Chinatown: a Fight for the "Soul of Montreal"
Developers are buying the historic neighbourhood block by block, triggering fears of evictions and erasure.
by Diane Yeung
“Call me Lo popo.”
Grandmother. That’s what 87-year-old Ngan Oi Lo Ho insisted I call her as she locked the doors to a little-known temple in Chinatown. “Lo popo” — pronounced low paw-paw — translates to Grandma Lo in Cantonese.
Children of Chinese immigrants are instilled with the custom to address every community member as family: servers are aunts and uncles, friends are sisters and brothers, and seniors are honorary grandmas and grandpas. Grandma Lo already has three grandchildren but she doesn’t shy away from embracing more.
Lo spends her days maintaining the temple, where red lanterns and prayer cards hang from its ceiling, and Buddhist gods sit perched on an altar along the wall. She says before the pandemic, the space was abuzz with seniors who came to pray, play cards, and enjoy community meals.
Recently, it’s also piqued the interest of real estate developers, where sources in the neighborhood say they’ve seen surveyors visit the building with equipment.
For decades, people have walked past this place, nestled in the oldest block in Chinatown. Tourists marvel at Montreal’s architecture and cultural diversity, while locals trudge through its streets in search of bubble tea and dim sum. But if they listen carefully, they might hear the hum of Buddhist hymns drifting from the basement floor of 110-112 de la Gauchetière Ouest — where Lo has looked after the Association Cantonnais de Divertissement pour l’Age d’Or for over twelve years.
Built in the 1800s, the building is one of the last on the block still owned by the community. Today, real estate development firm Hillpark Capital owns a majority of the historic block. Its founders, Brandon Shiller and Jeremy Kornbluth, have reportedly faced allegations of “renovictions,” tenant harassment, and steep rental surges at properties throughout the city. Last April, Shiller and Kornbluth made headlines when they advised tenants in all 90 units of a Plateau residential building to vacate their homes for at least seven months for renovations.
But many worry that Chinatown faces greater threats; after all, Montreal’s Chinatown is the last remaining Chinatown in Quebec. And sobering, still, is the fear that it could be part of a list of soon-extinct Canadian Chinatowns. It is one of less than a dozen to exist today, compared to over 25 in the 1950s.
Chinatowns across the country have suffered fates similar to Quebec City’s Chinatown, which was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a movie theater, condo buildings and a highway. But Chinese Quebecers had been driven out before the razing began, relocating to Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.
Nevertheless, the neighborhood’s erasure was so deep that a research assistant at the city’s archives told the Quebec Heritage News in 2007 that there had never been a Chinatown in Quebec City.
If history were any indicator, all signs point to the potential disappearance of Montreal’s own Chinatown, where residents, business owners and community members are left with unease. Will the government protect Canada’s last Francophone Chinatown?
Last April, Hillpark Capital’s last residential tenant on the block, Jean-Philippe Riopel, alerted the media about his new landlord-developers. Riopel, a tour guide turned anti-gentrification activist, is a French Canadian who’s lived in Chinatown for his entire adult life. For twelve years, he’s been a proud neighbor to Grandma Lo. Today, Riopel fights alongside Montrealers in the battle against Chinatown’s gentrification.
“I cannot count how many times people from Toronto tell me how great Montreal is. They say it’s because Montreal has a soul,” Riopel said. “The soul is the people of this neighbourhood.”
With renewed media interest and widespread support, Riopel wrote a petition asking the province to designate Montreal Chinatown as a heritage site—a designation afforded to the Old Montreal and Mont-Royal neighborhoods. As the number of supporters swelled, Mayor Valérie Plante was prompted to pen a letter echoing the call.
In May, Plante told the Montreal Gazette that she was determined to preserve the neighborhood. “Chinatown is part of Montreal’s identity and its protection is everyone’s business,” Plante said.
By August, nearly 7,000 Quebecers had signed the petition. But in September, the petition was tabled by the National Assembly.
“The petition is done. [The province] ignored the petition,” said Jennifer Maccarone, MNA for the riding of Westmount-Saint-Louis. “They ignored all the signatures, and the government chose to not address it.”
Maccarone presented the petition to Quebec's Minister of Culture and Communication, Nathalie Roy, who dismissed it in her response, citing that a tripartite committee had already been established in May to discuss the concerns. According to Roy, the committee, which includes representatives of both municipal and provincial governments, as well as members of the Chinatown community, had already convened five times.
