February 2nd, 2007

A New “Chinatown” Grows in Montreal

Posted in Canada, Demographics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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On a cold January night, Fabian Jean and his mother, Lily, were enjoying a warming bowl of tong shui (sweet dessert soup) at the Chinese restaurant Prêt à Manger on Ste. Catherine St. West.

“I find it’s actually a lot better than the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown,” Fabian said.

“It’s so hard to park in Chinatown, too,” added his mother, who was born in Hong Kong, but moved to Montreal “too long ago to remember.”

Lily Jean (the name, which is Toisanese, is pronounced like the jean in blue jeans) and Montreal-born Fabian, an artist who lives on the Plateau, have seen the area west of Concordia University revitalized by students and immigrants.

“It was a struggling part of Ste. Catherine St. for many years,” Fabian said. “It’s refreshing to see a bit of life here.”

The transformation goes beyond Ste. Catherine. In the last few years, thousands of students, immigrants and business owners from Asia have turned the west end of downtown, from Guy St. to Atwater Ave., into a sort of Chinatown West.

The most recent population data available, from the 2001 census, peg the area’s proportion of East Asian residents at 16 per cent, but anecdotal evidence suggests that, since then, the area’s Chinese population has exploded.

On the tenant directory of a highrise apartment building on Guy St., for instance, nearly a quarter of the 240 names listed are Chinese.

Dozens of new Chinese and Korean businesses have opened in the last five years, ranging from restaurants to grocery stores, travel agencies, hair salons, language schools and even a comic book store.

Last month, Magic Idea, a popular Chinatown bubble-tea café, opened a second location on de Maisonneuve Blvd. near St. Mathieu St. Inside, youthful customers sip away beneath flat-screen televisions playing Mandarin music videos. Hong Kong and Japanese fashion magazines are piled neatly on a table.

“There’s a lot of students here,” said the café’s owner, Eric Zhou, who came to Montreal from Shanghai 17 years ago. “We wanted a place for Asian people to have a good place to relax.”

Across the street, in a basement underneath another bubble-tea café, Jasse Wang has sold Chinese translations of Japanese comic books—known as manga—since he moved here from Taiwan three years ago. His customers are mainly students from Concordia and other nearby schools. “People are tired to go to Chinatown,” he explained. “It’s more convenient here.”

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Basement entrance to Golden King comics

But a real neighbourhood needs more than just bubble tea, light meals and manga. Perhaps the strongest indication of downtown’s emerging Chinese neighbourhood is the opening of several new grocery stores.

Two small Chinese groceries, with a selection of Asian produce, preserves and snacks, can be found on St. Mathieu and Fort Sts. It is on Ste. Catherine near Atwater, however, that the neighbourhood’s most impressive new supermarket can be found.

Last September, Daniel Lee and his family opened Marché Oriental Jangte, a bright and airy store that sells Korean, Chinese and Japanese food alongside Asian kitchenware, including a wide selection of rice cookers.

“There is a growing number of Oriental students, specifically Chinese, around the Fort area,” said Lee, explaining one of the reasons why his family decided to open a store downtown. “There was a demand, but we also created demand” by opening a store that would appeal to Asian and non-Asian customers alike.

As a student at Concordia, where he’s finishing a degree in accounting and finance, Lee has first-hand experience in the changing demographics of the downtown’s west end. The growing Asian population has changed the way business is done, he said. His family’s venture seems to be paying off. On a recent night, one of their customers was Jinoh, a Korean engineering student at Concordia who lives near the Monk metro station. He often drops by Jangte on his way home from class. “It’s very convenient,” he said.

But convenience is only part of the story. Foreign students, drawn by downtown’s proximity to schools, served as a catalyst for its transformation into a more multicultural place. But now the number of Chinese residents and businesses has reached a critical mass and Montrealers from all corners of the city are being drawn downtown. A new neighbourhood has been born.

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Marché Jangte on Ste. Catherine St. West

Some new features of a new neighbourhood

  • Marché Oriental Jangte, 2109 Ste. Catherine St. W. Korean, Japanese and Chinese supermarket.
  • Prêt à Manger, 1809 Ste. Catherine St. W. Home-style Cantonese cuisine – order from the red menu!
  • Magic Idea, 1675 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. Bubble tea and hot snacks to the tune of Chinese pop music.
  • Golden King, 1672 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. Chinese-language manga.
  • Dragon Supermarché, 1425 Fort St., and Marche Chunping, 1443 St. Mathieu St. Chinese produce, preserves and snacks.
  • Bao Dao Taiwan, Faubourg Ste. Catherine, 3rd floor. Taiwanese comfort food and sweet drinks.

