Montreal Gazette: New documentary reflects resolve of Chinatown’s residents/merchants to ward off gentrification pressures and keep community alive and vibrant.
By: Bill Brownstein • Montreal Gazette Publishing
It didn’t take long for U.S. comedian Bobby Slayton to familiarize himself with Montreal. An epicure of sorts, he was taken aback by the city’s Chinatown.
“What Chinatown?” he screeched when asked his impression. “More like China-block-and-a-half!”
That was nine years ago, when our diminished Chinatown was relatively flourishing. Well before the pandemic and its subsequent impact on businesses, not to mention its triggering of anti-Asian racism and vandalism.
Jimmy Chan can sadly relate to Slayton’s take. He’s in the midst of conducting a tour of Chinatown. It covers only a few blocks from St-Laurent Blvd. to St-Urbain St., along de la Gauchetière St. He points out what used to be a bustling trade area along St-Laurent Blvd. and Clark St., which now contain many empty store and resto fronts and derelict edifices. And he points out what used to be part of Chinatown to the west that no longer exists, that has made way for condos and Complexe Guy-Favreau.
Chan wears many different hats. His workload makes most dizzy. He has donned his filmmaker chapeau today. Chan has spent the last three years and $100,000 of his own funds to make the heartfelt documentary Saving Chinatown: The Rise of the Dragons, which will have a public screening Saturday at the Scotiabank Theatre before hitting the festival front.
The doc reflects Chan’s resolve and that of Chinatown’s residents/merchants to keep the community alive and vibrant. Fears of developers swooping in to gentrify what’s left of the area are well-founded.
“I stay up nights worrying about developers buying up historic buildings and turning the area into a sort of Disneyland,” Chan says. “I worry Chinatown could entirely disappear if action isn’t taken. Chinatown must be protected and recognized as a heritage site.”
There was an all-candidates municipal debate in Chinatown last Saturday to address concerns of community members. “We’ll see what that leads to, but this always happens around election time — lots of talk and promises.”
Apart from gentrification, what also scares Chan has been the rash of racism and vandalism since the start of the pandemic. In one of the more poignant scenes in Saving Chinatown, a young woman is accosted by a fully masked man on the métro who uses his hand as a gun and points it at her head. She had the presence of mind to record the incident.
In another scene, the oft-repeated racist demand for Asians to head back from whence they came is relayed. A Chinese man is told he should return home. He asks if it that means returning to his Pierrefonds residence, where he has been living for decades.
Chan, 53, was born in China’s Guangdong province. He arrived here 36 years ago with his family. and when not attending school, worked at his family’s now-closed Cathay restaurant in Chinatown.
“It took me 30 years to connect with my community and the story of Chinese immigrants who came here long ago to build the national railroad. There is so much history. My father-in-law Paul Woo built the first noodle factory and Chinese grocery store here, but that all went away with the Guy-Favreau complex.
“Chinatown is so much more than a destination spot for restaurants. It’s a community with such deep roots, and it’s so much part of Montreal’s cultural makeup.”
Chan began filming prior to the pandemic to highlight the importance of the community. Then came COVID, and the doc took a different turn.
“Suddenly, community members were being accused of spreading what some ignorant people were calling the ‘China virus.’ Asians were being assaulted and their businesses were being vandalized. I remember being called at 2 in the morning after windows had been smashed to come down from my West Island home to help. People were terrified. I knew I had to step up.”
And he did. In March of last year, Chan was instrumental in creating a volunteer Chinatown security foot-patrol team to watch out for community elders, residents, merchants and visitors.
“Business in the area has come around a little, but it’s still very slow, especially with a lack of tourists. Many were not able to stay afloat and had to give up their businesses. Sadly, the fear factor in terms of racism still remains.”
In addition to his filmmaking, Chan, an engineer by vocation, has a full-time day job as a quality-control inspector specialist on flight simulators at CAE. An accomplished martial artist, he works part-time as an artistic director and choreography coach for the Cirque du Soleil. He is also credited with creating the first dragon-boat team in Quebec 25 years ago. And he is involved with his family’s two Wok Café restaurants on the West Island.
“The restaurants, like so many others, took a hard hit during the height of the pandemic,” says Chan, married and the father of seven. “But my wife, who is more active in that business, managed to provide over 5,000 meals for health-care workers at various city hospitals.”
But no slowing down now. Chan is planning a followup to Saving Chinatown, focusing specifically on the lives of several families in the community.
“If I manage to get four or five hours sleep a night, I’m happy. There’s just too much to do right now.”
AT A GLANCE:
Saving Chinatown: Rise of the Dragons screens Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre, 977 Ste-Catherine St. W. Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/saving-chinatown-the-rise-of-the-dragons-tickets-187708971587?aff=ebdsoporgprofile