Cultural resilience through commerce in Chinatown

Montreal’s Chinatown is home to lots of local restaurants derived from family history and richness in culture. Photo by Catherine Reynolds / The Concordian

How businesses are navigating change.

Dalena Nguyen, a Montreal resident of Asian descent, wanders through Chinatown and takes note of the evolving landscape. In the past five years, she has seen some of her cherished spots close down. Despite the tinge of nostalgia, Nguyen remains drawn to Chinatown, finding profound meaning in its enduring presence. 

“It has changed so much, so many stores have closed down and many chains started taking over stores that were very local to here, especially food chains,” Nguyen said.

Montreal’s Chinatown is in a constant state of evolution, experiencing closures and financial difficulties in recent years. With its heritage designation in July 2023, there is a sense of hope in the air and business owners are optimistic about its revitalization.

This century-old neighborhood is witnessing a revival, marked by rejuvenated social and cultural engagements. However, ongoing discussions persist on navigating this historic community’s future. 

May Giang, co-owner of two bakeries and Presotea franchises in the community with her husband, views this rejuvenation as a positive development for Chinatown. She believes it enhances security and sparks increased interest in settling within the neighbourhood. Her initial connection to Chinatown’s local businesses was influenced by her husband’s family members, who had operated their own companies in the area in previous decades.

Giang pointed out that despite Chinatown’s intriguing backdrop, she frequently observes that the trendiest Asian bars opt not to establish their businesses there. She noted a lingering preference among young entrepreneurs to open bars in areas like the Old Port, downtown Montreal, even the South Shore and Laval. 

“For us, it’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “On one side, yes, we are all for the preservation of the neighbourhood, but we have to be careful. We also want this to continue being modernized and continue being an attractive spot for new business owners.” 

“For me, the best answer is we should allow developments, but it should be done within the context of Chinatown,” she added.  

Discussing a new hotel on Saint-Laurent, Giang noted that despite its large concrete structure not aligning with the area’s traditional aesthetics, it attracted more tourists and housed a restaurant with young chefs. She suggested that with more discussion during its development, the hotel could have better suited Chinatown while maintaining its benefits—emphasizing the advantages of new organizations like the Chinatown Roundtable to avoid this type of issue. This organization provides a platform for dialogue between the community and the government.

“Sadly, we don’t hear much about the good side of Chinatown and personally, I’m very happy here,” Giang said.  

She highlighted that discussions about Chinatown often revolve around safety issues and gentrification. However, she stressed that these concerns are not exclusive to the area and do not fully encompass the experience of being a business owner in Chinatown.

“Just walking around, it transports you to another place right away and it’s hard to replicate something like that, even if the buildings are not the most glamorous and glitzy,” Giang said.  

A study by the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS) found that intergenerational businesses were significant social and cultural pillars contributing to Chinatown’s authenticity. 

Joe Lee has run Mon Nan restaurant for 16 years, inherited from his father. The establishment, which has been in the area since 1982, boasts a 42-year legacy.

Reflecting on changes over the years, Lee highlighted a concern about the influx of non-Chinese businesses. He noted that in the 1980s, the majority of businesses in Chinatown were Chinese-owned. Now, he has observed a significant decline in the number of small businesses in the area.

Lee suggested that in the ‘70s or ‘80s, immigrants often started businesses in Chinatown out of necessity, based on familiar trades. Conversely, newer generations may find it more feasible to establish chain businesses.

These local businesses have played a crucial role in strengthening the resilience of the neighbourhood, particularly in the context of historical racist regulations in Canada.

Regulations like the Chinese Exclusion Act marginalized Asian immigrants and severely limited their job opportunities. In the face of these discriminatory laws, local businesses in Chinatown became essential sources of employment for the Asian immigrant community, providing much-needed economic support and stability.

This beneficial role has been further emphasized by Giang, who mentioned that some of her employees seek employment in the neighbourhood due to language barriers. This highlights the continued importance of local businesses in providing opportunities and support within the community.

Sweet Dreams, an ice cream shop that opened for the summer of 2023, was one of Chinatown’s latest ventures. Owned and managed by Natasha Lupien, a 21-year-old student at McGill University, the shop embodied her entrepreneurial drive and the neighbourhood’s dynamic essence. 

Natasha and her brother ran Sweet Dreams, facing the ups and downs of running a business in a bustling neighbourhood. Natasha, skilled in crafting unique ice cream flavours since her teens, saw an opportunity to introduce Asian-inspired ice cream to Chinatown’s food scene, filling a gap in the market. Lupien’s introduction to Chinatown was shaped by her father’s ties to the area. 

“I believe the most positive interactions I’ve had are those where I can see it making a difference in the community because people take notice,” Lupien said. “I would definitely encourage people to do this kind of thing because as I said, there’s not a lot of new businesses there and it’s kind of like a monopoly in terms of who owns the buildings and the businesses and it would be really nice to have a rejuvenation of businesses and opportunities that are there.”

As a business owner, Giang expressed her affection for the area, highlighting the significant foot traffic that Chinatown attracts due to its prime location between Place des Arts and Old Montreal. She emphasized the distinctive atmosphere it offers to visitors and residents alike. 

She pointed out the nostalgic appeal that Chinatown holds for Asian generations and highlighted its equally intriguing aspect as a place of discovery for individuals who are not of Asian descent. 

“I’m just hoping more young people will come back and see for themselves how great it is to do business in the neighborhood, and that together, with the younger generation knowing French and English, they’ll be able to speak on behalf of the older generation who don’t have that skill,” she said.

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