This article was originally published in the Urban Life section of the Montreal Gazette on February 1, 2007.


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14 comments

  1. Patrick Donovan says:

    Sounds like a far more interesting neighbourhood than when I studied at Concordia 10 years ago. The only culinary highlight then was Montreal’s only 25 cent pizza store (which had half as many toppings as the usual unpalatable 50 cent pizza).

    Then Soups and Noodles came along–though General Tao chicken is hardly authentic Chinese food, they do a pretty good version of it.

    Guess I’ll have to check out the area next time I’m in Montreal–dessert soup mmmmm….

    February 2nd, 2007 at 4:37 pm

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Yeah, Soup and Noodles is part of the old guard of noodle shops now.

    A word of advice: Prêt à Manger serves tong shui for free after every meal, but you have to ask for it.

    February 3rd, 2007 at 12:40 am

  3. David Maloney says:

    Great article about an intriguing part of the city. Really glad to see the Korean population starting to have an impact on Montreal’s urban landscape. Can’t wait to check out Marché 장터.

    I seem remember a significant Arab presence in this neighbourhood as well – shawarma joints, hooka bars, video stores, etc. Maybe these businesses cater to Condordia’s large Middle Eastern student population rather than permanent residents?

    This section of downtown had such a youthful vibe when I lived in Montreal (2004). It always seemed fresh and a bit experimental, and absolutely multi-cultural. Concordia really oozes into the streets of the city here, where as McGill’s campus seems much more defined and a bit disconnected from its surroundings.

    February 4th, 2007 at 1:40 am

  4. Christopher DeWolf says:

    David, downtown’s Arab population is the untold story here. (I would have loved to do a more nuanced profile of the neighbourhood but the Gazette would only give me 650 words!) Montreal has a very large Arab population and Concordia draws heavily not only from local immigrant communities but also from the Middle East itself. So the Arab presence in this area, which overlaps with the East Asian presence, is a bit of both.

    You’re right about Concordia—it really defines the west part of downtown. (The very fact that there are so many 24-hour businesses in so few blocks is a testament to the spending power of students!) Although it is more contained, McGill has a pretty profound impact on the surrounding area, but it is mitigated by the fact that the north side of campus runs into the mountain; the west side bleeds into a dull area of Victorian mansions and postwar highrises, with commerce limited to apartment building lobbies; and the south side runs into the central business district. Only on the east side—the McGill Ghetto—can McGill’s true force be felt, but even then the commercial impact is limited by zoning restrictions. Only on Park Avenue and in a few parts of Milton Street are there many businesses. In the downtown west end, the “Concordia Ghetto,” there is retail on every street.

    February 4th, 2007 at 2:34 am

  5. Mark Slutsky says:

    Nice article!

    The way this neighbourhood has been changing in the last few years is quite interesting to me, and it’s something I’ve kept an eye on since the movie theatre opened in the Forum, which usually gets me out there a couple of times a week. Around that time there seemed to be a real push to fancify the retail locations on that strip of Ste-Catherine; all that’s evident of that now is that dilapidated block east of the Forum with its boarded-up shops.

    Food-wise the area has really opened up; for a while you really had to walk over to the Faubourg to grab a half-decent bite. Thankfully Manchuria, Pret, Bulgogi et al have changed that.

    February 4th, 2007 at 12:27 pm

  6. C. Szabla says:

    The phenomenon of immigrant neighborhoods seeding successors – Flushing and Sunset Park in New York’s outer boroughs are now much larger than Manhattan’s own Chinatown – is not new. Odd, though, that Montreal’s latest one has cropped up in a neighborhood far denser than that from which it sprang. It seems to defy the pattern of immigrants chasing larger lawns and ample auto access.

    I don’t know if anyone’s ever looked into the effect of heavy Asian university populations on student neighborhoods. There is a distinctly higher representation of Asian businesses around Columbia, for one- including Japanese and Korean convenience store chains.

    February 5th, 2007 at 4:29 pm

  7. Christopher DeWolf says:

    I think the reason for that is that this isn’t a typical immigrant neighbourhood. The Asian population in this area is *young*. Even most of the non-student immigrants who live around there are in their 20s and 30s. Also, not all of Asian business owners, customers and students who flock to this area actually live there—many of the people I spoke to lived in Brossard, a South Shore suburb that is about 1/3 Asian.

    One area that fits the typical pattern of immigrant settlement is Verdun. Over the past seven years it has seen an influx of mainland Chinese immigrants, mostly young couples with children. The community there probably took root because Verdun is still exceptionally cheap, it is well-served by the metro and it has particularly spacious apartments.

