive the memories of seeing Mr. Ko pop up from the basement window with the trays of hot buns."
Ever since sharing the painting of Yung Sing on social media, people have been sharing their memories and experiences of the place with Ly, and she even connected with one of David Ko's grandchildren.
"As property prices continue to rise, Yung Sing is an example of the type of establishments that are central to community, what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls 'third places,' a connected series I am working on," says Ly. "These important third places are increasingly endangered, especially in Chinatowns."
People like Tran and Ly are in a way preserving the collective memory of spaces like Yung Sing as "third places" through their baking and art, which helps keep their community and culture alive.
"Yung Sing's legacy serves as a point of connection for many who have visited the location and is a reminder of the importance of supporting independently owned local businesses because these are spaces that are pertinent to communities," says Ly.
"This is especially true as we continue to live through a pandemic where isolation has created an ache for connecting, socializing, and face-to-face connections."
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