Ottawa’s diverse Chinatown is on the brink of change

Metro’s political neighbourhood series explores the 2015 federal election from the community perspective. In this feature: diversity and gentrification on Somerset Street.

Election season comes with lots of complaints about the clutter of candidates signage – but there’s one neighbourhood is already so colourful that the signs give it some visual cohesion.

Welcome to Ottawa’s Chinatown, a place with arguably more murals and public art per square foot than any other place in the city.

“If you walk around, the murals show that it’s not just Canadian, Chinese or Vietnamese. It’s a good thing, it reflects the diversity,” says Kenny Giang, the owner of Oriental Charm on Somerset Street.

Like the storefronts outside his shop and the people on the streets, Giang’s wares reflect many different countries including China, India, Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

Giang’s story is part of the history of the enclave – he’s Vietnamese and Chinese, and came to Canada as a refugee as part of the City of Ottawa’s “Project 4000” in the early 1980s.

At that time close to 3,800 Vietnamese refugees were welcomed to the city, a project spear-headed by former mayor Marion Dewar.

Her son, Paul Dewar, is the current MP for Ottawa-Centre and his campaign headquarters are in the middle of Chinatown. Dewar’s orange NDP signage now jostles for space beside Catherine McKenna’s Liberal red, Damian Kostantinakos Tory blue, and all manner of Asian products advertised in store windows along the strip.

Some of the businesses have interesting stories that intertwine with the country and the city’s political history.

Today, one of the area’s oldest businesses, the Shanghai Restaurant, offers a lot more than dumplings and pad Thai – everything from karaoke night, to bingo, to drag performances and live music.

The original owner of the restaurant was Alan Kwan. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau once dined at there.

The political views in the neighbourhood are just as diverse as everything else on the street.

Shanghai’s co-owner Mabe Kwan said she’s considering voting Libertarian this year, tired of the same political choices that don’t seem to change.

“I looked up Dean Harris, the Libertarian, and he seems like a decent candidate,” she said, adding that she offered to put a poster in her window or launch a fundraiser but never heard back.

“I’ve been Liberal because I did that thing where your parents vote Liberal, so you do as well. They all make promises, but I’m tired of the three options that are basically one option. They do the same thing in a different colour.”

Federal politics and the history of the commercial area of Chinatown is only one part of the neighbourhood.

The area has a lot in common with older parts of downtown like Sandy Hill, Centretown and the Glebe. But unlike wealthier downtown neighbourhoods, West Centretown’s earliest history is working-class.

There are still many stately and well-aged brick houses, but lower rent prices made the area attractive to many diverse groups of immigrants starting at the turn of the century. Today it offers plenty of affordable rental housing to lower-income groups and students.

The diversity is something residents are proud of, but it means the city views the enclave differently than wealthier neighbourhoods.

“What bothers us is when there is a double standard,” explains long-time resident Ida Henderson, who maintains gardens for the Dalhousie Community Association.

“We live downtown and we expect certain things, but you don’t see the same sort of garbage problems in the Glebe,” she says. “This has always been a large immigrant community and it has low-income residents so there’s an automatic disregard. Part of it is because we’re so mixed and we have low-income housing, that’s the reality.

I love living here. It’s got great people in it and the diversity of the neighbourhood is great.”

The constant mural projects commissioned by the local Business Improvement Association and the ornate imperial Chinese arch distract from some of the more run down portions of the street.

Gentrification surrounds Chinatown, but has yet to take hold. The area has chronic parking issues that bother both residents and business owners. Restrictive zoning and height limits don’t promote sky-high growth, but would-be developers are in for a battle with many residents who don’t want to lose the residential feel of the area.

Developer Phoenix Homes has plans to build a nine-storey rental property along the main strip.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a wayside-neighbourhood-turned-artsy-enclave became another hot neighbourhood in Ottawa.

 
A brief history of the area
Early History

The area known as Chinatown was, until recently, more commonly referred to as Somerset Heights. The history of the area started with non-Asian immigrants: it was a working-class Irish and Italian immigrants. The Plant Bath, now a recreation centre, was built in 1924 to promote hygiene among the area’s lower class residents.

 

1950s

Chinese immigration to Ottawa was slow, and for a long time the community was more spread out. In the 1900s many opened Laundromats and restaurants. At one point Albert Street, north of Somerset, was the real “Chinatown” in Ottawa. Chinese immigration boomed after the First World War and the Shanghai Restaurant on Somerset, which remains open today, was one of the first Chinese businesses to open on the street.

 

1980s: Vietnamese Immigration

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw Ottawa welcoming a large number of refugees from Vietnam, fleeing the Vietnam War. The City of Ottawa began ‘Project 4000’ bringing nearly 4,000 Vietnamese ‘Boat People’ to the city. Many settled in Chinatown and continue to operate businesses there today. The project wasn’t universally accepted – 500 Centretown residents signed a petition fearing their property values would be reduced because of the newcomers.

 

1990s: Becoming Chinatown

By 1896, Asian immigrants formed a quarter of all the residents of the Dalhousie North neighbourhood. Debates took place over whether Somerset should become an official “Chinatown” or continue to grow as an organically multicultural area – official plans were dropped at the time, but the concept stuck. Eventually the area received an official designation, complete with street signs and an imperial Chinese arch.

 

Chinatown today

Today, Chinatown remains distinct – the air is dominated by the smell of pho and many storefronts advertise only in Asian calligraphy. But the neighbourhood is still changing. New immigrants are more likely to settle in the suburbs than the downtown core and new condo developments are inching ever closer.