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A look at the future of Montreal’s Chinatown, starting with a look at the past

Click to play video: 'A look at the future of Montreal’s Chinatown, starting with a look back in time' A look at the future of Montreal’s Chinatown, starting with a look back in time
WATCH: Here is part one of a three-part series on the challenges and future of Montreal's Chinatown through the eyes of those with roots there – Feb 1, 2022

Montreal’s Chinese communities are celebrating the lunar new year, the year of the tiger, but this year the future of the city’s historic Chinatown is top of mind.

The neighbourhood has always been a mix of cultures.

“The history of Chinatown is also really the history of the settlement of Montreal,” Karen Cho told Global News. The filmmaker is documenting disappearing Chinatowns across the continent.

Read more: ‘Everything good comes to an end’: Longtime Chinese restaurant in Montreal to close

She’s also a member of the Chinatown Working Group which advocates for the area.

The neighbourhood is just north of Old Montreal between Viger Avenue to the south and Rene Levesque Boulevard to the north. Primarily a mix of restaurants and stores, mostly Chinese, it has long been an attraction for tourists.

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However, the Chinese community didn’t always live there.

“So many different immigrant groups moved through this area,” Cho pointed out, naming Scottish, Irish, French and Jewish communities.

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A building at 110-112 de la Gauchetière St. that once housed a synagogue and later a Chinese hospital, still stands.

Another building on the same block, built in 1826, was once the British and Canadian school. It is now the Wing’s noodle factory.

“This school was the first public school in Montreal,” explained Taika Baillargeon, Heritage Montreal’s assistant director of policies. “It was public, it was bilingual, it was mixed.”

The school closed in 1894, just around the time when the first Chinese immigrants started coming to Montreal, according to files in Montreal Archives.

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They included Cho’s great-grandfather Woo Yuen Koo from Guangdong province in China, who immigrated to British Columbia in 1898.

Read more: ‘We will come back stronger’: Vancouver Chinatown Lunar New Year parade cancelled for second year

“It’s also how my grandfather, who was born in Vancouver’s Chinatown, ended up here with his brother, because they couldn’t find work,” she said.

Many Chinese immigrated to B.C. from China to work in mines and the railroad. But some, mostly men, fled east to escape racism only to find it here too, according to Timothy Chan, Montreal Chinese historian.

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He noted, for example, Chinese businessmen who owned laundries faced discrimination from authorities.

“Because the City of Montreal charged the Chinese laundries $50 tax,” he explained.

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According to information in Montreal archives, that $50 amounted to four months’ work for a laundry worker. Chan said some who refused to pay the tax were jailed.

Chan said the residents pooled resources to purchase property in the area, creating their own community a sanctuary from racism.

Read more: Montreal’s Chinatown, threatened by development, to be granted heritage status

Cho said that community, over a period of decades, developed into a vibrant neighbourhood.

“(In) the 1980s, when there was a lot of influx of people from Hong Kong, it was a really bustling neighbourhood,” she said.

Just a week before the lunar new year, Quebec announced that the neighbourhood would be granted heritage status.

While they say the status is a step in the right direction, people like May Chu say they still worry about the future of Chinatown.

“If we don’t conserve the physical space,” she argued, “then the Chinese community is basically homeless. You know like where else are we going to go? This is our home and we have to defend it and we have to fight for it.”

She and other advocates are pushing for even more protection.

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