    February 5th, 2007 at 6:29 pm

  8. Christopher DeWolf says:

    As for the impact of Asian students, you’re right that this is tremendously overlooked. Did you see the New York Times’ special section on “The Asian Campus” a few weeks back? The same thing is true in Canada and it has had an obvious impact on downtown commercial areas. A large part of downtown Vancouver has turned into a Japanese and Korean student ghetto; over the past couple of years I’ve notice a similar Korean student neighbourhood emerge in downtown Calgary.

    Strangely enough all three of these neighbourhoods, in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal, have arisen in areas either known as the West End or the “downtown west end.” They’re all dominated by 1960s and 70s concrete highrises. Odd coincidence.

    I hear it’s the same story in downtown Toronto around Yonge Street. Isn’t there a part of the East Village in Manhattan that is dominated by twentysomething Japanese?

    February 5th, 2007 at 6:33 pm

  9. C. Szabla says:

    St. Mark’s Place in the East Village is filled with Japanese restaurants, but it’s also well-known for its kitsch value and attracts far more NYU students and Jersey night-trippers than actual Japanese, although it could be that the majority of Japanese expats in New York gravitate there and are simply overshadowed by urban collegiate types. There are similar microneighborhoods on side streets throughout the EVil; 6th between 2nd and 1st Avenues is packed with Indian restaurants, and there’s a Little Ukraine around there somewhere. Both are disappearing slowly (Little Ukraine moreso) with the invasion of higher end variants on their respective themes, or merely the diversification of neighborhood culinary tastes. None of these areas has had an actual resident immigrant population (nor do they seem to draw local immigrants) in recent memory; they’re shells, much like Little Italy further downtown.

    The Times story was primarily about Berkeley, and it would probably be more fruitful to look at universities in California and Michigan, where state voter bans on affirmative action have resulted in exploding Asian student populations. I know there hasn’t really been a corresponding expansion in services targeted toward Asian students in Boston, for whatever reason.

    February 5th, 2007 at 8:59 pm

  10. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Since my article was published just six weeks ago, four new businesses have opened up in this new “Chinatown West.”

    – La Maison du Nord, a Northern Chinese restaurant

    – An izakaya-type place that has been packed every time I walked by

    – A soon-to-be-opened Chinese restaurant whose logo is identical to that of Fairwood, a big Hong Kong chain

    – A trendy (key word trendy) Asian hair salon that wouldn’t be out of place in Vancouver. It’s the first such upscale Asian salon I’ve seen in Montreal—all of the others are bare-bones $12-haircut, slice-off-your-ear kind of places.

    March 23rd, 2007 at 11:43 pm

  11. emma says:

    hey. the aforementioned “trendy asian hair salon”…you didnt say the address?? or does no such thing exist? if you could tell me ASAP that would be great. i want to get a cut tomorrow!!

    April 23rd, 2008 at 6:32 pm

  12. Christopher DeWolf says:

    I don’t know the exact address, but you’ll find it right next door to Jangte, the Korean supermarket. I make no guarantees as to its quality/trendiness.

    April 24th, 2008 at 1:17 pm

  13. Wendy says:

    Hi, do you know the location of the Chinatown in Brossard? Whenever my parents come to visit me in Montreal, we always end up in the Old Chinatown (la Gauchetiere), so it would be great to check out the one on the South Shore, esp. if there’s free parking there. Thanks for your help!

    June 26th, 2008 at 5:41 pm

  14. Christopher DeWolf says:

    The Gazette has run a fairly lengthy feature by Sarah Musgrave about the new Chinatown:

    Call it Chinatown West, Chinatown 2, or Chinatown, part deux – or even Young Chinatown, given the large student population that keeps it humming well into the evening – the result is that Montreal has a fuller picture of East Asian cuisine than it ever did before. Roughly bounded by Guy St. to the east and Atwater Ave. to the west, with worthy addresses running between Sherbrooke and Ste. Catherine streets, this section of downtown has come alive with Asian eateries. (…)

    Then there was the appearance of dishes many of us in the city hadn’t seen before: a Manchurian dumpling place, a spot that served up searing Szechuan dishes under the guise of a bubble tea emporium, a table laden with skewered brochettes of lamb or chicken gizzards sprinkled with cumin and chilies, and most recently, an outpost of a Hong Kong-style bakery offering steamed buns in the Guy métro. Slowly, a new Chinatown was born. The district now boasts more than 50 addresses, including supermarkets for Asian ingredients and eateries serving everything from hand-pulled noodles to mackerel dumplings, Szechuanese kung pao chicken and Korean kogos.

    Read the rest here.

    February 3rd, 2011 at 6:18 am

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