Char Siu and Cocktails: Can a New Generation Save Montreal’s Chinatown?

Siu mei at Dobe & Andy, a candy stall and Wing's Noodles

The demand for roast duck never stops. It’s just after 7pm when a family walks into Dobe & Andy looking for dinner. “We had it the other day and it was so good we promised ourselves we’d come back!” one of them raves.

Eric Ku, one of the restaurant’s owners, greets them with bad news. “Sorry,” he says. We’re sold out.” After they leave, he shrugs. “It happens every day.” There just isn’t enough duck to go around. 

With its steamy siu1 mei6 (燒味) counter, macaroni soup breakfasts and a shrine to Kwan Yu perched near the ceiling, you could almost mistake Dobe & Andy for a cha chaan teng in Hong Kong. But this is Montreal’s Chinatown, a tiny, bustling enclave of restaurants, snack stalls and markets in Canada’s French-speaking metropolis, 12 time zones away from Hong Kong. Cantonese-style barbecue is a rare treat in this part of the world and the Ku family’s restaurant is one of the best places to get it.

Eric was born in 1982, the same year his Hong Kong-born parents opened their restaurant. He and his older brother Edmond helped out in the kitchen—“We have a lot of cuts on our hands because of that,” says Edmond—and grew up hanging around Chinatown’s video game arcades and pool halls. After following their own paths away from the family business—telemarketing and sales for Edmond, clubs and nightlife for Eric—they were pulled back when their father fell ill in 2011. 

Today, they run Dobe & Andy together with two friends, Web Galman and Raymond Woo. On the surface, it seems as though everything is just as it has always been: the same tile walls, the same succulent char siu, the same egg noodles made just down the street at Wing’s Noodles. 

But outside the restaurant’s walls, Montreal’s Chinatown is facing an existential crisis. Although its main commercial strip along de la Gauchetière Street is thriving, many storefronts and buildings on other streets are empty, their owners unable to afford the millions of dollars in upkeep needed to bring them up to code. And all the while, new hotels, apartment blocks and non-Chinese businesses are changing the face of the neighbourhood.

In many ways, it’s part of a much wider trend that is occurring throughout North America, where historic Chinatowns are gradually losing their Chinese character through gentrification and redevelopment. “It’s erasure,” says photographer Morris Lum, whose work documents the physical spaces of Chinatowns across the continent. “It erases part of the history of the city by not acknowledging that a community occupied that space for a certain amount of time. If you think forward a hundred years, what does that mean if there isn’t anything reminiscent of a Chinatown?”

Montreal

Chinatown during the Foodfest MTL night market

This isn’t the first time Chinatown has been perched on the precipice of change – and it has everything to do with location. It’s prime real estate: a cluster of small brick and greystone buildings surrounded by corporate headquarters, government complexes and a sprawling convention centre. Four traditional Chinese gates stand sentry on the edges of the neighbourhood, making it very clear where Chinatown begins and ends.

But for more than a century, Chinatown has refused to budge. The first families planted roots in the area in 1886, when the Canadian Pacific Railway linked Montreal with Vancouver, which was home to Canada’s largest community of Chinese immigrants. Several Chinese businesses soon opened on de la Gauchetière Street, which at the time was a rundown mix of old tenements and warehouses. Wing Lung was a typical example. Opened by Lee Hee-chong in 1897, it sold imported Chinese goods from a humble storefront at the corner of de la Gauchetière and Côte streets.

Until then, the neighbourhood had been mostly Jewish, and it was Irish before that. That soon changed as more and more Chinese people arrived. In 1901, Montreal was home to nearly 1,000 people of Chinese descent – Canada’s second-largest Chinese community, after Vancouver. The Chinese Hospital opened in 1920; a synagogue closed in 1929 and later became a Chinese Presbyterian church; and in 1946, Lee Hee-chong and his sons turned their family business into a noodle factory, Wing’s, which supplied the growing number of Chinese restaurants around eastern Canada. 

The neighbourhood fell on hard times in the 1960s and 70s, when a number of big urban renewal projects began to nibble away at its edges. The most drastic of them was the Guy-Favreau Complex, a mix of federal government offices, apartments and a shopping mall, which saw half of Chinatown’s land area demolished. That was followed by a zoning law that prevented businesses from expanding east. When the city government tried expropriating one of the neighbourhood’s oldest clan associations, the Lee Family Association, in order to widen a road, more than 2,000 people signed a petition against the move. 

The government backed off and instead dedicated itself to improving Chinatown’s streetscape. De la Gauchetière Street was pedestrianised in 1982, and in 1986, a plaza dedicated to Sun Yat-sen was built on a vacant lot in the heart of the neighbourhood. A Chinese Catholic organisation built subsidised housing for Chinese families and seniors. 

