Laura Luu was on maternity leave at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and what she saw happening to the Asian community worried her. The actress was hearing disturbing stories about anti-Asian sentiment relating to COVID-19 disinformation. Some were hitting close to home, with friends and relatives telling her about unsettling situations in the city which targeted them as Asians.
Montreal police confirmed what Luu was hearing anecdotally: the number of hate incidents and hate crimes relating to race or ethnic origin increased exponentially from 2019 to 2020, and Luu didn’t want to sit around and watch it happen. She decided to start two Facebook groups in parallel: the Groupe d’Entraide contre le Racisme envers les Asiatiques au Quebec (Mutual Assistance against anti-Asian racism in Quebec, GECREAQ), and Local 88, a public page dedicated to supporting local Asian restaurants.
“Within ten days, the groups were booming within the Asian community,” Luu says, noting that the Local 88 page now has almost 11,500 followers, mostly from Montreal and the suburbs, but with followers from Toronto as well. Luu ultimately left the administration of the GECREAQ page to invest more energy in Local 88. “I was afraid my favourite places would close,” she says. “With the rise of anti-Asian racism, Asian restaurants here suffered more than the average. I love to eat and I really missed going to those restaurants.”
The name Local 88 was resolvedly optimistic on Luu’s part. “Eight is a lucky number in China. And even though it might not necessarily be the same in other Asian cultures, anti-Asian racism was mostly targeting Chinese descent communities,” Luu says. “Plus, Local 88 is easy to remember and pronounce in English and French.”
Local food blogger Jason Lee (Shut Up and Eat) has deep roots in Montreal’s Chinatown — his ancestor’s grocery store is now the Beijing restaurant — and echoes Luu’s concerns about the possibility of Asian restaurants shutting down during the pandemic. “I always thought my favourite restaurant would be here forever. The anti-Asian situation in the pandemic shook me up, to think that might not always be the case,” he told Eater Montreal.
Local 88 members use the page for everything from restaurant recommendations to advice on where to find specific dishes. Sometimes it’s the restaurant that pipes up, but more often than not, it’s a crowdsourcing response that shines the spotlight on where to get what.
That’s how Cindy Ha’s restaurant Au 14 started getting more orders for their miniature bánh khọt, a crêpe garnished with pork and shrimp. One of the city’s original Vietnamese restaurants, Ha was concerned that their regular customers would forget about them during the lockdown. “Local 88 reminded everyone that we were here, we were open, and we had the dishes that would fulfil those cravings for comfort food. I can see that whenever I post information about a new dish, or someone recommends a dish from the restaurant on the page — like the bánh khọt — because our orders go up.”
Eric Ku from Chinatown’s Dobe and Andy echoes Ha’s observations about the page. “It’s definitely a good platform to keep the community aware of new dishes that we’re putting out,” he says. Teochew Foodie’s Chanel Dai says it’s a good platform to promote products because its members are interested in learning about Asian food. And the community pitches in with their expertise, too. In one case, local Asian food writer Victor Yu shared information about poon choi, a special Cantonese dish for the Chinese New Year holiday, which Luu says generated interest and sales for restaurants on the South Shore and Chinatown.
Restaurants can post information about special dishes and promotions at any time, subject to moderation from Luu and her team of administrators. Twice a week, home-based suppliers are allowed to share information about everything from special fruits (rambutan, dragon fruit, and durian, among others), wagyu beef and seafood, to Thai, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese foods. (Promoting homemade sushi is not allowed, however, due to health and safety concerns from raw fish.)
Buying from home cooks is a tradition for Linh Le Kim, whose own pop-up, Ăn Chè, specializing in classic Vietnamese desserts, has been featured on the page. “There’s an informal economy called đặt in Vietnamese,” she says. “Literally it means ‘order’ — a grandmother will make food for her family and have extra batches of food to sell on the side. That’s the kind of thing I look for on the page, and there’s always something.”
The inclusion of home cooks and suppliers is seen as a positive by most members, even by some restaurateurs. “I love the fact that it’s really restaurant based but they allow others who are selling as a side gig to post on certain days,” says Dobe and Andy’s Ku.
“The page has become a speakerphone for what’s happening in the community,” says Jason Lee. “People share other information on the page, too, like when there were break-ins at restaurants in Chinatown, and Dak Hing on Van Horne, that news got shared on Local 88 and it raised awareness about what’s happening in the community.”
From local news to dalgona candy and bubble tea, Local 88 is a treasure trove of information and voices. “For me, the page serves two purposes: promoting our community and serving as a reminder to us that there are lots of restaurants worth checking out that you might not know of or be thinking about,” says blogger Lee. “In the end, we can’t necessarily count on anyone’s business but our own.”