Open Book Toronto Interview with Lee Lamothe, February 2014

Five things literary: Baldwin Village, Chinatown, and More, with Lee Lamothe. Lee Lamothe tells us about life near the Baldwin Village area of downtown Toronto, from mobsters to police surveillance and much more.

Things Literary: Baldwin Village, Chinatown and More

In my neighbourhood there’s no literary stuff, but it has everything that I need for my writing. I live in the important zone for me as a crime writer: police headquarters is a couple of blocks away, the Crown Attorney’s office is even closer. The courthouses are all within fifteen minutes. All those places contain old pals with tales to tell. The massage racks and the geography of extortion in Chinatown are a short and tasty walk away; Little Italy, where my touchstones as a long-ago working newspaperman — mostly mob murders and bombings — is a brisk twenty minute stroll. Some of those old bad guys remember me, but there’s no hard feelings and we talk, mostly about food. One of them, one day, took me into the kitchen of his restaurant and had the chef show me how to make veal saltimbocca.

The Building with the Hidden Room
Down the street from my apartment is a building with a hidden but significant history. It towers over the intersection. People come and go and shop at the stores on the street level; they sit on the steps and have lunch in the sunshine. But what they don’t know is that the building was constructed with heroin money a few decades ago. Two men, a Triad leader and a local real estate entrepreneur — both long dead — put their heroin profits out of Hong Kong into constructing the place. The building has a name and that name is an amalgam of both men’s names. For years police intelligence officers tried to find a way to drill into the top floor apartment in the building. It was hard to eavesdrop from the outside: the key room on the top floor has no outside walls, so it has no windows to bounce sound waves off of. It’s a square room in the centre of the top floor and has a hallway entirely around it. That’s where the boys did their business in private.

The Coffee Shop with a Past
There’s a coffee shop that was seized as proceeds of the Colombian drug cartel profits and later bought up by a friend of mine.

The Waiter's Office
There’s an office building sitting on prime real estate that’s owned by a waiter at a nearby restaurant who works every lunchtime and looks like a slob.

Underground Gambling Dens
There’s a half-dozen Chinatown buildings, all connected by knocked-out cellar walls and where gambling clubs are prolific. Once, back in the 1960s, an RCMP wire team went into one of the cellars and found, covered in two inches of dust, a pair of huge headphones laying on a desk. Wires led to holes in the wall. An old surveillance operation that someone forgot about or simply walked away from when the money ran out or the priorities changed.

Baldwin Street
A short walk from my apartment takes me into Baldwin Street where one of the restaurants, owned by a Chinese gentleman who was described to me as looking like a Chinese Charles Bronson, serves good cheap food, mostly because the operator doesn’t need, or necessarily want, to make a profit. He just needs the paperwork.

I dropped in, before he disappeared several years ago, with my wife. I was then researching a book on Chinese organized crime and introduced myself — shy, I’m not.

He joined us and talked about the bad old days of the late 1950s and 1960s in Chinatown. The wars. The battles. How he might have been less than a good soul then, but now everyone knew he was a good man in the community. It was a strange conversation: I’d spent a lot of time in Chinatown when I was a teenager. We were about the same age. He told the story about being arrested after getting in a fight with the evil white boys who came along Dundas Street mocking the locals, sparking some discontent and even violence. It turned out, we found, that I was one of those evil white boys; in fact we sort of remembered each other. My wife was amazed. I like amazing my wife. If I can amaze my wife, I can amaze anyone. Many years later someone leaked a CSIS report on Chinese organized crime to me and there he was, someone who played both sides of the street.

So, while I regret the lack of authentic bookstores in my neighbourhood, and while I actually don’t know a single writer at all, and only a single poet, I don’t need the literary world or bookshops to bring me the literary. I know crooks and cops and journalists and lawyers and that’s the world I mine for my writing.

If I need a spark of creativity, I only have to walk along Bay Street or College Street or Dundas Street or University Avenue and I bump into someone and I’m back on my game.


© 2019 Lee Lamothe. All rights reserved.