The Gentrification of Montreal’s Chinatown
This is an opinion piece about the current struggles of Montreal’s Chinatown that criticizes the values of and the decisions made by some Chinatown Advocates. The author of this article would like to note that as a person of Asian descent who is not Chinese, they are not attempting to speak on behalf of the Chinese community or the Chinatown merchants and residents. They write this as a person with sentimental attachments to Chinatown and is speaking from a place of concern.
Montreal’s Chinatown is one of the few last ethnic enclaves left within the city of Montreal that is historically attributed to the history of Chinese migration over the past century. Within the last couple of decades, we have seen Chinatown become reduced due to gentrification from the construction of government buildings to condo developments. Furthermore, the pandemic exacerbated more issues for Chinatown as our lions were vandalized due to the virus’s attribution to people of Asian descent, or who look Chinese.
Chinatown, over the past year, has faced numerous break-ins and acts of vandalism that is currently instilling new heights of fear and anxiety within the Asian community. Due to this, advocates for Chinatown are asking the city for increased police presence. While on the surface seems innocent, this request from the city, in the name of protecting Chinatown, is actually deeply rooted in supporting the white supremacist structure that pits Asians against other marginalized communities, also known as the model minority stereotype.
The model minority stereotype falls into this notion that Asians do well in this current society by working hard and being economically sufficient without causing a disruption to the status quo. This stereotype is deemed a myth and is used to place a racial wedge against other communities of colour.
These advocates for Chinatown asking for an increase police presence, in addition to the installations of surveillance cameras, are allowing an open invitation to state violence into our communities.These methods of so-called protection are methods used to further the criminalization of oppressed communities. Applying this framework to our communities is therefore counterintuitive to protecting and preserving our neighbourhood, its buildings, and its residents as they are the very methods used to harms us.
These types of requests only serve to justify increasing police budgets, while social services needed to benefit our community, like access to affordable and stable housing, physical and mental health services, child and elder care, language services, community spaces and more, are struggling for funding. The misguided act of asking for and supporting police presence in Chinatown only creates further conflict within our community by supporting white supremacist structures and performing the model minority stereotype that continues to harm the Asian community and other radicalized communities with whom we should be in solidarity. Given that the model minority stereotype is used as a racial wedge against the experiences of other communities of colour, trusting the police to protect our community ignores the work of abolitionists, organizers, and protestors from the BIPOC communities that deal with heavier police threats. Our foremothers and forefathers have not only been violently attacked and systemically oppressed by police, but also have been warning us about the rise in state power through violent means— both personal and structural. Efforts such as these to distinguish Asian communities from other racialized communities, via our ability to assimilate or placate to colonial white standards, is despicable.
Part of unpacking our understanding of how racism operates within a system of white supremacy is to acknowledge that many of the institutions in place only function to uphold the very systems we want to dismantle. The system of policing in Canada is one such institution that exists only to serve the interests of the communities in power, namely, the white and wealthy. While “police protection” is a service we pay for with our tax dollars, it is only intuitive to demand they be used in the interest of at-risk citizens and communities, however, the SPVM has a history of violence and ignoring the demands of its constituency and continues to target houseless folks, which we have seen since the beginning of curfew regulations. In addition, on December 7th, 2020, following a city-wide call for public input, the majority of Montrealers supported reducing police funds (“defunding the police”) in the forthcoming city budget. Despite the overwhelming public outcry against it, Valerie Plante ignored Montrealer’s demands, choosing instead to increase the police budget. To make matters worse, Valerie Plante also suggested the use of body cams despite the evidence that these kinds of technologies do not reduce crime nor do they protect those who have been harmed by the police.This also brings us back to the concerns around the surveillance state and the targeted surveillance of communities of colour.
To provide more context related to Chinatown, the closure of YMCA in Guy-Favreau is one recent incident that encloses and shrinks Chinatown. What once was a space for our elders to gather and exercise, is now a shelter for the unhoused.
The rise of houseless people gathering in Chinatown over the last year is due in part to the rise of anti-homeless architecture throughout the city and forced removal of temporary community-built shelters and encampments. The city has actively attacked houseless people, leaving them no choice but to gather in the only areas where they can still rest. In addition, violent tactics similar to what the police do to houseless folks were done by the “community watch” program initiated by Jimmy Chan, an advocate for Chinatown residents to "keep Chinatown safe”. His initiative ran throughout August to December of last year during the day. He ended up purposefully targeting houseless people or profiling folks out of the streets of Chinatown. Jimmy claimed in an article to the Montreal Gazette that “that’s [the night] when all the bad people come out”, conveniently not disclosing how these people are “bad.”
In order to tackle the rise in anti-Asian racism and attacks, the police have claimed that, due to their “lack of resources” they only have four officers in a subunit that works on hate crimes. One can easily guess what is requested by the police to help tackle this problem they’re facing: more funding. More funding despite the fact that Montreal is already Canada’s most policed city. In order to tackle the gentrification of Chinatown, we must repel the call for police presence, as it clearly opens the gates for a state sanction push of our people and businesses out of the area.
The city has done this to many other areas as well. Just down St Antoine Street, the borough, Little Burgundy, was once home to a thriving and flourishing Anglo-Black community that brought in millions of dollars in taxes from selling alcohol alone. Little Burgundy was also home to 90% of the Black community in the early 1900s and gave birth to many jazz celebrities like Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones. The city only credits them when necessary or pays homage when it benefits them.
Murals are drawn, and a building at Concordia University is named after Oscar Peterson, but the community that these jazz legends grew up in is no longer around and the neighbourhood and support system for these folks have disappeared. What was once a salvation space for formerly enslaved people from the US and Canada underwent an urban renewal project the city called a “slum clearance” that forced many Black families out of their homes and neighbourhood altogether. The city aimed to construct social housing, but did not provide housing for those they displaced.
To put it simply, an article written for Erudit explains it well:
“...years leading up to and during urban renewal, Little Burgundy was not publicly represented as a racialized neighbourhood or (much more accurately) as a multiracial one. As the area had a clear white majority of French-speaking residents, white policymakers, urban planners, and media commentators viewed the area instead through a Quebec neo-nationalist lens where poverty was attributed to disparities between French and English. Ethnic (or linguistic) class, not race, was the dominant paradigm, thus submerging any recognition of underlying racial discrimination or of even the black presence. It was only years later, after the neighbourhood had been renewed with the highest concentration of public housing in the province, at a time when the area had become associated with crime and crack cocaine, that Little Burgundy’s black presence and history were finally recognized by others. However, by then the state had imposed a prescription to a problem that failed to consider the particularities of the black community, tearing asunder a social fabric that had served black Montrealers well.”
The familiarity of what Little Burgundy went through is what our Chinatown is currently experiencing. Many descendants from pre-gentrified Little Burgundy are still fighting for some space and semblance of what their relatives got to experience: a community by and for one’s own, built on mutual support and understanding. Building solidarity amongst ourselves and with other communities experiencing something similar, threatens the status quo of our current governments and hierarchies of power. The acceptance of Black activists' requests for their former space are put on halt or ignored as capitalism and condos are built faster than the city can address our issues. The city’s lack of response shows our government’s aim to continue breaking our bonds, ensuring we do not have space for ourselves, in their cultural and linguistic fight against Anglophones, and non-French languages.
As we learn from those before us, we should take note that complete community and cultural erasure starts with seemingly "harmless", small acts of gentrification and policing. By the end, however, only scraps of the past will be left for us to remember, and we will be left struggling to demand acknowledgement for the harm we could have potentially prevented.
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