Chinatown vs. Chinese Identity

By Jia Pu——second post

What is your impression of Chinatown? Before coming to Montreal, my understanding of Chinatown all came from online videos and TV programs about it. For me, Chinatown should be a place filled with traditional Chinese features, like the honorific archway, red lanterns and, of course, Chinese characters, which can help to maintain and propel Chinese identity of the immigrants and their offsprings. Meanwhile, as a tourist attraction, Chinatown can provide tourists from all over the world with an experience of Chinese culture. However, what I saw in Chinatown here completely changed my impression of it. I made the decision to visit Chinatown in Montreal the second day after arriving because I thought it would be a good way to relieve me from my homesickness since I could enjoy Chinese food and talk to people  in Chinese instead of French. But what I saw there was almost nothing like what I had imagined before. To my disappointment, there were just a few restaurants and stores operated by Chinese immigrants, which covered quite a small area and looked shabby. Besides, I noticed that even Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese  restaurants could be found in Chinatown, making me more confused about the purpose of building it in the first place. Therefore, I read several articles concerning Chinatown and tried to find the answer.

Chinatown is defined as follows in one of the articles: “It is usually perceived as a Chinese quarter of any city outside China, ‘a self-contained urban enclave where nearly all Chinese people, their businesses, and their social institutions were confined’(Lai, 1988, p. xv)” (Jia Lou, 2007, pp.172). Early Chinese immigrants to new countries may find it difficult to get employed due to their lack of language skills and unfamiliarity with work environment. “One of the ways that disadvantaged newcomers sought to improve their living conditions was to enter into self-employment. Often, they set up businesses in dense areas where many co-ethnics lived, transforming the neighbourhood into an ethnic enclave.”(Mai B. Phan & Chiu M. Luk ,2008, pp.294). That makes me realize the beginning of Chinatown and its original purpose, which is more to do with economy rather than culture. No wonder few elements related to traditional Chinese culture can be found there. Even the way Chinese dishes are cooked has been changed to fit in with native residents’ taste. Plus, as I mentioned above, Chinatown has become a mix of Cantonese-speaking Chinese, Mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, and South Asian groups. From what I have read, it is also true for Chinatowns in other places like Washington, D.C. and Toronto. Although the owners come from different backgrounds or countries, most of them use bilingual Chinese-English (or Chinese-French in the case of Montreal ) shop signs because they all cater to the same consumer group. Owing to the changes it has gone through, Chinatown now can hardly carry forward Chinese identity. But I believe at least part of Chinese culture can get propelled since Mandarin and Cantonese would be in wide use within that area.

With its ongoing development, Chinatown does not help much with propelling Chinese identity for the immigrants, especially for future generations who are born without much exposure to Chinese culture. Then what can be done to cultivate immigrants’ identity? Is there any way that we can resort to?


Jia Lou, (2007). Revitalizing Chinatown into a heterotopia. Space and Culture vol.10, no.2, May 2007, 170-194

Mai B. Phan & Chiu M. Luk, (2008). ‘I don’t say I have a business in Chinatown’: Chinese sub-ethnic relations in Toronto’s Chinatown West. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31, no. 2 (2008), 294-326

8 thoughts on “Chinatown vs. Chinese Identity”

  1. Hi Jia,
    Reading your post made me think of Eva Hoffman’s (1989) book “Lost in translation: A life in a new language.” The book is her account of immigration from Poland to Canada, then to the US, as a teenager, and focuses on intersections of identity, language, and culture. She writes about how “you can’t transport human meanings whole from one culture to another” (p. 175). How might this idea inform your understanding of Chinatown?


  2. By Coco:

    Hi Jia,

    Thanks for a thoughtful post! I totally agreed with you because Chinatown here was definitely not what I pictured about. Like you mentioned, the restaurants are “shabby”, the area is limited, and it gets a mixture of other culture in Chinatown as well. In that sense, Chinatown is not solely for Chinese (either immigrants or students), but more for everyone. However, I do not know if you felt it the same way, I felt the sense of belongingness whenever I go to Chinatown. My identity as Chinese strengthened every time I was there. For me, at least in this quarter of the city they have some Chinese characters (compared to the rest of the road signs and posters are written in French/English or both). In addition, thinking of the fact that there are a variety of Chinese food for you to choose even though you are 10000 miles away from home, would that make you feel “better”? Our situation here is much better than situating in the places where Chinese immigrants are much less so they do not have Chinese food offered, let alone Chinatown. 🙂


  3. Samuel Marticotte, comment 5:

    Hi Jia! Thanks for your very interesting post. There is so much to say about places like Chinatown! Don’t we all have a different opinion based on our ethnicity, personal experiences and background, languages, etc. I would like to give you my impression of Chinatown, as a Quebecker, who has spent most of his life in Quebec, but also lived many years in Asia, and visited China, Korea and Japan. Contrary to your experience, when I first visited Chinatown, I wasn’t at all surprised. I thought it was a place where I could see people of Chinese origin speak in Chinese, cook Chinese food, write Chinese signs for their stores, and at the same time, I did not expect it to be authentic, because it never came to my mind that it could truly be authentic if it were built in Canada, considering the immigration history of the country and the pressure to conform to mainstream culture, that is not Chinese. I did expect to find menus in English or French and did not expect it to be an especially rich neighbourhood, because all older generations know and pass on about China, is about “poor” China (unfortunately).
    As I have travelled to China, I know that China has extremely rich and prosperous port cities (third richest country in the world, that’s a fact), and I know that Chinese culture goes way beyond my former prejudices in terms of folklore, dance, music, customs and all other aspects of culture. I don’t find it so surprising that there is Korean and Vietnamese restaurants, considering that ethnic “Asian” people are often considered as a group in Western culture, thus, as a result, there seems to be a reverse tendency for Asian people to regroup even though they are not from the same nation. In Asian countries the same thing happens and Western foreigners often regroup as they are considered one group with shared experiences.
    I found very interesting the definition you found of Chinatown. It struck me as very accurate: it is more for early disadvantaged immigrants who are trying to open businesses to improve their living conditions. It’s true that it does not carry forward much Chinese identity but rather a tiny part of it. However, this tiny part can be a lot for Canadians that do not know China. Enough to create some anti-Chinese sentiments for nationalistic people for example who find it offensive to have Chinese signs (I totally disagree with this view, off course!) Isn’t, though, more exposure than most can have with other “ethnic” cultures in Montreal? Can you think of other groups who have this chance? For Chinese immigrants to foster Chinese identity, I see one way forward, it is to invest in the neighbourhood. They could make the food more authentic, try to hire more personnel of Chinese origin, celebrate festivals, and do all the other things that you consider to be relevant for celebrating Chinese culture. What do you think?