Meanwhile, waves of immigrants from Vietnam and Hong Kong were arriving in Montreal and reinvigorating Chinatown with new investment. That marked a kind of golden age for the neighbourhood. “My parents went every weekend,” recalls artist Karen Tam, who grew up above her family’s Chinese restaurant in Montreal’s east end. They ate dim sum, bought groceries, sent Tam to Chinese painting classes and visited their family’s clan association, whose halls echoed with boisterous conversation and the clatter of mahjong tiles. Every year, the association held a banquet for all of its members – “over 400 Tams in one restaurant,” says Tam. 

These days, though, Chinatown seems at risk of plunging into another decline. “I wish it still had the vibrancy it used to,” says Tam. Tourists, office workers and students continue to throng de la Gauchetière Street, which is the city’s most reliable spot for a late-night meal. But several supermarkets have closed, along with restaurants on the side streets. The Chinese Community Centre, which for years held movie screenings, concerts and other cultural events, was shuttered in 2018 after an internal dispute. “It’s a tragedy,” says Tam.

Meanwhile, construction cranes tower over Chinatown’s southern gate as crews work on a new high-rise hotel that some activists see as a symbol of the neighbourhood’s decline. “It’s not clear how the city [government] is going to protect our heritage,” said activist May Chiu last February, when her concern group, Chinois progressiste du Québec (Progressive Chinese of Quebec), called for a moratorium on new development in Chinatown. “We have to ensure that whatever is built in this area takes into account the needs of the community.”

The call for a moratorium was controversial. “Downtown Montreal is thriving – Chinatown should be thriving too,” merchant Bill Wong told the Montreal Gazette. “I think what we really need is some major projects in Chinatown, especially from the Chinese community itself. We have to have a plan to tell the public that Chinatown is open for business.”

Montreal

New development is reshaping parts of Montreal’s Chinatown

Wong is one of the board members of a new group, the Conseil de développement du Quartier Chinois de Montréal (Montreal Chinatown Development Council), that seeks to improve Chinatown’s economic fortunes. Another is Eva Hu, a young entrepreneur who runs Foodfest MTL, a night market that took over Sun Yat-sen Park in August. Thousands of people thronged the plaza to eat cyun3 (串 skewers), gai1 daan6 zai2 (雞蛋仔), Thai noodles and other Asian treats.

“I grew up in Montreal,” says Hu, who was born in Hangzhou and moved to Canada when she was eight. Although she was raised in a suburban area that is increasingly popular with Chinese immigrants, she always gravitated towards Chinatown. “For Asian people, it’s our home base,” she says.

Hu recently opened Le Coq Frit, a fried chicken counter she plans to expand across the city. “But for our first one? It had to be in Chinatown,” she says. “It feels right to be here.” It’s part of a host of new businesses that have been recently opened by young Chinese entrepreneurs, including a dessert shop, a barbecue meat shop, a bakery, bubble tea shops and a branch of a large mainland Chinese rice noodle chain. “We’re the new generation,” says Hu. 

Not all of the newcomers are Chinese. Chinatown is now home to trendy cocktail bars and a buzzing taco shop. “We were definitely worried about the perception of us before we moved in,” says Jeremiah Bullied, the chef and co-owner of Poincaré, a bar and restaurant that opened this summer in an upstairs space that was once home to a karaoke lounge. “But now that we’re here, we’ve realised there’s a lot of neighbourhood in this neighbourhood.” 

Bullied says the women who run the Cambodian grocery store next door have been encouraging, and the owner of the Vietnamese sandwich shop downstairs helped him out with some kitchen equipment. “He comes up to chat with the kitchen crew almost every day,” he says.

He thinks the neighbours have been especially receptive to Poincaré because it took over a space that had been empty for nearly a year. “If it’s empty, it gets dilapidated, and maybe it will get demolished and replaced by a hotel,” he says. He gestures out the window to the row of historic greystone buildings across the street. “All those upper floors are empty,” he says. It would cost millions to renovate them to the exacting standards required by the city building code. “Who has that money?” he asks. “People with deep pockets. And if they come in, you’re going to lose the street culture. We’re not here to save Chinatown, and we are sensitive to not stepping on anyone’s toes. But I feel like there’s a resurgence and we’re part of it.” 

Over at Dobe & Andy, the Ku brothers are looking to make some big changes. After taking over the restaurant, they and their friends pared down the menu, improved the consistency of the food and began offering weekly specials like siu1 gai1 (燒雞 roast chicken) and fried chicken, which draw regular crowds. “Word of mouth spreads,” says Eric. The next step is to launch a dinner service with cocktails and some more contemporary Chinese dishes. 

They’re looking to revamp the decor, too, although they won’t touch the shrine to Kwan Yu, to whom they still make offerings every day. “You don’t mess with the gods,” jokes Eric. 

The brothers say they’re encouraged by the success of the night market and the arrival of places like Poincaré, whose owners often stop by for a meal. “In the 80s it was more me versus you – it was a war between businesses,” says Eric. “Now it’s becoming more of a community,” adds Edmond. “It’s making Chinatown a place to be. It’s changing, but it has always been changing. The culture, the food – that’s for us to keep alive.”

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