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File photo of Montreal’s Chinatown district.  (PHOTO: CityNews)

by Sissi Wang

Community activists are fighting to protect Montreal’s Chinatown after condo developers with an alleged history of renovictions bought several historical buildings in the neighborhood. Expert say similar experiences of gentrification are happening in major cities across Canada, threatening to change the landscape of these cultural hubs forever.

Public outrage at the development pushed Mayor Valerie Plante to call on the Quebec government to designate Montreal’s Chinatown a heritage site. In a statement to OMNI News Mandarin, Plante added her administration is already working on an action plan to preserve and protect the integrity of the neighbourhood.

While Chinatown Working Group founder Bethany Or acknowledges Plante’s move is a good first step, she says truly protecting the neighbourhood is going to take a lot more.

“Certainly we are very pleased with the mayor and elected officials for taking that step,” Or said.

“And I think it’s a very strong and symbolic gesture. However at the very same time we know that there are preliminary measures being made by Shiller and Kornbluth.”

Developers Brandon Shiller and Jeremy Kornbluth have been in the news over allegations of steep rent hikes, evictions and harassment of tenants.

Filmmaker Karen Cho, whose family has been based in Montreal’s Chinatown for over five generations, said she is deeply concerned about new developments similar to Shiller and Kornbluth’s that have been popping up in Chinatowns across North America over the past decade.

“Developers have a lot of money and a lot of power and a lot of lobbying capabilities to get these things approved without anyone notifying the community, or consulting the community,” Cho said.

“This is often what happens, where we’re playing catch up, where we find out about these things when a hole is dug in the ground.”

In Toronto’s West Chinatown, development plans to turn 315-325 Spadina into a mixed-use high rise have already been filed and approved. A new building will take over the current dim sum house and Chinese bakery which have been staples of the neighbourhood.

Peter Chan has been working in the area for over 30 years. He said high rise buildings have also been going up on the northern edges of West Chinatown in the last decade, and that speed has only increased in recent years.

“There’s lots of land there, so they started to build it after it was sold,” Chan said. *

“After it was built, there are still many houses on the west side, and they have been sold and turned again into apartments.”

To many residents, Chinatown is more than just its buildings and shops. To Cho, it is also a place where the Chinese diaspora was able to build a strong sense of community for themselves and the generations after them.

“[Chinatown] is a place of belonging and history and gathering for the community for generations, and these are the kind of intangible cultural heritage of the Chinatowns that you really risk losing if we bulldoze the place or gentrify the place,” said Cho, adding that the future of Chinatown lies in the new generation of Chinese-Canadians who will continue the cultural practices of those before them in order to preserve the essence of Chinatown.

* Quotes have been translated from Mandarin