As he showed a reporter around the Chinese Association of Montreal at 110-112 de la Gauchetière St. W., Bryant Chang made one thing perfectly clear:
“Our building is not for sale.”
Montreal’s forgotten history: A visionary school bringing French and English together
The talk in Chinatown these days is all about the sale of much of the neighbourhood’s most historic block to a developer.
As the Montreal Gazette reported last month, Brandon Shiller and Jeremy Kornbluth acquired several properties on the northern part of the block bounded by de la Gauchetière, St-Urbain and Côté Sts. and Viger Ave. between January and March.
The acquisitions, totalling $13.13 million, have been a wakeup call on the need to protect the heritage neighbourhood, which lost one-third of its territory to the Guy Favreau Complex, built in 1984.
Reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent rise in anti-Asian racism, scarred by decades of expropriation, Chinatown is facing what could be its greatest threat yet.
Already, condo projects hem in the historic neighbourhood to the south, jostling the carved lions guarding the gate at St-Laurent Blvd. and Viger Ave.
Now, the steamroller of progress has reached the very heart of Chinatown.
Stories circulate of owners being pressured to sell, and of sky-high offers being made to Chinese-Canadian owners.
Dotted by three-storey heritage buildings, the site acquired by Shiller and Kornbluth is zoned for 20-storey towers.
But at the Chinese Association, which has owned its stone headquarters since 1920, there’s a firm resolve to stay.
“We’re smack in the middle of the proposed project. Whatever future project has to go up, it has to include our location as is,” Chang said.
“They can build around it, they can renovate, but our building is not for sale,” he said.
Chang, 69, the third generation of his family to take a leadership role in the association, said that to sell would betray the principles on which it was founded in 1889.
“Our ancestors set up the Chinese Association to help the Chinese people that came to Canada in the early years,” he said.
“We still have a role in the Chinese community and we’re not giving up our building,” he added.
Heritage Montreal and the Chinatown Working Group are also pressing for heritage designation. Jean-Philippe Riopel, a tour guide and tenant in one of the buildings acquired by the developers, and his colleague Élyse Lévesque recently launched a petition at the Quebec National Assembly that has collected 2,679 signatures as of mid-day Friday.
Shiller and Kornbluth have not yet announced their plans for the site. In a statement via a public relations firm on May 10, they said there is no official project yet and any future projects would be sensitive to the site’s heritage architecture.
The crisis illustrates that Montrealers have “taken Chinatown for granted,” said Donny Seto, a lecturer in urban planning and member of the Chinatown Working Group.
“In our minds it was a place that would be protected in perpetuity. But as we see right now with the development pressures, that’s not the case,” he said.
Chinatown is important not only to the Asian community, but to all Montrealers, said Jonathan Cha, a member of the Working Group and authority on the history of Chinatown.
“What we’re trying to say is that this is of national importance. This is one of the oldest districts in Montreal. We need to communicate the long and rich story of the place,” he said.
Yet unlike Old Montreal, whose buildings are well documented and protected from demolition and alteration, Chinatown’s architectural heritage has received scant attention.
For example, municipal records vastly underestimate the age of the buildings targeted by the developer, the Montreal Gazette found by comparing them with 19th-century maps, directories, newspaper articles and property rolls.
Those sources paint a vivid saga of a neighbourhood that has set a unique example of vivre-ensemble over more than two centuries. They tell of fur-traders and Patriotes; business magnates and sweatshop workers; dour Scottish Presbyterians and Yiddish-speaking Jews; lonesome laundrymen and successful restaurateurs.
So let’s hop aboard the time machine to rediscover a piece of forgotten Montreal history.
Military officer, negotiator and interpreter Paul Le Moyne de Maricourt was one of 12 brothers whose perilous exploits rank among the most heroic in New France. In 1704, barely a month after marrying a 17-year-old bride, the 40-year-old died at his bucolic country estate, Près-de-Ville. The name evokes its location bordering the northern limits of Montreal, then surrounded by a wooden stockade. A creek, the St-Martin River, flowed outside the city walls, where St-Antoine St. runs today.
