Opinion: Chinatown’s fight for survival continues

Montreal’s new action plan does nothing to address the problems of gentrification and development that have been destroying the area.

Montreal unveiled its Action Plan for Chinatown last week. Like previous plans, it is long on words, but short on immediate, concrete action. It does nothing to address the problems of gentrification and development that have been destroying the area.

Chinatown’s fight for survival has been a long one.

In 1962, the government expropriated the old buildings that had housed the “married bachelors” during the exclusion years to build the Hydro-Québec headquarters on Dorchester (René-Lévesque) Blvd. We were powerless to stop it.

In 1976, Complexe Desjardins went up. The Chinese YMCI (Young Men’s Christian Institution) had served the Chinese community at 189 Dorchester Blvd. Desjardins was constructed before our eyes, and we were powerless to resist.

In the 1980s came the expropriation of the six-acre plot of land with buildings that housed rooms where the lo wah kiu (old overseas Chinese) lived and where the small shopkeepers eked out a living. The Guy-Favreau development took up one-third of old Chinatown. Again, we resisted, but were not powerful enough to halt the project. We did manage to wrangle some small concessions, like using the lobby as a community gathering place. However, to discourage the elderly of Chinatown from lingering, the bathrooms were locked on weekends.

The Ville-Marie Expressway (1972) and the Palais des congrès (1983) hemmed in Chinatown. In 1984, the Drapeau administration adopted Bylaw 6513 forbidding commercial development east of St-Laurent Blvd. Chinatown was being killed one block at a time.

Chinatown resisted. Led by businessman/activist Kenneth Cheung, we mobilized opposition to the bylaw. Merchants, family associations and a generation of young people educated and articulate in English and French began to be active in Chinatown. In 1985, signatures were gathered on a petition and a demonstration winding through Chinatown displayed the community’s anger. The activists were able to win a small victory, as the eastern commercial boundary of Chinatown was extended to St-Dominique St. However, the bylaw remains to this day.

Two incidents displayed the city’s disdain for the Chinese community. The first was the dismantling of a pagoda at the corner of St-Urbain and de la Gauchetière Sts. to widen the street. It had been erected by the Chinatown business and family associations to commemorate Canada’s centennial in 1967.

A pagoda that stood at the corner of St-Urbain and de la Gauchetière Sts. was removed to make way for street widening. In this photo, circa 1975, Complexe Desjardins is seen under construction. (Complexe Guy-Favreau was not yet built.)
A pagoda that stood at the corner of St-Urbain and de la Gauchetière Sts. was removed to make way for street widening. In this photo, circa 1975, Complexe Desjardins is seen under construction. (Complexe Guy-Favreau was not yet built.) Montreal Gazette files

The second incident was the planned destruction of the Lee Family Association building at the opposite corner. The city wanted to widen St-Urbain to allow greater vehicle access to Old Montreal and the Palais des congrès. Although we couldn’t save the pagoda, a petition of 2,000 names saved the Lee building. That is why the sidewalk narrows at that corner.

In 1986, Jean Doré of the Montreal Citizens Movement was elected mayor. The community took advantage of the regime change, as young people began working through the Chinese United Centre, business associations and the Chinese Family Service (CFS). Using the MCM master plan for urban renewal, Chinatown activists scored a number of successes.

I was the vice-president of the CFS and worked with other like-minded professionals. We persuaded the city to donate some land at the corner of Viger and Hôtel-de-Ville Sts. The original Chinese hospital at 112 de la Gauchetière St., a former synagogue, had been set up in response to the 1918 pandemic. It was condemned in 1963 and the hospital was moved to upper St-Denis St. We felt that it was time to repatriate the hospital back to Chinatown, and a new building was constructed in 1999.

In the early 2000s, we also had a small win by converting a city building into the Montreal Chinese Cultural Centre at 1008 Clark St. However, after years of mismanagement, with little oversight by the city, the centre was closed in 2012. Today, Montreal is the only major city in Canada without a Chinese Cultural Centre.

And then there was the plan under the Plante administration to install a self-cleaning toilet, at a cost of $340,000, in Sun Yat-sen Square. It was a laughable misstep seen by many community members as indicating a lack of concern for Chinatown, and it would have taken up half of the only open space there. After protests from Chinatown merchants and residents, the mayor cancelled the project in 2018.

Now, Chinatown’s existence is under renewed attack by gentrification. Without community consultation, the Serenity condo project was built at the southern gate. Then, developers Brandon Schiller and Jeremy Kornbluth came along and acquired some historic buildings on de la Gauchetière facing Guy Favreau for a future project. Meanwhile, at the site of the old Lodeo night club, the 1050 St-Laurent commercial-building project is in the works.

Montreal’s Chinatown in a photo dated Jan. 23, 1970.
Montreal’s Chinatown in a photo dated Jan. 23, 1970. PHOTO BY JEAN PIERRE RIVEST /GAZETTE

Over the decades, I’ve seen at least two master plans for Chinatown. While well-intentioned, they came to naught, as the current crisis can attest. After extensive lobbying and organizing in the past two years by the Hum Family Association, the Chinese Association of Montreal and other Chinatown business and family associations, as well the grassroots Chinatown Working Group, the city finally unveiled the latest “ Plan d’action 2021-2026 pour le développement du quartier chinois. ” The city threw in $2 million to get the process rolling. It should add the $340,000 that we saved by cancelling the toilet.

Chinatown organizations are leery of being co-opted by sweet-talking politicians. The action plan proposes green spaces and affordable housing for Chinatown, which are badly needed. However, there are no timelines, organization or financing. Without concrete details, these sound like Projet Montréal election talking points.

Chinatown requires long- and short-term solutions. The city agrees that Chinatown should be designated a heritage site, but this requires consent from the provincial government, which could take years. In the meantime, we ask that the city impose a moratorium on new development in Chinatown.

The city has the power to safeguard the integrity of Chinatown by refusing demolition and construction permits. It should stop the 1050 St-Laurent project by expanding Sun Yat-Sen Square as a green space. To reinforce the heritage designation, the Chinatown métro station should be renamed Place d’armes/Quartier Chinois and Chinese characters should be put on street signs.

Let’s make saving Chinatown an issue in the November municipal election.

Chinatown is my village and I want to save it.

William Ging Wee Dere wrote B eing Chinese in Canada, The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging, winner of the 2020 Conseil des arts de Montréal/Blue Metropolis Diversity Prize.


  1. At the Chinese Association of Montreal, which has owned its three-storey stone headquarters since 1920, there’s a firm resolve to stay put. “Our building is not for sale,” says the association’s vice-president Bryant Chang, left, with director Bill Wong.

    Can Montreal’s Chinatown survive?

  2. A historic block of Montreal's Chinatown, including a collection of buildings on de la Gauchetière St., was recently threatened for development.

    Montreal unveils strategy to protect historic Chinatown district

Source et article complet : https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/opinion-chinatowns-fight-for-survival-continues

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