“There’s no Chinatown in Quebec City. There’s never been one,” snapped a research assistant at the city archives. It sounded as if I wasn’t the first to come asking for information. “There were a handful of Chinese-owned stores in the lower city, but it was hardly a ‘Chinatown.’”
Had I been misled all these years? I had first heard about Quebec City’s former Chinatown in the NFB documentary Pâté Chinois. Articles mentioned it in Le Devoir and the Globe and Mail. I’d heard local Chinese reminiscing about it on the six o’clock news. Louisa Blair devotes a chapter to Quebec’s Chinatown in The Anglos.
Then there’s star playwright Robert Lepage, who staged a six-hour opus called La Trilogie des Dragons. It begins in a Lower Town parking lot where the kids, poised to dig to China, realize they don’t have to dig too deep to find it. They discover instead that memories of opium dens, mah-jongg, and Chinese laundries exist very close to the surface. “It used to be a Chinatown,” the play ends, “now it’s a parking lot.” Was it all just exaggeration, someone digging for a story? Well yes—and no.
The Chinese first began arriving on the West Coast during the 1850s gold rush. A second wave came in the 1870s, cheap labour for the cross-country railway, where they earned ten to twenty times what they could earn in Guangdong. The last spike in the CPR railway was driven in 1885, and a discriminatory Chinese head tax was implemented that same year. This made further immigration difficult. Anti-Chinese sentiment ran high and many landlords would not lease apartments to them. They banded together and created Chinatowns.
Some Chinese fled discrimination by coming east in the 1890s. A trickle made it to Quebec City, but most settled in larger cities. In 1911, there were 68 Chinese in Quebec City while 1,200 had settled in Montreal. Nevertheless, their presence was visible. Most ran laundries or restaurants.
Quebec City’s Chinese continued to face the discrimination that had plagued them out west. In 1910, Le Soleil tells its readers to patronize Canadian businesses and flee the Chinese: “Ces ateliers de chinois sont pour la plupart des foyers infects, où ceux qui les fréquentent sont exposés à contracter des maladies, et nous ignorons pas non plus que ce sont trop souvent…des centres d’immoralité.” Implying that the Chinese were dirty and immoral was not unique to Quebec City. There were similar reactions to the “yellow peril” all over the Western world.
Whereas some reacted to the Chinese in Quebec with aggression, others tried to save their souls. The Foyer Catholique Chinois was founded in 1923 on rue du Pont. Soon, a dozen Chinese took part in weekly Bible lessons. Concerned Christians heaved a sigh of relief when the first Chinese was baptized later that year. The mayor of Quebec and his wife were so moved that they became the convert’s official godparents. Nevertheless, many continued their own religious practices. In Louisa Blair’s book The Anglos, Napoleon Woo described his mother’s religion as “Buddhist-Catholic.”
The 1940s and 1950s are seen by many as Chinatown’s glory days in Quebec. There were yearly parades and community festivals. The religious-minded met at the mission. The politically minded met at the Quebec branch of the Kuomintang, which was opposed to Communist rule and supported the Taiwan-based government of Chiang Kai-shek. The Canton Chop Suey House was located below the Kuomintang headquarters, with other businesses on St. Vallier Street and over 40 Chinese laundries in the city. Having come to Quebec by way of western Canada, many of these Chinese spoke English. Napoleon Woo recounted that a contingent of Chinese “would walk to St. Patrick’s School together in the morning as a group.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese scattered. Many followed the suburban dream. Others left for larger cities or retired to China. The construction of the Dufferin-Montmorency expressway above their Lower Town haunts contributed to a general decline in the area, but the Chinese were getting wealthier and Lower Town was getting poorer.
Although it clearly sounds as if a Chinatown existed in Quebec, statistics do give some credence to the aforementioned annoyed archivist. At the peak of Chinatown’s apparent golden age of the 1940s, Quebec’s Chinese population numbered less than 200. Even in the St. Roch Ward, where Chinatown was located, only 0.3% of the population was Chinese. The Chinese were vastly outnumbered by working-class francophones and there were at least twice as many non-Chinese anglophones. The construction of the expressway is frequently cited as Chinatown’s death knell, but only six Chinese residences were expropriated during the massive demolitions that took place at the time. Whereas cities like Montreal and New York defined clear legal boundaries for their Chinatowns, this was never the case in Quebec City. The idea of a Chinatown with an important Chinese presence in the lower city seems to be largely a mental construct.
However, I still see no reason to challenge anyone who chooses to refer to the area as a former Chinatown. Despite its unofficial status, the area at the foot of Côte d’Abraham did share characteristics with many old working-class Chinatowns across the country, from the important concentration of Chinese-run businesses to the community associations. Some could argue that stories are more important than statistics in defining a sense of place. Furthermore, there’s no arguing that the Lower Town neighbourhoods at the base of the expressway are the birthplace of the small Chinese community in Quebec City. I guess it all depends on how you define Chinatown.
One should not lose a sense of proportion in the attempt, though. In the year 2000, an alarmist article in Saturday Night magazine about “ethnic cleansing” in Quebec City used the disappearance of Quebec’s Chinatown as evidence to back up its ludicrous premise. The facts are quite different. Though Chinatown has disappeared, there are six times as many Chinese in Quebec City today as there were in Chinatown’s supposed heyday.
There are still tangible reminders of a Chinese presence in the former Chinatown. Chinese still meet in the old Kuomintang building. The Wok n’ Roll still dishes up the Chinese-Canadian fare it started serving in 1957. Members of the Chinese community sponsor a festival with dragon boats every fall.
Napoleon Woo runs the Wok n’ Roll, the only surviving restaurant of Quebec City’s old Chinatown. The Wok n’ Roll has been dishing up food since 1957 in a classic sixties decor. It belongs to a dying breed of restaurants still serving up “Chinese-Canadian” fare (Macaroni noodles in soy sauce, fried rice with egg, Chop Suey, Egg Rolls).
As a response to pressure from the local Chinese community, the municipal government took up a few projects to commemorate Chinese presence in the neighbourhood. These efforts led to mixed results. A short and particularly bleak dead-end street was renamed Rue de Xi’an in 2006. Needless to say, the local Chinese community was unimpressed by this “tribute.” The city is now planning a park with a Chinese archway and lions financed by the city of Xi’an in China. There is reason to hope it will be better than the first attempt at commemoration.
A short walk west along St. Vallier Street leads from a dead Chinatown to a neighbourhood with a living Asian presence. In the past ten years, the number of Asian and African restaurants and shops in St. Sauveur has been mushrooming. There are over a dozen restaurants in close proximity. There are proper Asian groceries or supermarkets selling the usual fish balls and duck eggs. The population in this neighbourhood is not Chinese; most are first-or second-generation immigrants from Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia. Still, it’s as close as Quebec City gets to Chinatown nowadays, and the remaining Chinese in the suburbs probably do their grocery shopping here. Like other immigrant communities, these Southeast Asians will likely prosper and move to different neighbourhoods, as the Chinese did before them.
This is a revised and updated version of an article originally published here in November 2006. It also appeared in the Quebec Heritage News