Community and Culture in Chinatown
As we seek out models for ideal communities, it’s worth taking a stroll through the past — and through our city’s own Chinatown. Jamie Chai Yun Liew explores what the neighbourhood represents for her own family’s history and Ottawa’s future
AN ORNAMENTAL ARCH CRESTS THE INTERSECTION of Somerset and Bronson on unceded Algonquin territory. When I look up, I see art and tradition — but also a weathered and deteriorating artifact.
Chinatown, for me, is at once comforting and disruptive. It is a place where I have found an intimate familiarity. I have delighted at discovering childhood treats such as Haw Flakes in Kowloon Market. I have gathered with friends and family to celebrate the first 100 days of my child’s birth at Shanghai Restaurant where the matriarch, Nancy Kwan, made a surprise party batch of traditional pig’s feet soup. The dark, earthy broth made with ginger in black vinegar brought me back to my childhood when my mother would warm us with the soup after a day spent outside in the winter. It is in these encounters I feel kinship — not only with people like the Kwans, but with my culture. A spoonful of soup can ignite long lost memories, the aromas like aunties embracing me after a long sojourn away.
At the same time, the existence of Chinatown triggers an uneasiness within me. The borders remind me of a past where Asians had to create their own places to shop, eat, and play. For many Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, and other Asian communities, the pandemic brought the rise of anti-Asian hate and violence as blame for the spread of COVID-19 was placed on us. I know people who stayed away from Chinatowns during the pandemic to avoid negative encounters.
Chinatown is also a vehicle by which to essentialize and erase distinct and multiple Asian identities. Ottawa’s Chinatown has many Vietnamese restaurants, born out of the wave of refugees that made Ottawa their home, but many people may mistake some of the people and cuisine as Chinese. Even amongst Chinese, we do not see each other as homogeneous. I have found the dominant Mandarin and Cantonese dialects in the space to be alienating since I identify as a Hokkien-speaking Hakka Chinese. Within our own communities we’re grappling with whether we should use the term “Asian” given who it assumes to include and exclude. I also mourn for the loss of elders and shops, most recently the Wah Shing Store, and wonder where I am going to buy rehmannia root, an ingredient in my favourite soup. When I told my mother this, she mailed me some. I wonder what gentrifying elements will move in and erase what is left.
Despite these conflicting feelings, I choose to eat, shop, and write in Chinatown Ottawa. My debut novel, Dandelion, pays homage to Ottawa’s Chinatown; this setting is used to ask questions of belonging and how food may play a role in linking different identities and memories. While I was writing in Chinatown, I used my longing and homesickness of my mother’s cooking and the food I could not find here in Ottawa to explore the tensions of distance. I used my feelings of connectedness to my community to depict a distinct Chinese Canadian story — one that includes Hokkien words and the cuisine I grew up with from Southeast Asia. The dishes described speak to the raison d’etre of migration — the movement of people due to British colonization. For example, Char kuey teow, a flat rice noodle dish fried in a wok in hawker stalls all over Southeast Asia, was crafted as a fatty lunch to fill the bellies of plantation workers brought to British Malaya. The spices and curries are influenced by interactions of Indian and Chinese migrant workers in farms, mines, and markets in that region. In this instance, food serves not only as a method to evoke emotion but as a historical testament to colonization, migration, and the evolution of identities and geographical space.
Chinatown Ottawa will continue to change, but I hope it will continue to be a place to help us remember who we are.