The Secrets Behind Montreal's Second Chinatown

A.k.a. Chinatown West.
The Secrets Behind Montreal's Second Chinatown

Take a walk along Sainte Catherine street from Guy all the way to Atwater, and you can't help but pass by a nigh countless number of Chinese and Asian-fusion restaurants.

The wide assortment of authentic and delicious Asian eateries is truly staggering, and its earned the area once known as the "Concordia Ghetto" a new moniker, namely "Montreal's second Chinatown."

Other titles have also been fixed to the stretch of Montreal west of Concordia University, including "Chinatown Part 2," "New Chinatown," or, as is most popular, "Chinatown West."

And it isn't solely the presence of Chinese and Asian restaurants that have led to this new geo-cultural designation. Chinese Montrealers, immigrants, and students dominate the area, frequenting Chinatown West more often than the city's original Chinese neighbourhoods, the original Chinatown.

But while many of you may have noticed this rather apparent aspect of Montreal's downtown-west segment, the term "Chinatown West" could be a mystery. In truth, it's more of a colloquialism, a designation used by locals and those familiar with the area, and not an official name or municipal boundary.

Still, that isn't to say Chinatown West doesn't have a history all its own. Playing a rather large role in the ongoing story of modern Montreal, Chinatown West is a new (and still growing) hub of activity and commerce that deserves a name denoting its individual identity.

So if you know next to nothing about Montreal's second Chinatown, allow us to walk you through it.

The Origins Of Chinatown West

If you've never actually heard "Chinatown West" used by a fellow Montrealer, nor read it anywhere in print or online, there's no need to feel ignorant or unconnected. In truth, the name is fairly new, first used (as far as we know) by columnist Christopher DeWolf in a February 2007 edition of the Montreal Gazette.

The name stuck, with other bloggers using the term, along with dedicated Chowhound threads, both in 2009. By then, the Chinatown West area had already been (somewhat) concretely outlined, as the map below, created by Cedric Sam of Comme Les Chinois demonstrates.

Chinatown West's true origins as a distinct section of the city begins far earlier, some fifteen years before the name became popular.

What would grow into Chinatown West first began to form around the time when the Montreal Forum closed in 1996. At that point in the mid-90s, rent in the area was quite low (even for Montreal standards) which led to an influx of Chinese and East-Asian students and immigrants coming into the area.

Then, as it always happens when a particular demographic dominates a certain area, stores and restaurants catering to the new Asian residents of the area popped up. The trend continued, and the area became the new Chinatown we see today.

Chinatown West Today

While it's pretty easy to cite vague images of numerous Asian eateries and supposed scores of new residents as reasoning for the designation of Chinatown West as a neighborhood unto itself, there are also some fairly concrete demonstrations.

For one, as Christopher Dewolf pointed out, it's not "just" Asian restaurants that have come to the area. Grocery stores (e.x. Jang-Teu Asian Supermarket + Épicerie Coréenne Et Japonaise), beauty shops (like C&C Korean Cosmetics), and tea house-cafes (Restaurant Tapioca Thé) have all popped up and thrived in the area as well.

Not simply serving meals to any customer, these businesses are fulfilling a specific function, with the need only created by the Asian residents that live in Chinatown West.

More significant still, a 2006 census on the area shows how a full 22.9% of the area's population were of Chinese origin. No doubt that number has grown in the years since.

The presence of a large Asian community is only bolstered by those who come to, but do not live in the area. With Concordia University as a destination point for many Chinese and Asian students, many then frequented the surrounding area for food and other goods. And that may be why Chinatown West has grown, and remains to be so popular.

Why Chinatown West Grew So Much, So Quickly

Like I already alluded to, one of the reasons why Chinatown West is so popular among the Asian communities of Montreal (and those that aren't) is simply because it is easier to get to than the original.

As the original Chinatown lacks its own nearby metro station, Chinatown West boasts several stations along the Green and Orange Line, allowing those who live outside of the city's core to come to the area and leave in a flash.

There's also a certain sense of variety seen in Chinatown West unseen in its more eastern counterpart. A wider assortment of restaurants and services can be enjoyed here, so why would anyone go even further to have less selection?

The actual layout of the area equally plays a rather large role. Whereas Chinatown is quite small (and arguably cramped), Chinatown West covers block after block of Downtown Montreal, allowing you to walk through the neighbourhood and discover new businesses. By being inherently larger, Chinatown West also had (and has) far more room to grow, thus adding to its inherent variety.

Concordia University obviously played a role in the rise of Chinatown West, as already mentioned, with many Asian students renting out apartments so close to the downtown campus.

Real estate buyers from China could also be contributing to Chinatown West's growth. As revealed in JdeM recently, the largest number of condo buyers in Montreal hail from China. And since a large number of condos are in the downtown area, either in or near Chinatown West, Chinese condo buyers may inadvertently (or purposefully) be ensuring the neighbourhood continues to be popular for Chinese residents.

The Chinatown Conspiracy

If you buy into certain conspiracy theories about Montreal, then Chinatown West may be the direct result of action's taken by the City of Montreal.

For those unfamiliar with the "Montreal’s Attempt To Physically Blockade Chinatown's Expansion" conspiracy, it basically goes like it sounds:

In order to ensure Chinatown didn't overtake all of eastern downtown, the municipal government set up governmental buildings (Hydro Québec offices, Guy Favreau complex, Complexe Desjardins) to effectively "box in" Chinatown.

And so, years later, without being able to connect to the already-established Chinatown, newcomers to Montreal of Asian descent established a Chinatown West. Sure, it's a bit of a stretch but you never know.

Either way, Chinatown West is now a fixture of Montreal's downtown. Of course, it's worth noting the area also boasts a fair share of Middle Eastern residents, restaurants, and businesses, making the neighbourhood more multicultural than the name sounds.

So if you've never had the chance to peruse the gems of Chinatown West (even I try to avoid any part of Downtown Montreal's overly-busy atmosphere) then I strongly urge you to discover one of the city's newest and most energetic neighbourhoods.

Morgane I Courtesy of Yatai MTL, Virgine I Courtesy of Yatai MTL

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