Features News

Cultural resilience through commerce in Chinatown

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.

Soccer Sports

The Palestinian national soccer team: A story of resilience

Palestine’s dream at the AFC Asian Cup ends in the round of 16.

On Tuesday, Jan. 23, the Palestinian national soccer team made history in Qatar just 1,800 km from Gaza, bringing some positive energy to a country ravaged by a war that has seen the death of over 25,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7.

Under the lights in Doha, Palestine scored three goals against Hong Kong to capture their first-ever victory in an AFC Asian Cup match. This win, coupled with a 1-1 draw obtained against the United Arab Emirates five days prior, meant that Palestine also qualified for the Asian Cup knockout stage for the first time in their history.

Sara, whose last name was withheld at her request, is originally from Gaza but now lives in Montreal with her immediate family. 

After witnessing the horrors happening in the Gaza Strip and knowing some of her family is there, she expressed some desolation toward the participation of Israeli athletes in international sports competitions. A ban on Israeli athletes would not have been an unprecedented measure. For example, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sporting federations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) banned Russia from participating in sporting events. Although these bans have been partly lifted since, neither the IOC nor FIFA have done the same for Israel.

When she was younger, Sara never expected to see her country represented at the big sporting events. In that sense, she believes the Palestinian national team’s achievements exemplify the Palestinian people’s resilience. “Whenever you see a Palestinian, know that they have worked 1,000 times harder to be where they are today,” she said. 

Some Palestinians are writers, some are journalists, some are poets, and some are soccer players, but they all fight to represent their country, she explained. If she’d had the opportunity to speak with the players and tell them one thing before their round of 16 match against Qatar, it would have been to play as if they were fighting for their lives. 

And fight they did. It was always going to be a hard task for Palestine, who had to face Qatar, the reigning Asian Cup champion and host of the tournament. Despite being the underdog, it was Palestine who would strike first in the 37th minute. After a clever interception by Zaid Qunbar, striker Oday Dabbagh scored his third goal of the tournament with a well-placed shot in the bottom right corner. However, two Qatari goals, one just before and after halftime, would ultimately deny Palestine of an even more historic run in the AFC Asian Cup.

Arts Theatre

Manikanetish: What it means to belong

See the play at Jean-Duceppe Theatre from March 8 to April 8

Manikanetish is based on Naomi Fontaine’s novel by the same name. An author and teacher, Fontaine has published four books and translated various others. Manikanetish is her second novel, published in 2017, and her most recent work Shuni was published in 2019. 

This play is set in Uashat, a small Inuit community in Northern Quebec close to Sept-Îles. 

Most scenes are set in a high school classroom as the protagonist, Yammie, recalls her beginnings as a teacher to her son. 

Manikanetish discusses the author’s life as a teacher, while centering the voices of the children she teaches. Themes of death, resilience and belonging dominate. 

The resilience of these children is notably highlighted by the death of several of their relatives throughout the story. 

Fontaine plays a central role in the play, though her character is taken on by another actress. She acts as a parallel to herself, an omniscient character, of what she wished she had said. 

Though originally from Uashat, coming home to her community, Yammie finds that she is not accepted. She only speaks a bit of Innu, and admits not wanting to speak it because of her accent. She struggles with having left the community to study, and upon returning notices that the community has changed: she does not know anyone and is not trusted. 

This is notable in a scene where one student is disgusted that the teacher does not know why one of the students is struggling because their parent is dying. The community is so small and close that everyone knows everything about everyone, and Yammie at first does not fit into that space. 

Along the play, the director parallels the past and the present: what Yammie’s life could have been and what it is not. She voices spending her nights alone drinking wine, with a partner back in Quebec City, not making any time for herself. 

The first part of the play is conducted by her sadness and not understanding why her dream of being a teacher in Uashat is not what she thought. The second part focuses on the students’ strength facing the various hardships thrown at them. 

As the play goes on, she slowly constructs a relationship with her class as they start to understand her intentions. 

For instance, when Yammie shouts at a student for sleeping in class, Fontaine’s character mirrors her and talks to the student in an understanding tone, offering a more sympathetic response. This serves as representation of what she wished she had said in those difficult moments. 

The audience gets to know six characters, their perils and their passions, their difficult upbringing in a remote town far from access to healthcare, and surrounded by discrimination. For instance, one student with a child brings up the injustice of their lack of access to proper medical care, while another speaks about the few future prospects they have because of the racism they suffer in school. 

The play concludes with united voices saying “our voices are heard,” both defying the public to question their existence and showing the strength of their resilience.  

Exit mobile version