Constructing Chinatown: The Lore of Representation

by Dang Weiyu, contributor

(Christoper Li / McGill Tribune)

At first glance, Chinatown seems an innocuous space to experience and explore Chinese culture. Rather, I see Chinatown as spaces cultivated by the external discourse in which Chinatown only figures as an object. Chinatown has never projected or promoted a Chineseness that reflects me as a person from Northern China. In Chinese history, a central binary is the northerner-southerner divide, a cultural rift that has fueled various historical dreams of reunification from Han dynasty to the founding of People’s Republic of China.

Chinatowns were initiated solely by immigrants from the Pearl River Delta in the southern Guangdong province in the early 19th century. Until the mid-20th century, southerners comprised the overwhelming majority of Chinese emigrants—only recently have northern Chinese emigrated in any substantial number.

For me, Chinatown, as a distinctly Cantonese space, has always embodied the myth of a unified Chinese culture. If Chinatown refers to Chinese people, I read ‘Chinese’ as a hollow term, perhaps better relegated as an indication of othering for both Chinese people and Westerners, than as a word signifying a mix of nuanced regional identities.

On Chinese Culture and Food

Chinese food offers a model to observe the slippage between Chinatown and Chinese people. As Chinese nationalism only started around the 1890s with thinkers led by Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei, a food culture that predates national identity is a strange disjuncture. The Chinese term for Chinese food originated from immigrants to distinguish their cooking from Western cuisine. The blanket term ‘Chinese food’ would only arrive in the Chinese vernacular at a much later date than it did in North America.

Just as there isn’t a unifying Chinese culture, there isn’t a unifying Chinese cuisine. The connotative base of Chinese food in North America is exclusion and difference. In China, food is more productively defined by regional cuisines. In North America, Cantonese is the most well-known and widespread due to origins of the first wave of immigration. These immigrants however first served chop suey, an enduring icon in the Western world, but a dish that Chinese people vehemently deny as being Chinese.

Only since the mid-20th century have there been more representative Chinese cuisines, but this sudden surge seems to overwhelm Western food critics. In a poem in The New Yorker called “Have they run out of provinces yet?,” Calvin Trillin expressed his feeling of bewilderment that China—the most populous and third-largest country in the world—has multiple regions with distinct cuisines. As Chinese food has largely come to signify Chinese people, Chinatown—prominently known as a gallery of Chinese food—becomes a reductive symbol of Chineseness. Further inquiry of Chinatown offers insight into its failure to be a representative Chinese space.

Cheng Qian, owner of the restaurant 西安小吃 (Xi’an Xiao Chi) on the intersection of St-Laurent and Rue de La Gauchetière, spoke about how the regional divide in Chinese cuisine makes it difficult for him to fit into Chinatown.

“I didn’t feel at home eating the food in Chinatown because it is almost exclusively Cantonese-made and cooked for Westerners,” he said. “There was a time when if you didn’t speak Cantonese, [restaurant workers] wouldn’t even treat you like a Chinese person. There wasn’t a place for me in [Chinatown]. As a northerner, there were no options, which is understandable as our food might not suit white people.”

Assistant Professor Jeremy Tai, of McGill’s Department of History with a specialization in modern China, remarked on intra-Chinese divisions.

“These regional splinters have been built into Chinese people for centuries,” he said. “Kinship and native allegiances strengthen community bonds, but here in North America, it also manifests as exclusionary tensions among regions.”

For Chinese immigrant communities, regional identities become important ways of preserving a link to home.

“When [Chinese people] immigrate, [they] expect other Chinese people to put aside these backgrounds and histories just because we’re all from this nation-state of China, but it’s not fair to ask people to just let go of their identities,” Tai said. “Community is too strong a value to be ceded and realigned, even in the advent of immigration and othering. The bonds are just too strong to dissolve on call.”

Discourses on Montreal’s Chinatown

In Montreal, Chinatown appears as an orientalist dream, away from the city’s diptych of constant construction and #mtlmoments. From the various Chinese restaurants, to the drum-seat chess tables in Place Sun Yat-Sen, Chinatown at the very least offers a visual diversity to the European and industrial scenery of Montreal.

One of the most iconic features of Montreal’s Chinatown are the four Paifangs (arches) that welcome visitors. In traditional Chinese architecture, a Paifang symbolizes a fortuitous entry into a benevolent time and space. Redwood represents enduring fortune, while the sturdy frame signifies strength and protection.

Since this summer, the Paifangs have been under construction, with little signs of progress. The City awarded the construction contract to St-Denis-Thompson who won with the cheapest bid. Earlier this year, the Chinatown stretch of St-Laurent was torn up. Almost a year has passed since Chinatown last appeared unshackled of grid-fences or fluorescent pylons.

