Wherever it is located in most North American cities, Chinatown usually remains a self-contained and quiet community. Declared Dr. David Lin, a surgeon and chairman of Montreal’s Chinese Benevolent Association: “We are not historically the sort of people who like to go out on the streets and make a fuss.” But now, many members of Montreal’s 45,000-strong Chinese community are showing unprecedented anger over a city bylaw that has shut down further commercial development in the city’s Chinatown. Said Lin: “In three decades I have never seen people so upset.” Local residents did not learn about Bylaw 6513, adopted by the city last Oct. 22, until mid-December, when stories about its impact first appeared in the Montreal Gazette. The bylaw bans future construction of stores or restaurants along an eastern section of Lagauchetière Street, which cuts through the heart of the four-block Chinatown and which local merchants say is 87 per cent Chinese-owned. Because Chinatown has already lost ground on the north, south and west following the construction of an expressway, federal offices and housing complexes, the bylaw “effectively means our business community can forget about ever again expanding,” said Kenneth Cheung, president of the Chinese Professional and Businessmen’s Association, which represents many of Chinatown’s 50 merchants. Also fire on May 2 levelled an entire block of Chinatown, and merchants fear that complex city regulations may prevent rebuilding. Added Cheung: “I do not know whether the motive of all this is racism or stupidity, but either way we are choking.”
In his eagerness to stem the political tide, Cheung recently joined Mayor Jean Drapeau on an 18-day visit to the Orient, including an investment promotion tour in Hong Kong. Some Chinese have called on Hong Kong investors to boycott Montreal because of the bylaw, and Cheung said he decided to make the trip on the same flight as Drapeau in order to “tell investors what is really happening.” Drapeau partly placated Cheung on the 13-hour flight from Vancouver when he read a lengthy report that Cheung’s association had prepared on the effect of the bylaw, then returned the report to Cheung with a note that said, “There should be a way for an agreement on a solution to the problem, regards, J.D., over the Pacific Ocean on May 9, 1985.” In fact, municipal officials say they
passed the bylaw because Chinatown’s best interests would be served by residential, rather than commercial, development. But members of the Chinese community point out that only 500 people still live in the area, although it remains an important cultural centre. Said Cynthia Lam, a community activist
and worker with the Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal: “If we are angry, it is because this area is our business, social, spiritual and cultural home.” Indeed, the symbolism of Chinatown has gained importance at the same time as its population has declined. Like other nonfrancophone residents, many Chinese have left Montreal since the election of the Parti Québécois government in 1976. And without a visible centre, the once-vibrant Chinese presence in Montreal might simply melt away.
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