From 1717 to 1738, stone ramparts were erected around the town. Outside the walls, investors like Jean-Baptiste Barsalou, a tanner from Côte Sainte-Catherine (now Outremont) began subdividing farms in the St-Laurent suburb, which included Près-de-Ville.
In 1784, fur trader Gabriel Cotté, a founding member of the Beaver Club, bought part of the Près-de-Ville estate, including Le Moyne’s manor house, the Château de Maricourt. The ancient fieldstone house remained standing on the south side of de la Gauchetière St. between Côté (named after Cotté) and Chenneville Sts. until 1913. The site is now the rear entrance to the Palais des Congrès.
Another merchant, Samuel Judah, also bought part of the Près-de-Ville property. A founding member of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, he supplied George Washington’s army during the American Revolution.
The demolition of Montreal’s fortifications from 1803 to 1817 hastened development of the suburb. By 1805, twice as many people were living outside the former walls as within.
-2- Educational hub
After Cotté’s death in 1795, management of the estate fell to his widow, Angélique Blondeau, and her three daughters.
Blondeau’s sons-in-law, the fur traders and businessmen François-Antoine Larocque, Jules-Maurice Quesnel and Alexis Laframboise, oversaw the area’s transition into an urban neighbourhood.
In 1822, a diverse coalition of leading citizens, including Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau and merchant Horatio Gates, founded a school to educate working-class children from all backgrounds, regardless of language or religion.
The British and Canadian School was based on the monitorial system, in which older students instructed younger ones.
“For the time, it was really considered to be a very progressive and liberal system of instruction, with very liberal and progressive educational and social goals,” said Inge Dornan, a senior lecturer in Race and Gender History at Brunel University in London, U.K., which holds the archives of the British and Foreign School Society.
Larocque, who sat on the school’s governing board, was chief warden of Notre-Dame Church (now Basilica). He recommended architect James O’Donnell, then working on the plans for Notre-Dame, to design the new school. O’Donnell did the plans gratis. The school opened in 1826 at the corner of de la Gauchetière and Côté Sts.
Now Wing’s Noodles, the building, owned by Shiller and Kornbluth, is Montreal’s oldest purpose-built school. The basilica and school comprise O’Donnell’s entire architectural legacy in Montreal.
“This beautiful building in the heart of Montreal has a global reach as well as a local story, and it’s part of a really important global story,” Dornan said.
“And that global story touches on so many important elements which still resonate today, not just most obviously educational reform, social reform, interfaith conversation and dialogue and unity, but also female emancipation through education,” she added.
In 1840, the Brothers of the Christian Schools opened a school on the site of the Château de Maricourt, confirming the neighbourhood’s 100-year vocation as an educational centre.
-3- Sacred spaces
In the 1830s, the construction of a breakaway Presbyterian church and a Jewish synagogue attested to the neighbourhood’s growing diversity.
The Wee Kirk, or Scottish Secession Church, on de la Gauchetière at Chenneville St., was built in 1834-35. In 1977, the Quebec government classified it as a provincial heritage site to prevent its demolition. It is now the St-Esprit Chinese Catholic Mission.
The area near the Scottish church had been known as Little Dublin. A cluster of manual workers lived on a nearby side street called Little Dublin Lane.
In 1838, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, founded in 1768, built a new sanctuary on Chenneville St., designed by John Wells, the architect of the Bank of Montreal on Place d’Armes. The Guy Favreau Complex occupies its former site.
Wells also designed Près-de-Ville Place, a row of stone houses on the north side of de la Gauchetière where famous rabbi Abraham de Sola and members of the prominent Joseph family lived.
In 1851, Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia stayed there with her niece, Sara Gratz Moses, the wife of Jacob Henry Joseph, Quebec’s leading tobacco importer and a railway and telegraph pioneer.
The house was “very pleasantly situated in a retired part of the city,” with “good neighbours on the street,” Gratz wrote.
