Purok Côte-des-Neiges

by Kiko Matsing

Without a doubt, Côte-des-Neiges, can surely be called the Filipino ghetto of Montreal. It is not uncommon, walking around Avenues Victoria and Van Horne, to overhear not only conversation in Tagalog, but also in other minor Filipino dialects. The sari-sari store–the stock family-owned business–is very much at home here in the form of the dépanneur. Drop in anytime at Tim Horton’s, and there you’ll always find a wall-to-wall row of Filipinos along its glass window, congregating like the steady coming and going of grackles on high tension lines. When the next-door Pharma Prix goes on sale, its shelves all but empty into Balikbayan boxes (24″ x 18″ x 20″), where soap, shampoo, and toothpaste, with formulations in French, find their way efficiently to a village (purok) half-way around the world. Somehow, it would not surprise me to see some hawker frying fishballs around a corner, or teenagers dribbling basketball on a makeshift court in the middle of an alley.

My aunt lives on Avenue Bourret, three blocks from Van Horne where she holds office. She recruits caregivers back home and places them in affluent French and Jewish neighborhoods surrounding Côte-des-Neiges. She also provides them financial services, teaching them how to invest their money, and, during summers, organizes tours to Quebec City and Niagara Falls. “We are at the center, toto” she tells me, with Cosa Nostra savvy, like a pint-sized Sicilian immigrant just landed in Little Italy. That Sunday, I had brunch with her at Blanche Neige with her gaggle of “girls”–thirtysomethings still wearing coy T-shirts like “Sweet Girl” or “All the good ones are gay.” It was on Chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges, the quickest way there being through the wards of the Jewish hospital at the end of Bourret. For $1.99, you get two eggs, bacon, potato, toast, and coffee, along with the charms of a lanky French-Canadian, winning us with her efforts at Tagalog. “Okey. Anong gusto ‘nyo?,” she asked, taking out pencil and paper from her apron pocket. The gaggle giggled.

Without notice, my aunt took me with her to an RSVP dinner party in Chinatown. Her friends who worked at a patisserie was having their second child dedicated. The ceremony and celebration were to be held in a reserved ballroom at the Chinese dimsum Ruby Rouge. We were late, and I had no idea who the host was who did not invite me, but when we got there, a spot on the table was reserved, and I was promptly welcomed like long lost family. “You guys missed the ceremony,” my cousin complained rolling her eyes; apparently she had to be there as godparent. We came in just when they were serving food and setting up games for the children. After the piñata, the master of ceremonies egged the all-too-complicit audience to the dancefloor, as the DJ played the crowd-pleaser “Ocho! Ocho!”. I cringed in my seat as they made the kids bend, their hands on knees, and shake their butts; it reminded me too much of lemurs copulating. Something was just not right when adults get a kick out of this in a child dedication party.

Suddenly, the lights dimmed, and the dancing became more vigorous as the adults joined in. Salsa. Motown. Cha-cha. Macarena. Then, when I thought I’ve seen everything, “Achy Breaky Heart” came on, and the chaos on the dancefloor spontaneously formed a platoon. “Oh, my God, they’re line dancing again!,” my cousin exclaimed in disbelief and rolled her eyes. I just laughed. How can one not crack at the exuberance of Filipinos in Montreal doing the Texas two-step in a Chinese dimsum?