But seven months later, recommendations and updates from the committee remain to be seen. By all accounts, developers have indulged in the recent silence surrounding Chinatown, interpreting it as waning public interest.
“Nothing has happened,” Maccarone said. “No information has come forth and the developer continues to move forward. So is it going to come to a point where it’s too little too late?”
Maccarone said in addition to the petition, letters were sent urging the province to place an emergency halt on new developments in the neighborhood under Article 58 of the Cultural Heritage Act. The temporary freeze would protect the area from further encroachment while the committee assesses its eligibility for permanent heritage designation—a process that could take years.
“These analyses will enhance the committee’s work and help define the best tools and approaches to be implemented to preserve the characteristics of Chinatown,” Roy said in the response.
But Roy’s letter did not embrace an immediate declaration of the neighborhood as a heritage site, nor did it address the demands for temporary protective measures in the interim. Instead, it expressed that the minister “shares citizen concerns,” and referenced the tripartite committee’s potential to present similar recommendations. It’s unclear why the minister chose to risk losing a cherished part of Canadian history rather than heeding the calls of 7,000 constituents.
Currently, 110-112 de la Gauchetière Ouest is owned by the Chinese Association of Montreal, one of the oldest associations of its kind, founded in 1889 by some of Quebec’s first Chinese settlers. The building houses a Taiwanese library, a Chinese calligraphy and art studio, an herbal medicine store, and Lo’s basement sanctuary.
“All these associations, the temple—their value is not in the building, it’s [in] the living value of this heritage,” Riopel said. “And it’s the soul of Chinatown.”
For people like Grandma Lo, this isn’t just about protecting the past, it’s about being able to live out her final years with dignity.
Lo had never been interviewed before, but she spoke openly about her story. She said that after the Japanese invaded parts of southern China, she lost her father and widespread famine hit her province. When she was seven years old, Lo’s mother gave her away to a woman who ran a foot-binding business for wealthy families to save her from starvation. For much of her childhood, she was a servant and never received an education as a result.
“I came from poverty, and I married into poverty,” Lo said. “There was no other choice but to leave Hong Kong to find work.”
Today, Lo lives alone in a subsidized apartment in Chinatown. The rent is around $500 a month, which costs her a third of her old age security benefits. At $1,500 a month, Lo’s total annual income is just $18,000 —far below the 27,948 needed to stay above the poverty line as a single person living in Montreal, according to The Institute for Research and Socio-Economic Information.
Lo is one of many elderly Chinese who live below the poverty line. According to the National Council of Welfare’s 2006 Poverty Profile, 15 per cent of those living in poverty in Montreal identified as Chinese-speaking, despite making up only 3.3% of the total population. The report also said that “Chinese and South Asian groups make up almost half of racialized persons living in poverty” across the country.
In fact, “The most common mother tongues among racialized persons living in poverty are Chinese languages” in Canada, the report said.
Little has changed since the 2006 Poverty Profile. In 2021, The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released the Colour-Coded Retirement analysis, which cited that Chinese seniors “have the lowest income and the highest poverty rate, at 25%, among the groups studied.”
It is hard to imagine that the looming threat of gentrification would leave Lo and the many elderly Chinese who depend on Chinatown’s cultural ecosystem undisturbed. Affordable housing complexes remain critically important for Chinese seniors who wish to stay in the neighborhood.
When I asked Lo what she would do if she were forced out of her apartment, she said that she couldn’t think about all that right now. But when I asked about the temple—now surrounded by buildings that are under new ownership—she sounded more worried.
“Well, what can we do if we were forced to leave?” Lo asked. “Since the pandemic, there haven’t even been a lot of people who come to worship and make donations. How much longer can we stay open?”
Riopel and Lo have been neighbors for over a decade, and speak fondly of each other. Riopel says Lo’s story of poverty reminds him of his own grandmother, who overcame economic discrimination and raised 14 children. He says that despite all the adversity, Lo and his grandmother were always full of joy and excitement to share moments with younger generations. He says it’s evidence of the shared experiences of Quebecers throughout Chinatown’s history.
“People have to understand how many layers of history there are here,” Riopel said. “And that’s what I keep saying all the time, that we have to live together. All my life is vivre ensemble. I’m a French Canadian living in Chinatown with my neighbors. But people have been doing that for longer than we think.”