(Christoper Li / McGill Tribune)

According to the Montreal Gazette, the Paifangs, were originally gifted in 1999 by Shanghai—its sister city—to foster goodwill. Unfortunately, the Gazette further reported, the arches’ material was of questionable quality from the start. This inauspicious beginning proved to be a lasting burden on the commercial life of Chinatown. The construction—done to address the safety concern of the arches’ stability—has rendered the four Paifangs unidentifiable. Atop Montreal’s north and south Paifangs, a blue sign sits, emblazoned with the text, “唐人街” (Chinatown). Today, a St-Denis-Thompson sign sits in its place on top of the scaffolded Paifang.

Cheng explained the effects of construction and how it has affected his experience as a restaurateur in Montreal’s Chinatown.

“The Paifang renovations were a second kick to the stomach,” he said. “Right after they finished St-Laurent, [construction] continued to kill business. People stopped coming this summer since it was so inaccessible and ugly. Chinatown wasn’t Chinatown without those arches. There were still tourists, but it was an actual physical burden to get to the building because of the hassle of crossing the street. Once a worker erected a no-entry sign right in front of our door and our waitress had to go out and argue to get the sign moved. Business dropped 70 per cent since construction began. I had to raise prices and shorten the menu.”

While construction commercially stunts Chinatown, the nearby publicly owned and funded Palais des Palais celebrates the space as a “Symbol of Montréal diversity.” On its website, tourists are encouraged to visit Chinatown.

Any trip to Chinatown isn’t complete without […] a taste of Montréal’s cultural diversity by perusing the area’s various food markets and shops where you can pick up some Asian flavour!

The term “Asian” anonymizes Chinatown’s identity into an amorphous word, almost like a“flavour” that is easily tasted. The Palais’ website also describes Chinatown's history.

Montréal’s Chinatown is one of the oldest Asian districts in North America, emerging in the second half of the 19th century. Famous for its lively atmosphere and amalgamation of Eastern cultures [...].”

By choosing not the use the word Chinese to discuss Chinatown, the Palais melts all “Eastern cultures” to a “lively atmosphere and amalgamation,” an ambiguous bazaar conveniently containing the world’s non-white members. Commodified and condensed into a exotic repository of “Asian flavour” and “Eastern cultures,” Chinatown is reduced into disembodied pieces of food, conspicuously silencing the people.

Ironically, the Palais occupies former Chinatown land, ceded as part of a rezoning project announced in 1975 and enacted in 1983. According Simon Fraser University’s Centre for International Communication, this project resulted in the demolition of neighborhood staples such as Chinese Presbyterian Church, Chinese Pentecostal Church, the Wong Wing Food Products factory, and several Chinese grocery stores.

(Christoper Li / McGill Tribune)

Pre-1983 Chinatown extended towards Rue Jeanne-Mance. Today, it’s half the size it was then, but with a renovated Rue de la Gauchetière. These discourses subjecting Chinatown do not even indulge the fantasy of a representative space for Chinese people. Perversely honest, it proudly uses oriental codes to fashion Chinatown as a buffet table.

Responses to Chinatown

The orientalist representation of Chinatown does not necessarily stand alone in devaluing Chinatown. Attuned to the disjuncture between Chinese culture and Chinatown, Chinese people increasingly question whether Chinatowns can represent them.

With a father who owns a tourist-oriented Chinese buffet in Fredericton, Rachel Siu, U2 Management, grew up mired in the stigma of unrepresentative Chinese food.

“I’ve always been ashamed of the connotations projected on us,” she said. “I hated being associated with it all. Kids mocked me by asking [me] for some free spring rolls or wonton soup. Some people feel that eating Chinese food is a noble cultural service, some see it as cheap and disgusting. Most Chinese see it as westernized. I can’t split these charges from Chinatown, and so, for me, it’s tainted.”

Yu Mansen, a U2 honours immunology student from Anhui province, feels a paradoxical relationship to Chinatown.

“I feel like a tourist in a place with the name of my heritage,” he noted. “I feel an uncanny disconnect from people who are supposed to be like me. Yet it’s the only place I can find some semblance of Chinese food.”

(Christoper Li / McGill Tribune)

The search for a representative Chinese food and identity becomes fraught with inconsistencies on a personal level. How can a cuisine so predicated on homestyle comfort be made to represent a group of people? How can Chinatown even signify a Chinese identity?

In relation to these questions, Cheng recalled a story about the emotive capacity of nostalgic food, ‘家乡饭.’

