“Denison Avenue” by Christina Wong and Daniel Innes

Denison Avenue, Christina Wong, Daniel Innes (illus) (ECW Press, May 2023)

Innes, Daniel, Wong Christina Denison Avenue, Christina Wong, Daniel Innes (illus) (ECW Press, May 2023) Innes, Daniel, Wong Christina

In June 2020, Christina Wong and Daniel Innes started an Instagram account to document Toronto’s disappearing Chinatown. Innes would draw a building or a street scene and Wong would pair it with text. Toronto’s Chinatown enjoys a long history and it had been one of the largest in North America before gentrification and redevelopment started in the 1950s. And like most Chinatowns, the language spoken on the street and at home was originally Toisanese. Family association halls, grocery stores, bakeries, banks, and public libraries catered to Chinatown residents and gave them a sense of community. 

The Instagram account drew upon work that became their recently-published graphic novel, Denison Avenue, a story that centers around a newly widowed elderly woman who faces not just a lonely apartment but closed businesses that had become part of her community since she immigrated to Canada in the 1950s.

Christina Wong is a playwright and the way she intersperses prose with verse in the book seems effortless. She uses Toisanese and a little Cantonese and Mandarin romanization in the dialogue with the English translation in parentheses. Normally heavy romanization can become distracting to English readers, but in this case it seems appropriate. The early Toisan immigrants in North America are becoming fewer and fewer and their language is no longer prominent in Chinatowns as it once was.

The structure of the novel is also unique. Unlike the Instagram account and typical graphic novels, the illustrations in the book are separate from the text. Depending on how one opens the book, the illustrations or the story will appear first. There are two front covers, one with Wong’s name as the author and the other with Innes’s name as the illustrator. It’s helpful to look at the illustrations after reading the story, but one can do the opposite and always refer back to the illustrations later. Innes pairs “before” and “after” illustrations of the same storefront or street corner to show just how quickly the area has changed since the pair started working on the book.

From Denison Avenue
From Denison Avenue

At the start of the story, the main character, Mrs Wong, is married one day and widowed the next when her husband dies suddenly and she’s left alone. Her husband had worked in a number of Chinatown restaurants, but in recent years had been enjoying time at home, gardening with his wife and meeting friends at bakeries and the Wong family association hall. To cope with her husband’s death and to fight loneliness, Mrs. Wong often speaks to her husband as if he’s still in their apartment. She also thinks about what is most important to her.


Somewhere I can speak my language and people can understand me.
A place where I can find food that I like to eat.
A place to buy necessary things
Living somewhere I recognize and know.


But even in Chinatown, the familiar is fading away. The Wongs were both from Toisan and could speak easily with their neighbors in Toronto. They could also get by in Cantonese when more immigrants from Hong Kong moved into the area. But Mrs Wong finds it difficult to communicate with the newly arrived Mandarin speakers who find jobs in Chinatown bakeries and restaurants. Mrs Wong feels like her world is changing beyond the loss of her husband. This change has occurred not just in Toronto, but in Chinatowns around North America.


It was as if we were nostalgic for a time when Toisan wa was spoken loudly
from the streets of all Chinatowns.
A time long gone.


To supplement her pension, Mrs Wong starts to collect recyclables like cans and bottles. A friend shows her how it’s done. Mrs Wong usually encounters friendly people on her route, but sometimes people are rude and try to shoo her away. She tries to find other work and applies for a dishwashing job at a dim sum restaurant. While she’s waiting to speak with the manager, she pictures herself among the women pushing the dim sum carts.


Hands would wave me over, or people would come up to the cart, pointing and inquiring.
      I’d lift the bamboo lid and add the dish to their table. I’d then take the pen from behind my ear, or from my shirt pocket, circling or writing an X in the small, medium, or large categories on the slip of paper.
      And then calling out again:
      “Har gow, siu mai. Har gow, siu mai.”


But it’s difficult to find a job at her age, so she continues to take out her shopping cart at night, finding used wine and beer bottles and discarded cans of soda and beer. As more familiar places close, like a beloved bakery, Mrs Wong yearns for the past. She continues to find solace in the memories of her husband and the friendliness of her neighbors, both young and old. The scariest part of gentrification occurs when realtors start pestering her about moving to a “nice” area outside the city. Without family in Canada, Mrs Wong worries her loneliness will increase even more if she leaves her neighborhood.

Denison Avenue is a heart-wrenching story about a demographic that is often ignored or not even seen in the first place. Wong and Innes based Mrs Wong on the elderly women they see on the Chinatown streets, collecting cans and enjoying conversations with friends and neighbors. The book gives voice to senior citizens and also shows how gentrification destroys mom and pop businesses and communities as a whole.


Editor’s note: this review has been updated to reflect the fact that Instagram account followed the book.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.