As Chinatown’s fate hangs in the balance, Lo and Riopel’s friendship represent a harmony between Montrealers that have transcended cultures and across generations.
“Without the elder generations, there wouldn’t be the younger generations,” Lo said. “Our history is handed down from one generation to the next.”
For Montrealers, heritage designation doesn’t just protect a bunch of old buildings—it represents a commitment to honouring its rich history and cultural diversity.
“Who’s going to save these heritage buildings?” Riopel asked. “[They’re] not only stones and bricks, it’s an intangible heritage—a living heritage.”
Chinatown has survived urban sprawl and expropriation for decades. In fact, the neighborhood lost a third of its footprint in the 1980s, in which dozens of residential buildings and shops were replaced by Complexe Guy-Favreau. Developers have preyed on Chinatown since the 1960s, and there are no signs of stopping.
Linda, who’s been a resident for over 28 years, is nostalgic for a Chinatown that once offered a greater sense of community. Linda says she hasn’t moved away because she wants to stay close to her elderly mother, which was particularly important during the pandemic. She spoke about the former YMCA of Chinatown, which was forced to close in 2019 due to a “steep rise in renovation costs.”
Citizens launched a petition asking the Plante administration to overtake management of the recreation center and keep it open under the city’s control. Perhaps the petition was a foreshadow to the current crisis, given that the 6,314 signatures it gathered were largely ignored.
“I had been going to the YMCA gym for 15 years. And I saw seniors at the YMCA playing ping pong, catching up with each other, playing badminton,” Linda said. “It was an important place for elders to gather, and it maintained a feeling of solidarity and familiarity.” The YMCA of Chinatown closed for good in December 2019, less than three months before the pandemic would render its residents more isolated than ever.
Linda grew up in the neighborhood, and lives in a separate apartment in her mother’s building. She says she has fond memories of her childhood, filled with cultural experiences that she yearns for today.
“I remember the cultural center that existed next to the Chinese school. I have memories as a child there, eating congee at the center’s long tables,” Linda said. “We’ve lost so many of these little cultural pleasures in our lives.”
Linda was referring to the former Montreal Chinese Community and Cultural Centre, which was replaced by a music school in 2018. Some residents say they’ve heard rumours of discussion for its revival. But as it stands, Montreal is one of few major Canadian cities without a Chinese cultural center.
While developers continue to encroach on the ethnic enclave with ruthless disregard, its supporters are rolling up their sleeves. Organizers say the fight isn’t over, and that the petition isn’t the only way to protect the neighborhood.
With support from the city, the Montreal Chinatown Roundtable is in its early stage of formation, serving as an open democratic forum for the community. The roundtable will operate out of the Faubourg Saint-Laurent office, a public collective that consults and supports citizens in the district of St-Laurent.
“We want to be a fair and equal representation of all the communities within Chinatown,” said Andy Hiep Vu, a coordinator of the Chinatown Roundtable. “This is a place where citizens’ voices will be heard.”
Though concrete, legislative action has yet to be seen, Plante’s administration says it remains invested in protecting Chinatown. In a statement, Robert Beaudry, city councilor for the Saint-Jacques and Ville-Marie boroughs, said that the administration adopted a declaration to reaffirm its commitment to protecting Chinatown’s heritage last August, and cited its Action Plan for the development of Chinatown put forth last June. Beaudry says consultations with the community are ongoing, and that a collective vision is forthcoming.
The administration did not, however, address The Rover’s questions about whether the city plans to implement a temporary halt to construction and developments in Chinatown.
“We recognize the special historical and heritage value of Chinatown and we will act on the recommendations of the [tripartite] committee,” Beaudry said. “The unprecedented efforts of our administration for Chinatown, since well before the pandemic, demonstrate our commitment to its future.
For some residents, the future looms dangerously close. As Hillpark Capital’s last residential tenant on the historic block, Riopel is determined to fight for the cultural haven he’s shared with his Chinese neighbors for the last twenty years.
“It’s a fight for Chinatown, for a community that’s been threatened with disappearance so many times,” Riopel said. “But it’s also a fight for which kind of city we want. For diversity.”
“The Chinatown of Montreal is not something that is apart from the history of Quebec,” Riopel said, “it is the history of Quebec.”
About the author…
Diane Yeung is a freelance journalist and journalism student at Concordia University. She's covered a wide range of topics, but is most passionate about community reporting. Her work can be found at