From her bedroom window, she gazed out at “a large garden opposite belonging to the Friars, where fruit and vegetables are abundant and the black robed inhabitants are seen daily from my chamber window book in hand strolling for hours together.” It was the Château de Maricourt, then occupied by the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
In her youth, Gratz was the model for Rebecca, a heroine in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe.
Jacob’s brother Jesse was the president of the Montreal Street Railway Company and owner of the Theatre Royal, both on Côte St. Wells also designed the 1852 theatre.
Robert Armour, the publisher of the Montreal Gazette, and David Kinnear, editor-in-chief of the Gazette and later of the Montreal Herald were longtime neighbours.
In 1848, a second breakaway church, the Free Presbyterian, also designed by Wells, opened on Côté St.
In 1861, the congregations of the Secession and Free Presbyterian poured out of their churches to meet on de la Gauchetière St. in a symbolic procession marking a merger that created the Canada Presbyterian Church.
-4- Heritage homes
Archival research by the Montreal Gazette shows that virtually all of the heritage buildings on the block where Shiller and Kornbluth have acquired properties are decades older than city records indicate.
For example, Montreal’s evaluation roll claims the Chinese Association of Montreal building at 110-112 de la Gauchetière St. was built in 1870, while its neighbour at 116-118 de la Gauchetière St. (acquired by Shiller and Kornbluth) was built in 1880.
In fact, the twin buildings were already standing in 1847, according to the property roll for that year — the earliest one available.
Owned by Cotté heirs Laframboise and Larocque, the two stone houses originally had pitched roofs with dormer windows, an 1872 Notman photo shows.
Property rolls and city directories reveal that some of the era’s most distinguished figures lived in the two houses.
Augustin-Norbert Morin, speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Canada from 1848 to 1851, lived there in 1851. A leader of the Patriote movement, he drafted the 92 Resolutions that led to the 1837-38 Rebellions.
The famous judge Charles Mondelet, a defence lawyer for some of the Patriotes, lived there in 1848 and 1849. Mondelet’s 1870 ruling in the Joseph Guibord case was a legal landmark on the relationship between church and state.
Other residents included parliamentary clerk George Muir, later the first clerk of the Quebec National Assembly, and politician and militia commander Melchior-Alphonse de Salaberry.
Auctioneer and industrialist Joseph Barsalou built the substantial stone house next door at 106-108 de la Gauchetière in 1857.
He was the great-great-grandson of Jean-Baptiste Barsalou, the first investor to dabble in the area’s real estate.
In 1875, Barsalou founded a soap factory that produced a million pounds of soap in its first year of operation.
In 1884, he became the first mayor of the industrial town of Maisonneuve (now part of the Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough).
The former Barsalou soap factory, still standing on De Lorimier Ave., is the reason there’s a curve in the Montreal-bound lanes of the Jacques Cartier Bridge — earning it the nickname the “crooked bridge.” It stood in the path of the future bridge, but the family refused to let it be expropriated.
The landmark pink house at 1002-1006 St-Urbain was also already standing in 1847, records show. The municipal evaluation says incorrectly that it was built in 1880. It is one of the properties on the block not owned by Shiller and Kornbluth. However, they do own a narrow parking lot at 1000 St-Urbain, which is the name of their development company.
David Schmidt, co-owner of the Fleurs et Cadeaux Japanese restaurant, which rents the building, said he was disappointed to learn the developer had acquired much of the block.
“I don’t think Chinatown should be doomed to become just another neighbourhood in downtown Montreal like all the others. I think there is a lot of history that deserves to be nurtured,” he said.
-5- A changing neighbourhood
By 1875, the neighbourhood was changing. Wealthier residents migrated to leafier neighbourhoods uptown as industries moved in. In 1884, the Free Presbyterian church at 987-991 Côté St. was converted into a six-storey cigar factory (now owned by Shiller and Kornbluth). It integrated the church’s side and rear walls, still visible from the street.
