In the early hours of May 3, 2014, Emile Wickham and three of his friends went out to eat in downtown Toronto for Wickham’s birthday. The group chose to celebrate at Hong Shing Chinese Restaurant, a mainstay in the area for nearly two decades, in part because they saw other people eating there at that hour.
The group was seated and ordered food, but a waiter told them they would need to pay upfront for their meals before they could be served. It was the restaurant’s policy, he said.
According to court documents, Wickham said the request “didn’t sit well” with him, even after he and his friends — the only black diners at Hong Shing at the time — had paid in advance. Wickham began going around to other tables in the restaurant and asking whether they, too, had been asked to pay for their meals ahead of time.
No one else had had the same experience.
“That’s really messed up,” one diner told Wickham after he explained why he was asking.
“Upon learning that no other patrons had been asked to prepay for their meals they asked the waiter to explain why they had to pay and no one else had been expected to do so,” court documents said.
It was then the waiter acknowledged that Wickham’s group had been the only one in the restaurant asked to prepay for their meals, according to court documents.
“Rather than offer any explanation for the prepayment he simply asked them whether they wanted their money back,” court documents said. “The applicant said that it was evident that the waiter simply wanted to end the conversation as quickly as possible, and was being very defensive.”
The next year, Wickham lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, a governmental board that resolves discrimination and harassment claims, alleging that he and his friends had been racially profiled by the staff at Hong Shing restaurant.
In his testimony, Wickham said the incident had “a profound impact” on him. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, he had immigrated to Canada more than a decade before. At the time of the incident, Wickham was a student at York University. That night, his three dining partners included Chevy Eugene and Paul Bailey, both graduate students at York University, and a friend visiting from Ottawa identified in court records only as “Aurila.”
“[Wickham] testified that he was not used to being treated like a second-class citizen because of his race, and was not accustomed to having negative behavior being attributed to him given his skin color,” court records said. “The applicant said that the encounter was particularly hurtful as the outing was special as he does not have many friends in Toronto, and because it was his birthday.”
An attorney for the restaurant initially submitted a statement saying Hong Shing staff had adopted a policy years ago where waiters would ask for prepayment from customers who weren’t “regulars.”
“Because of its location, the restaurant attracts something of a transient crowd, and unfortunately it was very common in the past that customers ‘dine and dash’ — that is, eat their meals and leave the restaurant without paying,” the attorney said, according to court records. “There was never any intent to discriminate against the applicant; all customers who are not know [sic] to be regulars are treated the same way.”
But the tribunal found no evidence there was ever such a policy at Hong Shing or, if there was, that it was expressed clearly to Wickham and his group. In addition, the tribunal noted there was no evidence that the other customers at the restaurant that night were “regulars.” Yet one member of Wickham’s group, Paul Bailey, testified that he had eaten at Hong Shing about five to seven times a year since he was 19, for a total of 15 to 20 visits.
Nearly four years after the incident, the human rights tribunal ruled this month that the restaurant had discriminated against the group in 2014 and ordered Hong Shing to pay Wickham $10,000 in damages.
“In essence, the applicant was presumed to be a potential thief-in-waiting despite any evidence to that effect,” Esi Codjoe, a vice chairman on the tribunal, wrote in her ruling. “His mere presence as a black man in a restaurant was presumed to be sufficient evidence of his presumed propensity to engage in criminal behavior. At its core racial profiling is a form of shorthand that enables the perpetrator of the behavior to assume certain facts and ignore others.”
Wickham told Toronto CityNews that he and his friends left the restaurant ” left the restaurant feeling frustrated and rejected, all because of what the employees thought we were capable of doing, just based on the color of our skin.”
According to court records, Wickham is “visibly black and Afro-Caribbean” and also has a Chinese grandfather. Though he said he wasn’t accustomed to anti-black racism when he lived in Trinidad, he was aware of it in Canada but thought “on some level” that wearing a York University sweatshirt, as he was that night, might make him immune from such incidents, court records said.
“He felt in that moment that being black hurt,” court records said. “He has come to realize that no matter how well dressed or educated or spoken you may be you are still just seen as a ‘n—–.’ ”
Wickham told the Globe and Mail, which first reported the story, that the incident gave him pause when it came to Toronto’s image.
“I feel a lot of Canadians feel like [they aren’t racist] because they don’t say the n-word or they have that black colleague or they like to eat Jamaican food and know about roti and doubles,” Wickham told the newspaper.
Hong Shing will also be required to display a poster that says the establishment “respects and follows the letter and spirit of the Ontario Human Rights Code.”
A person who answered the phone at the restaurant Monday said its owner, Colin Li, was not there. In February, the Toronto Star profiled Li, the son of Hong Shing’s original owners, and his attempts to overhaul his parents’ restaurant, which opened in 1997. It is unclear whether Li was at Hong Shing or aware of the 2014 incident when it happened. The Globe and Mail reported that Li was listed in business license records as the sole director/officer of the restaurant as of January.
Li said in a statement released Monday that they were “deeply concerned about the situation,” noting it took place when the restaurant was “under different management.” The tribunal’s outcome was under appeal, he added.
“At this time we cannot comment further, beyond emphasizing that the current owner and staff are dedicated to be a committed, inclusive and responsible member of the community,” Li said. “It is our hope that the issue can be resolved in a way that is respectful to all involved and we can continue our focus to bring people together over great food.”
In the Toronto Star profile, Li said he had made strides in trying to appeal to a millennial customer base. He began sponsoring a recreational basketball team in the Toronto area’s Megacity Basketball League and posting pictures of the team’s players and of Hong Shing’s food to the restaurant’s Instagram account. He has promoted the restaurant heavily on social media, saying he is trying to revamp the perception of Chinese food and turn Hong Shing into a “culture.”
“Worked hard over the years to get Hong Shing where it wants to be!” Li posted on Facebook in September 2015, after an event where food bloggers had been invited to the restaurant. “Over 18 years in business, we are still able to revitalize ourselves and adapt to the current trends. But definitely this was not achieved over a night span. Hard work and dedication for the industry took us to where we are today, as this is just the beginning!”
A handful of people defended Hong Shing on Twitter and in comments on the restaurant’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, noting the management change.
Still, it hasn’t stopped the backlash. On social media, several more people vowed to boycott Hong Shing. Over the weekend, some began leaving one-star reviews for the restaurant on Yelp, citing the tribunal’s ruling.
“This is Canada in 2018,” one reviewer wrote. “It’s unacceptable to be racist.”