New wave of entrepreneurs add to Chinatown's eclectic merchant mix

Outgoing BIA executive director praises merchants' 'resilience' amid pandemic
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Grace Xin, outgoing executive director of the Somerset Street Chinatown BIA, seen with the neighbourhood's pride and joy, the Chinatown Royal Gateway, in the background. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Chinatown may be among the last urban frontiers in Ottawa to remain relatively untouched by the kind of gentrification that, for better or worse, also makes a neighbourhood look like every other.

It’s a distinctive area that stretches over a series of blocks along Somerset Street West, bordered by Bay Street to the east and Preston Street to the west. 

Not only is Chinatown the go-to place for yummy Asian cuisine and bubble tea but it offers an eclectic village-like feel with its mom-and-pop shops and other independently owned businesses, of which there are about 120 in total. The main drag has an Asian feel with its multiple murals, pretty public benches and Chinese zodiac symbols embedded in the sidewalks.

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Ottawa's Chinatown features vibrant, eye-catching wall murals that draw upon Asian themes. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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This park bench is an example of the street furniture that captures Asian elements located along the main street of Ottawa's Chinatown. Photo by Caroline Phillips

While the main influence in the neighbourhood is Chinese, there are also entrepreneurs from Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Thailand, India, Cambodia and Burma. The neighbourhood has a Chinese supermarket, as well as Middle Eastern and Latin American specialty grocery stores.

Additionally, Chinatown is seeing a smattering of trendier places pop up. A coffee shop here, a brew pub there (no signs of a Starbucks, which has long been considered a harbinger of future redevelopment and steep-rising property values). There's a nine-storey apartment building, with ground-floor commercial space, in the early stages of construction at the corner of Lebreton Street North. Formerly a parking lot, the new build will bring more density to the area.

"We want smart design," said Grace Xin, the long-time executive director of the Somerset Street Chinatown Business Improvement Area of her vision for the neighbourhood. "We don't want a copycat of another area. In every design, we hope they incorporate the spirit, the highlights of the Asian culture."

"A lot of people don’t realize there are so many good things happening on Somerset"

Young entrepreneur Ali Maj recently opened a Drip Coffee House in Chinatown, not too far from his first location in Wellington Village. He hopes his quality coffee shop, which also serves fresh sandwiches, will help to elevate Somerset Street West, much like Corner Peach is doing several blocks west with its popular baked goods.

“A lot of people don’t realize there are so many good things happening on Somerset,” said Maj, whose family owns Shiraz Food Market, also in Chinatown. “I think it’s just a matter of time until they do.”

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Ali Maj has just opened up Drip Coffee House at 692 Somerset St. W. in Chinatown. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Just doors' away, John Sproull and Andrea Gormley have introduced Spark Beer to the neighbourhood through their new brew pub and tasting bar, open since January 2020. Unfortunately, the pandemic has meant they’re focusing solely on curb-side retail sales for now.

They’re a thoughtful pair, they are. They expressed their gratitude to the individuals who helped them launch their new business by naming beers after them. Sean Ovington, their electrician, was recognized, as was Xin, whom the owners described as a champion of small business in Chinatown. The Graceful Farmhouse Ale is named in her honour.

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John Sproull and his wife Andrea Gormley run Spark Beer at 702 Somerset St. W. in Chinatown. Photo by Caroline Phillips

“All of our neighbours are fantastic,” said Sproull.  "Everybody helped when we were opening. They were very accommodating. Everybody is very supportive of what we’re doing. It’s just an awesome neighbourhood.”

Resilience

Xin says she's not personally aware of an increase in anti-Asian racism, as has been reported in Chinatowns elsewhere during the COVID-19 pandemic. The neighbourhood business community is coping, as best it can, during COVID, she says.

“It would be fair to say that everybody is struggling. I am amazed at the resilience of the business owners and how they use the resources available to them to fight this pandemic and to carry on.”

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After 13 years as executive director of the Somerset Street Chinatown BIA, Grace Xin is leaving to join the Ottawa Community Foundation. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

She highlights the efforts of Ming-Hui Huang and Ling You, owners of Hey Kitchen. The Chinese immigrants have been running their new restaurant practically on their own for the past 14 months while also parenting two children, ages 15 and 10. Their eldest son, Nick Huang, balances online school with helping at the eatery. Because he speaks fluent English, he handles the take-out orders until restaurants are allowed eat-in customers again. 

The absence of international post-secondary students has really hurt the restaurant, they say. The busy mom acknowledges that she's tired but remains hopeful life will return to normal soon, that the foreign students will come back, and that their restaurant can move beyond “barely getting by.”

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Nick Huang with his mother, Ling You, at Hey Kitchen located at 710 Somerset St. W. in Ottawa's Chinatown. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Chinatown has its challenges, including those relating to residents of the area who suffer from mental illness or addictions. During lockdowns, when there are fewer crowds, these vulnerable populations seem even more visible. Xin respectfully describes these members of the community as having “high needs.”

“I want them to get the care they need and be integrated into our society,” said Xin, while emphasizing how newcomers to Canada understand more than most how all individuals within a society should feel valued.

She arrived here as an international student in 1999 to earn her MBA at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. Both her daughters will be studying at her alma mater, as of this fall. 

Xin has never forgotten how accepting others were toward her when she was a newcomer.

“They give me all the opportunities. For what reason do we not give the same opportunities to others?”

'Heart and soul'

Xin's unofficial titles include mayor of Chinatown and COO, which actually stands for chief ordering officer because she knows where and what visitors to the area should eat.

After 13 years of promoting Chinatown, she's leaving to begin her new position June 1 as vice-president of philanthropic services and community building at the Ottawa Community Foundation, one of the city’s most highly regarded philanthropic organizations. Xin, who's also worked as a specialist in Chinese travel at the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, was previously on the board of the Somerset West Community Health Centre and is a current board member with the Ottawa Network for Education. 

The way she sees it, she’s leaving the job, not the community.

“Now I just have a bigger community to serve, and Chinatown is part of it,” she says during Asian Heritage Month, a time to acknowledge and celebrate the rich history of Asian-Canadians and their contributions to our country.

“My heart and soul is here,” she says. “This is my living room. I live every day here. I eat here, I shop here. So, all the village people, they’re my family. I know each of them.”

At the end of the day, Xin hopes the public recognizes Chinatown as a strong asset. She remains proud of its multiculturalism and the Asian entrepreneurs who continue to make a valuable contribution to the city.

“We want it to be a world-class example of the co-existence of a vibrant business community and social inclusion," she says.

"I want this to be the best Chinatown in North America."

— caroline@obj.ca