Its owner was Samuel Davis, the father of Sir Mortimer B. Davis, the first president of Imperial Tobacco.
In 1978, fifty years after Davis’s death, $10 million from his estate was donated to the Jewish General Hospital, which was then renamed the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital.
Barsalou was among the last of the neighbourhood’s bourgeois residents to leave. In 1887, he moved full time to his vacation villa in Maisonneuve, called View Bank.
His former home was transformed into the city’s best French restaurant, where you could get lunch cooked by “a chef direct from Paris” for 50 cents in 1893, the Montreal Gazette reported.
In the 1880s, Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms in the Russian pale started pouring into the neighbourhood, now known as the Dufferin district, after Dufferin Square on Chenneville St.
It was “a ‘Jewish park’ where Jewish immigrants went to breathe the fresh air, meet their landslayt (Yiddish for compatriots), hear the latest news, look for work and read the newspapers,” wrote Yiddish journalist Israel Medresh in his 1947 book Montreal Foun Nekhtn, translated into English by his granddaughter, Vivian Felsen, as Montreal of Yesterday.
“The workers in the sweatshops and in the factories were speaking Yiddish and even some of the factory owners spoke Yiddish,” Felsen said in an interview from Toronto.
As the newcomers arrived, the long-established Jewish community left, building a new synagogue on Stanley St.
A Romanian congregation, Beth David, took over the old shul.
Another synagogue took up residence in the former Larocque-Laframboise house at 110-112 de la Gauchetière.
-6- The Gold Mountain
Chinese migrants, fleeing poverty and war, began arriving on Canada’s West Coast during the 1858 Fraser River Gold Rush. In the 1880s, they endured horrendous conditions to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Some trickled east to Montreal, where they opened hand laundries.
In 1877, Jos Song Long opened what is believed to be Montreal’s first Chinese laundry on Craig St. W. (now St-Antoine).
In 1885, Canada imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese migrants. It was raised to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903. In 1923, the government banned Chinese immigration.
The racist rules prevented Chinese men from bringing their wives and families to Canada. They were forced to live as bachelors, across the globe from their loved ones.
Chang’s grandfather, Thomas Hum, a grocer who arrived in Montreal in 1906, used his horse and buggy to take Chinatown’s “bachelors” to the Montreal General Hospital when they became ill or infirm. In 1976, the hospital honoured him for more than 50 years of volunteer service.
In 1912, the city of Montreal added another discriminatory tax of $50 per year on laundries, plus a $50 service charge — the equivalent of four months of revenue.
Despite the racist measures, the city’s Chinese population grew to 1,000 by 1900. On de la Gauchetière, Asian groceries, laundries and cigar stores rubbed shoulders with Jewish pedlars, butchers and tailors. By 1920, the vast majority of small businesses on the street were Chinese-owned.
Among the first references to Chinatown in the Montreal Gazette was an article on Aug. 27, 1898, loaded with racist stereotypes.
“Chinatown is simply in a whirl of excitement” over a bicycle race opposing two “almond-eyed competitors,” it reported. One was backed by “the boarding-house crowd at Lagauchetière St.” and the other by “the laundrymen of the east end.”
In 1920, the Montreal Chinese Hospital replaced the synagogue at 110-112 de la Gauchetière. Seven years later, the former Barsalou house became the Chinese Catholic Mission, while the Chinese Freemasons moved into 116-118 de la Gauchetière.
Victor Hum, 72, arrived in Montreal from China with his mother and three siblings in 1958, a month before his ninth birthday. His grandfather, who had arrived in Montreal in 1908, had a laundry near the Montreal Forum.
Hum’s father had a laundry in Ville St-Pierre.
“It was tough. Dad was poor,” he said, recalling it cost seven cents to launder a shirt.
“In my childhood, I asked myself, ‘Why am I Chinese?’’ said Hum, who remembers being taunted about his eyes and nose.
Chinatown was the only place where he didn’t have to hide his true self.
“I would feel more comfortable there than anywhere else,” he said.
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