Jordana Stier

Once Upon a Time in Toronto is a new television drama series that marks the first co-production between Canada and China.

The first 20 episodes of the show, documenting the lives of Chinese immigrants living in Toronto, commenced shooting in May. Slated for broadcast in both Canada and China, Once Upon a Time in Toronto will be filmed in Mandarin with English subtitles. The series, created by Rogers OMNI Television, is set to premiere this fall.

Once Upon a Time in Toronto is a microcosm of Canada’s multi-ethnic social fabric with a particular focus on Toronto, says Irene Chu, executive producer of the series. It’s what she calls “a Chinese version of Western habits.” She explains that the series reinforces the idea that human emotions are at the core of racial harmony and peaceful co-existence.

While this will be illustrated through the dynamics of a single multi-generational family, intertwining subplots will deal with issues such as single-parent woes, generation gaps and cultural adaptation.

Chu describes the drama as an illustration of Chinese traditional values and lifestyles set alongside those of mainstream Canadian society. 

Shot in Toronto, the show will give its Chinese viewers a taste of the city’s multiculturalism, while reflecting the experience of living in a city where citizens tolerate, embrace, absorb and influence one another. Once Upon a Time in Toronto will also reflect the experience that many newcomers encounter in Canada in terms of losing and recovering a sense of self. 

“It’s a valuable experience to have, in order to know who you are,” says Dora Chen, a writer for the show.

The show’s producers are estimating a Chinese viewership of approximately four per cent. This means that as many as 52 million people in China will be exposed to the rich and vibrant city of Toronto.

With Beijing hosting the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Chu believes it’s important for China to increase its contact with the Western world.

In spite of its censorship policies, Chu says that things are changing in China and the country is becoming increasingly open to an exchange of ideas with the West. “China is loosening up their restrictions. Our production has given both governments the impetus to come to the negotiation table to try and work out a Canada/China television co-production agreement,” she says.

According to Chu, all TV productions in China have to be granted a permit before shooting can commence. The production then has to be examined by China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, Television (SARFT), which can request changes to be made before the show is granted final approval for broadcast.

Chen says Once Upon a Time in Toronto evolved from the writers’ collective experiences with immigrant life and those of other Chinese newcomers. There are nearly half a million Chinese people in the Toronto area. “We’ve encountered a lot of immigrants and their stories,” explains Chen. “There is no story [currently on television] about them, how they integrate or how they don’t integrate.”

The writers, Chen says, want to expose the real challenges faced by Chinese immigrants who live in Toronto, and how they overcome them to prosper in Canadian society.

Yazhou Yang (Snow in the Wind) will direct the unique series. Ni Ping, who starred in the movie, will play a lead role in Once Upon a Time in Toronto. Both have won awards at Montreal’s International Film Festival.