Montreal’s Chinatown is at a crossroads.
The neighbourhood, demarcated by four paifangs (Chinese archways) aligned with the four cardinal directions, was founded in the last quarter of the 19th century. From the day a small community of Chinese labourers established a cluster of residences and laundromats, Chinatown has been fighting for its survival. Over the course of more than a century, the residents of Chinatown would suffer through the great hardships of world history while also suffering the crippling injustices of anti-Asian racism — a sentiment that remains a hurdle today. The neighbourhood as we know it now is less than half of its former size, having been reduced and corralled into its highway-adjacent four-block radius in the 1950s. In the past decade, Chinatown has seen a steep decline — the once-bustling centre of Chinese culture in the city has been reduced to a mere tourist attraction steeped in a western image of “the Orient.”
The residents of Chinatown, mostly elderly, are no longer able to contribute to the neighbourhood’s economy and the waves of Chinese immigrants who moved from Hong Kong to Montreal in the ’80s mostly skipped Chinatown, opting to take root in Brossard — installing a sort of off-island Chinatown. Around Concordia, “Chinatown 2” has been well underway for years thanks to an influx of Chinese-born students attending the adjacent university. Chinese culture in Montreal may be alive and well, but its historic centre is at risk of becoming defunct.
The newest existential threat to the neighbourhood is, of course, COVID-19. A hospital-less Chinatown survived the 1918 Spanish Flu, so dealing with a pandemic is essentially par for the course. The difference this time is that this virus came from China. “Not a lot of people are down to take over a business here in Chinatown, especially as we’re at a disadvantage,” says Eric Ku, a second generation restaurant owner who took over his father’s BBQ Duck shop Dobe & Andy.
One of a rare few new restaurant owners in the neighbourhood, he and his two brothers are struggling to maintain business through the pandemic. “Other businesses have a great community — the locals are into supporting the restaurant scene,” Ku says. “Over here, locals are old people — they’re not leaving their houses. So we lose big-time already just on locals, plus take away the tourists, plus take away all the office workers — what are we left with?”
The answer: very little. Since the beginning of the pandemic, an anti-Asian sentiment has hung over Chinatowns across the world. The virus, blamed in part on poor sanitary conditions and “questionable dietary preferences” of Chinese people, caused many former clients to abandon Chinese restaurants completely. “I definitely feel that, in Chinatown, we’ve struggled the most. From the beginning of the pandemic — when the news came out that [COVID-19] came from China, immediately people completely turned their backs on us.”
More than just turning their backs, they are actively attacking landmarks of Asian culture in the city. In early March, predating any of the lockdown measures, Buddhist temple Chua Quan Am in Côte-des-Neiges was the victim of race-related vandalism in which statues and religious symbols were destroyed by an assailant with a sledgehammer. Around the same time, the lion statues set in front of St-Laurent’s southern paifang were also defaced. Eight months later, the vandalism continued with six businesses in the Place du Quartier building on St-Urbain having their windows smashed in.
For the restaurant industry across Montreal, times have certainly been dire, but restaurants in Chinatown are facing the same restrictions combined with blatant racism — the cards are stacked against them. Jason Lee, who runs the popular blog Shut Up and Eat, has been coming to Chinatown his whole life. Lee is a staunch supporter of the neighbourhood but he admits the future of Chinatown is at stake. “As much as I love Chinatown and I stand up for it and defend it as much as I can, I feel like our backs are against the wall,” he says. The world has changed and once again the residents and businesses of Chinatown are struggling to survive.
For Lee, the restrictions facing restaurants are just another example of the government trying to limit Chinese-Montrealers’ access to prosperity. “As much as we try to give ourselves the best chance, there’s always another hurdle, whether that’s COVID, the restrictions or the red tape in terms of politics.”
The fight to keep Chinatown alive can often feel like a losing battle. Historically, businesses in Chinatown were handed down from parents to their children (or nieces and nephews). But the newer generations of Canadian-born Chinese aren’t following in their parents’ footsteps. “A lot of the culture, a lot of the food is stuck in the ’70s and early ’80s because there isn’t new blood coming in from Hong Kong or Beijing — and if there is, it’s not going to Chinatown,” reflects Lee.
