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.”
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.
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.
Tags: Chinatown, Identity, Migration, Montreal