  4. Kunyao:

    Hello Jia, thanks for your nice post! I wanna share my thought with you about the Chinatown here in Montreal. I noticed that the Chinatown here is more Cantonese than Mandarin speaking people. Cantonese could be viewed as the old Chinese immigrant body in the last century. They gathered in Chinatown and made their living there, as we could see many Hong Kong style restaurants there. They also lived around the Chinatown. Therefore, people know each other quite well in that area. At this point, Chinatown does help a group of Chinese to maintain their identity and lifestyle. (Maybe it’s more for old generation but not the new?)


  5. Hello, Jia!

    Thank you for your interesting post!
    I agree your point that currently, Chinatown serves more its economic function than the cultural function. For me, Chinatown is more like a place to satisfy my stomach when I miss home. While for Canadian, as also mentioned by Samuel, it may help them to construct a general image of China, although it is far from being thorough.

    Regarding your question of how to develop Chinese immigration’s Chinese identity, I think the sense of belongingness can be cultivated through their surrounding people and home education. If parents speak more Chinese at home, children will probably see themselves as a member of China regardless of their citizenship, or at least value the communicative function of using Chinese language. In addition, by giving children more exposure of Chinese culture, such as Chinese opera, calligraphy and so on, they might enhance their ability to appreciate Chinese history.


  6. Good evening,
    As I’ve been reading the comments, I’ve thinking about the immigrant-background communities that don’t have a ‘town’. For example, there is no Japantown anywhere across Canada, and this is a relic of a shameful piece of Canadian history (Japanese internment camps during WWII – after the war, there was a 100km ‘no go zone’ along the west coast so Japanese, many of whom were born in Canada, started to move east, however, were careful not to gather in large groups in an effort not to attract or provoke anti-Japanese sentiment.) This is a terribly short summary, but the point is, Japanese-Canadians have found other ways to connect and maintain Japanese language and cultural practices without a ‘town’ to identify with. This is just one example, but I think it’s worth keeping in mind that patterns of immigration and political (racial) history shape how current immigrant-background individuals experience public space and the extent to which they see themselves reflected in the landscape.


  7. By Wai In Chan

    Thank you for your post about Chinatown. As a Cantonese-Canadian who has lived here for over 25 years, I would like to share with you what Chinatown means to me. I agree with the economic point that you make, and also the fact that Chinatown is not the most “authentic” experience of what China or Cantonese regions of China really is. However, as an immigrant who came here a long time ago with my family, I can honestly say that without Chinatown, we would not have been able to preserve our culture.

    My parents found refuge in Chinatown when they first came here because they didn’t know much English or French. So that helped them to make a connection with the community here and find a good job or opportunities for us. As I got older, I went to a Cantonese school there and that’s when Chinatown became my second home because that was where I was almost every week. I was introduced to Cantonese food there and the Cantonese culture. When I followed my mom around when she went grocery shopping there, I learned about the foods and medicine that we eat; the gestures and language behaviours of authentic Cantonese speakers; the negotiation of values between the speakers; and learning about the cultural festivals, foods, and traditional arts. For my family, it was a place where it allowed them to preserve a part of their culture the best that they can, very much the same way that “Little Italy” works to preserve Italian culture, or “Korean Town” in Toronto.

    I do have to admit that Chinatown has recently been doing bad and most businesses aren’t doing well because of the economy. I find that to outsiders, Chinatown is not much especially if you are there during quiet times (try going during Chinese New Year!), but once you find a connection with it or if you go there frequent enough, you’ll learn more about the real community there aside from the economical and tourist image of it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Chinatown isn’t for those who are looking for temporary relief from the Canadian culture, but rather for a permanent one.


  8. By Jamie (Xuan Zhao)

    Hi Jia,

    It’s interesting to read this post and know about people’s perspectives towards Chinatown. I’ll just share some of my thoughts from my real life experiences.

    Honestly, how people are used to Chinese/Asian elements (food, for example) here in Montreal amazed me. It has become so common that you see local people/people from other countries go in and out authentic Chinese restaurants or holding a bubble tea in the streets, which would be so rare to see in other western countries (from my own experience, big cities in USA and Europe). This in fact contributes to my impression on the diversity and cultural tolerance here..I mean, there’s no harm trying new stuff!

    In the meantime, I do think Chinatown has a special meaning to Asian people here, as I’ve told by my ABA (American-born Asian) friends and I experienced myself. And for a lot of elder people who landed here long ago at their young age, Chinatown remains as what they remembered (that’s why a lot of Chinatowns look like the 90s China or even earlier), which becomes a base of theirs in North America. Even I myself would like explore Chinatowns because I know there would be something familiar and feels like home.


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