When Chinese immigrants came to Montreal in the late 19th century and carved out the section now known as Chinatown for themselves, it was to build mutual support against poverty and discrimination.
But people in the community point out that even now, racism is a barrier.
According to City of Montreal research, as the racism declined some residents and new immigrants from China felt comfortable to settle elsewhere.
It’s a reality reflected in the number of Chinese restaurants across the city.
“Anywhere in Montreal you’re going to find a Chinese restaurant,” laughed Jason Lee, author of a Montreal food blog at Shut up and Eat. “Moreso maybe downtown, where a lot of the international students (going) to school are living in the apartments in that area.”
However, advocates argue that since the construction of the Guy Favreau Complexe, Palais de Congres and the Ville Marie tunnel in the ’70s and ’80s, when several businesses and two churches were demolished and forced the relocation of many residents to other parts of the island, Chinatown has been in decline. It is, they claim, the result of being neglected by the city administration.
“I would say there’s some systemic racism also within the city of Montreal,” said Winston Chan of the group Inclusive Revitalization: Present and Future of Chinatown, which is advocating for the area.
Others also point to the COVID pandemic as adding to the woes.
“When news was coming of a mysterious influenza from China,” said Karen Cho of the Chinatown Working Group, also pushing for plans to rebuild, “people stigmatized this neighhourhood and didn’t want to go to the businesses and grocery stores.”
“There was a lot of vandalism and a lot of break-ins in Chinatown stores,” said Chan.
Some businesses closed.
But while this has cast a pall over the neighbourhood, there are hopeful efforts underway to mend bridges and rebuild.