"Chinatown is losing its community" : An Interview with MyChinatownMTL
It’s no secret that Montreal is a bustling hub of multiculturalism. In fact, our annual cultural street fairs, historical neighbourhoods, and wide selection of restaurants that flaunt every kind of cuisine you could ever dream of magnetizes tourists from far and wide for a taste. However, despite our unique identity of globally-influenced urban living being frequently boasted by the passing municipal governments and the tourism industry, veteran Montrealers know that this utopian dream is but a glittery exoskeleton that thinly veils the systemic racism and colonialism of which our society is built upon.
Montreal’s Chinatown, despite being one of the most notable selling points for tourists, lives a more secret, sinister double life. Originally a largely Jewish neighbourhood, Chinatown as we know it was established by the first Chinese immigrants to arrive in Montreal in March of 1877. Chinese-Canadian immigrants quickly took advantage of the largely residential area by opening laundromats, followed by restaurants and specialty grocers. The area soon began attracting non-Chinese customers due to its convenient proximity to Saint-Laurent Boulevard, and by 1902, it became officially known as Chinatown.
This month, in keeping with the ever-important conversation around gentrification and modern colonialist policies, I sat down with the individual behind the growing Instagram account, MyChinatownMTL, to discuss Chinatown’s history, gentrification efforts, and the complicated relationship between Chinese-Canadians and the municipal government.
Q: Can you describe the historical value of Chinatown and what that means for Canadian multiculturalism?
A: The historical value of Chinatown is a physical space that holds the history of Chinese migrants who came to Montreal after finishing the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). 15,000 Chinese indentured workers came to Canada to build the CPR. After its completion, many who came in through British Columbia migrated east to Montreal. Montreal’s Chinatown is a memorial site of this history. The buildings that are directly linked to Chinatown’s history as relics of the past. These buildings have witnessed family separation, Head Tax, Chinese Exclusion Acts and Immigration Policies banning Chinese people from settling and migrating into Canada. The historical value isn’t just seen, it’s felt when we enter Chinatown.
Chinatowns add to Canada’s multicultural identity by allowing enclaves of Asian descent to exist without feeling excluded from necessary services. Chinatowns add to Canada’s multiculturalism by showing how multiple people from all over the world can come to Canada and still feel safe in spaces dedicated to them. It provides people of Asian descent a sentimental attachment to a space where they can feel themselves without feeling judged by their non-Asian friends.
Q: What actions have Montreal municipal governments taken to reduce or eliminate gentrification, if any? (If they have taken steps to propagate gentrification, please explain that process instead!)
A: From my understanding of what the municipal government is doing is trying to help other Chinatown-related organizations gain heritage status for Chinatown. Heritage status is supposed to help protect the current size of Chinatown while also holding the municipal and provincial government accountable for any large-scale changes. However, heritage status is not sufficient to eliminate or prevent gentrification, as one can place a plaque at the gates of Chinatown and call it a day. While the interior of Chinatown’s businesses and locals that make Chinatown Chinatown will cease to exist.
But the real call to action is a moratorium on further developments in Chinatown. The city’s dodge to grant organizations moratorium on development in Chinatown, which has been called for (from my understanding) since the early 2010s and more prominently in 2018, is a deliberate acknowledgement of Chinatown’s worth and how much the city is in bed with condo developers.
What we (mychinatownmtl) believe is happening in Chinatown, as one of the few ethnic enclaves within city limits, is a complete cultural erasure of Chinese or Asian communities within Montreal. Chinatown was much larger than what it is currently, and it has shrunk, and continues to shrink. The building of Palais de Congres and the Guy-Favreau building are monuments from previous city developments dedicated to downsizing Chinatown. Now with the construction of condos and more of our public services being shut down, Chinatown is slowly on the brink of losing more than its restaurants; Chinatown is losing its community.
Some instances that the city is doing to propagate gentrification are: the Federal government has shut down the YMCA in Guy-Favreau. With the pandemic, the municipal government turned it into a shelter for the unhoused. As people experiencing houselessness gather in Chinatown, more locals in Chinatown are blaming the houseless folks for the vandalism and robberies that occur in Chinatown. The act of placing a homeless shelter in Chinatown further divides and pits the Asian community against other communities of colour. Moreover, some members of Chinatown organizations have even asked for increased police presence. This misguided act to demand increasing police presence for Chinatown’s “safety” is one of the first steps of gentrifying any space. So what the city continues to do is listen to those from the community who align with their interests and use them as a scapegoat for further gentrifying measures.
Q: What threats do gentrification and development projects like these pose to the Asian-Canadian community?
A: I cannot speak for the entire Asian-Canadian community, but for most of my understanding a major threat is how gentrifying our spaces reduces the access to essential services for our community. From language translations, practicing our faith, and having access to healthcare provided in our language, Chinatown was once a space for all of this and more. Language laws in this province are ruthless, our elders and recent immigrants struggle to find services that accommodate them in a language they’re most comfortable with. It furthers the exclusion this province has on non-white folks. Above all, this creates a whole other issue of independence. If our elders are not able to access services in the language they’re most comfortable in, they lose their agency to do things they’re typically capable of doing.
So, gentrification has always been made to get rid of our resources. With development projects aimed to “beautify” neighbourhoods that were once deemed “ghetto”, these projects end up ridding people of colour of their homes and replace them with unaffordable housing with no other liveable alternatives for those the city displaced. The link between Anti-Asian immigration policies and the move towards gentrification of Chinatown is simply put as “neocolonialism” coupled with yellow peril fear-mongering stereotypes from news outlets and politicians. The model minority stereotype does not help as other Chinatown advocates demand for more police presence. In addition to the damage that condo developers have done, the demand for increased police presence aligns with what many activists and theorists on neo-colonialism and imperialism have been warning us about. Gentrification and buying out our buildings are just part of the plan to eradicate us to the outskirts of the city. So, the city of Montreal can grant heritage status, but what they should be doing is granting us a moratorium for further developments of Chinatown, and begin to include many organizations who want to be a part of Chinatown’s development be consulted during the process.
Q: How can Montrealers help in the fight to save Chinatown?
A: There are multiple ways many Montrealers can help fight and save Chinatown. For starters, supporting mom and pop businesses in Chinatown. These businesses are what makes Chinatown special and unique. The long term is to demand a moratorium on further development in Chinatown from our elected leaders. Without moratorium, Chinatown will cease to exist in the way we know. In an interview we did with William Ging Wee Dere, posted on our blog, he highlights a lot of what folks can do on a municipal level, but also a grander level, like calling the UN for recognizing Chinatowns as historical sites. On a personal note, learn more about the history of Asian migration to Canada, and the struggles colonialism and imperialism has done in our homelands. In addition to understanding the current cold war with China; by understanding the rhetoric around China helps call out the everyday malicious slander and casual racism people have towards the Asian community. All this not only helps Chinatown, but helps one become an ally to the Asian community.