With an ageing population behind so many of Chinatown’s businesses, the restrictions imposed on restaurants mean that either the fragile owners can’t operate their businesses or it simply no longer makes financial sense. Ku knows that action needs to be taken. “If there was money put into [Chinatown], I’d definitely do a lot more events. Looking at the night market last year — man, the whole weekend every restaurant was packed — that’s old-school Chinatown. I would love to do that once a month or every couple of months just to liven the place up.”
As Ku points out, an injection of cash could really stimulate Chinatown’s recovery. Outside of new investment, however, there’s also a desperate need for young chefs wanting to take over restaurants in Chinatown — with a new generation of owners comes a new generation of clientele. For Ku and Lee, Chinatown has many great institutions, but fundamentally the food is a bit dated, and it’s primarily Cantonese.
“I think people are a little more understanding of food now,” says Ku, and comparing Montreal’s dining culture in the ’70s to today, he’s right. “They want to try new food. It would be cool if there was more regional stuff, I think that would wake [the neighbourhood] up. It’s like, ‘C’mon we don’t need five duck shops in Chinatown.’”
With the restrictions regarding in-restaurant dining extended another month, the future is grim for Chinatown. That is, of course, unless there is an intervention on the part of the government and the local (city-wide) community. Ku is actively seeking out funding: “We’re trying to get a million dollars from the government to help us invest in the community,” says Ku. But that money isn’t for bailing out restaurants and other businesses — it’s to offer resources for the neighbourhood to promote itself with events and to rejuvenate the area as well. Even if the money were to come in, winter during a pandemic is hardly the time to organize big community events.
With the darkest days of the pandemic still ahead of us, it’s gravely important that, as consumers, we keep in mind how and where we spend our money. By now we all know how integral take-out business is to the continued survival of the restaurant industry, but for Chinatown, it’s one of the last lifelines available for a historic neighbourhood on the brink of disappearing. So with that in mind, Jason Lee shared with us a few of his favourite restaurants in Chinatown and dishes (on and off-menu) worth taking home:
A Chinatown staple on the western end of de la Gauchetière. It’s a place that exists as a duality — including two separate menus. The menu for westerners is filled with adapted Cantonese classics, while the other, for the Chinese locals, features home-style comfort food.
Lee recommends ordering the Jeh Jeh Gai Bo, an off-menu dish of chicken hearts, gizzards and wings with sweet soy sauce served in the still-sizzling clay vessel in which the dish is cooked.
To view the menu and order from Beijing, please visit Uber Eats.
Second-generation owner Joe Lee now runs his father’s iconic restaurant. Originally opened in 1982, Mon Nan now has a location in the upscale dining hall le Cathcart.
For Jason, the go-to dish at Mon Nan is the Peking Duck with Chinese pancakes (which are more akin to a flatbread). Lee also recommends the restaurant’s seafood dishes which he considers to be among the best in Chinatown.
To view the menu and order via Skip the Dishes, please visit the Mon Nan website.
Dobe & Andy
Another second-generation run restaurant, Dobe & Andy is owned and operated by the Ku family (Eric, Edmund and Edward) as well as Web Galman. This restaurant is a Cha Chaan Teng — a typical Hong Kong-style diner. Long established as a Chinese BBQ institution, the new generation of owners is a bit more playful with their creations.
Order a combination of BBQ meats (char siu, roast pork, roast duck and soy chicken) and whatever the special of the day is.
To view the menu and order from Dobe & Andy, please visit Uber Eats.
The legendary restaurant in the Place du Quartier building is probably best known for its weekend Dim Sum service. One of the few remaining Dim Sum restaurants with cart service, this once bustling (and massive) dining room now sits empty.
Jason recommends bringing dim sum home, but he adds that on weekends Kim Fung offers “steamed rice dinners.” This off-menu dish has no English name, but is essentially a big steamer basket lined with lotus leaves, sticky rice and big pieces of chicken, pork and seafood. The dish is a close relative of the dim sum staple lo mai gai — only way bigger.
To view the menu and order online, please visit the Maison Kim Fung website.
This feature was originally published in the November issue of Cult MTL.
For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.