“I remember in our first years in Canada, I’d cook for my son and his friends and some teared up from the nostalgic flavours. They would always return, jokingly asking when I would start a restaurant [....] I opened [Xi’an Xiao Chi] to try to diversify a staid Montreal Chinese food scene. Neither Shaanxi nor specifically Xi’an cuisine are part of the eight great Chinese cuisines, or the second tier, but no one makes better street food, ‘xiao chi.’ I’m not going to boast of a grand coalescence of East and West, or transcendent knowledge of Xi’an food. I’d much rather focus on one small thing and do it well. That’s why I called it Xi’an Xiao Chi.”

Paradoxically, the importance of restaurants such as Xi’an Xiao Chi lies in their attempt to honour the myth of a representative Chinatown. In his piece “Wokking the Suburbs” for Lucky Peach, Hua Hsu argues that Chinatown is a mirage of representation as many Chinese enclaves have moved out to the suburbs.

“The urban Chinatown—with its tourists and souvenir lipstick holders and monochromatic chow mein—was no more familiar to my parents than the lazy sprawl of California’s suburbs [that] afforded them more space to think about things—was this ‘home’ now?”

For Chinese people, Chinatown acts—maybe myopically—as a symbol on which to project their longing for a home still distant but ever so prominent. What seems to guide this myopia is an epidemic of nostalgia and cult of authenticity. The lingering worship of a romanticized Chinatown is in its simplicity as a symbol, no matter how this symbolism came to be.

Still, inciting nostalgia may not translate to profit in an area constructed by orientalism.

“In Chinatown, I get about 80 per cent Chinese,” Cheng added. “But, business isn’t that good because most new customers, tourists, [are in] search of Szechuan or Cantonese, and probably haven’t heard of Xi’an food. I can’t compete with General Tso and Chop Suey.”

Many non-Cantonese Chinese have been steadily moving out of Chinatown since the 1980s to places ranging from Brossard to Concordia to Notre-Dame-des-Grâce. A sort of diaspora within the larger Chinese diaspora, these miniature migrations created new Chinatowns, refuting notions of downtown Chinatown as a Chinese hub in the Montreal area.

The search for a representative Chinese food and identity becomes fraught with inconsistencies on a personal level. How can a cuisine so predicated on homestyle comfort be made to represent a group of people? How can Chinatown even signify a Chinese identity?

However, displacement is only one factor which plays a part in detaching Chinatown from the Chinese. Another is the rise of various non-Chinese businesses. Some of the most popular attractions, according to the online food guide Eater Montreal>, are non-Chinese. By the Northern Paifang, pricy tiki-nightclub Le Mal Nécessaire has been ranked one of Montreal’s top bars. A couple doors down, Le Capital Tacos occupies a building named Hunan Restaurant. The headline for Eater’s review of Le Capital Tacos boasts that, “Montrealers Can Finally Eat Tacos in Chinatown.” With the same ownership as Le Capital, the recently opened Bonita Café sits beside the Southern Paifang, offering third-wave Cuban coffee.

The rise of fusion food further hinders representative Chinese food from developing. As eminent Montreal food critic Lesley Chesterman proclaims about Orange Rouge, an Asian fusion restaurant, “[...] Despite its Chinatown location, Orange Rouge is far from your typical Chinese restaurant. Frankly, it’s a lot more fun!

Chinatown’s declining representative value comes from both the Chinese moving their lives and business away and new non-Chinese businesses. Chinese people no longer fully signify the received concept of Chinatown.

(Christoper Li / McGill Tribune)

Simon Thomas, member of McGill’s 2015 graduating class now completing a Master’s in Drug Discovery and Development at the University of Aberdeen, explained his relationship to Chinatown.

“As a white person, I feel comfortable everywhere, but I can see a clear divide in Chinatown,” he wrote. “There’s places like that duck-neck shop in a professional building that give you gloves and a cup for bones. Authentic. Then there’s Le Mal Nécessaire getting people excited about Chinatown, but clearly, [it’s] not just for Chinese people.”

Siu’s perspective on representative Chinese food further complicates the bond between Chinatown, Chinese people, and their food.

“I feel very strange speaking of this. I don’t know how to make sense of this confusing relationship,” Siu said. “I feel too Canadian to take claim over Chinese food. Yet, I also feel too Chinese to distance myself from it as it’s one of the only things I’ve ever known.”

By the Chinese, and by the city, Chinatown has been expropriated as a saccharine landmark—whether positive or negative hinges on the frame of reference. I see the encroaching death of Chinatown as a symbol of Chinese culture, but I don’t know if I’m relieved to disengage, or disappointed to sunder from a misrecognized refuge in a place where I am and will be an alien.