Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers of Some Montreal


Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers of Some Montreal
Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers1 of Some Montreal
Sylvie Dion
The topic of this article is the representation of the Other in journalistic
discourse, particularly the way foreigners are represented in the fait divers
of some Montreal newspapers. These representations comprise a discourse
based on perceptions of the relation between ethnicity and criminality.
Most of the examples in this article refer to the Chinese community and
in a wider sense to the Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and other Asian
communities which we have grouped together under the label “Asian”
(presuming that generally Quebecers do not, at first glance, make a
distinction between these communities). In the course of our research it
became evident that the most frequently recurring topics in relation to the
Asian community were those implying food intoxication, contamination
and poisoning.
The official discourse on the Other in Québec has traditionally
been positive (the week of interculturalism, the antiracism movement,
fait divers = human interest story.
Translated by Mirja Huovelin. This study has been financed by the Social Science and
Humanities Research Council of Canada 1990-1993 and has been carried out at Université
Laval de Québec within the project “Relational stakes in the discourse on the Other;
discursive expression of relations between the French Quebekers and the Vietnamese”
(“L’enjeu relationnel des discours sur l’autre; l’expression discursive des relations entre
Québécois francophone et Vietnamiens”). The main researcher is Lucille Guilbert and the
co-researcher Sylvie Dion. This study on the fait divers and its uses is also part of a postdoctoral study carried out jointly at CELAT and at l’Université du Québec à Rimouski.
We would also like to thank Alain Bélanger, language and linguistics teacher at Fundação
Universidade do Rio Grande, who collaborated in the study and in the writing of this
article.The examples used in this article are part of a corpus of 3,500 fait divers collected
over a period of one year (from August 1990 to July 1991 inclusively) from two francophone
daily newspapers published in Montreal: La Presse and Journal de Montréal.
Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers of Some Montreal Newspapers
the publicity campaign on the positive effects cultural communities have
on the development of a country, etc.). It aims at emphasizing the
humanitarian need to have good relations with foreigners. However, the
official discourse seems to be countered to a great degree by another type
of discourse which brings to light, beyond politics, the feelings that the
Other has always provoked in One.
This Other has many faces. Here we shall concentrate on the
immigrant, in other words on the individual who, at odds with his national
roots, tries to become integrated into the majority culture. This attempt
on the part of the immigrant gives rise to tension between One and the
Other. In this article, we would like to highlight the apparent contradiction
between the official discourse on foreigners on the one hand, and the
negative, even brutal and murderous reactions of citizens towards these
foreigners on the other hand. While systematic publicity campaigns are
organized in order to give a positive face to the arrival of immigrants, the
streets are bursting with prejudice and increasingly close-minded attitudes
resulting in mass movements against foreigners.
How to explain the inefficiency of the official political discourse
on the representation that we as citizens have of the Other? We advance
the following argument: of the many discourses on the Other, the most
efficient ones are those based on a narrative structure, in other words,
those presented in the form of a story. We shall illustrate this argument by
studying a particularly ideologically productive discursive genre: the fait
divers.3 Our analysis extends, however, just as well to tales, legends and
Rumors and urban legends, discursive practices of our time,
mirrors of our collective fears, creep into our everyday conversations all
the time. The contemporary legend, “as a folkloric genre of collective
communication, does not only mean oral transfer: the media, the written
word, images and electronic messages also convey it.”4 In this sense, the
fait divers is often only the written version of a legend. Michel Maffesoli
For more information on the fait divers, see: Sylvie Dion (Ed.) “Autopsie du fait divers,”
Tangence 37, September 1992: 188. Three articles deal with the fait divers and its uses
and the title “readings of a fait divers” (“lectures d’un fait divers”) groups together five
articles which analyze and comment a story of a family massacre.
Campion-Vincent, V, J.-B. Renard, Légendes urbaines, rumeurs d’aujourdhui, Paris,
Payot, p. 8-10. “Genre folklorique de communication collective” la légende contemporaine
“n’est pas uniquement de transmission orale: les médias, l’écrit, l’image, les messages
électroniques la relayent également.”
Sylvie Dion
speaks of the fait divers as “one of the many forms of social aggregation,
one good reason for people to meet, to do something together … the fait
divers, having been an event and then an image, becomes the commentary
of a small group, an occasion for common discussion.”5 The written
account of an event is never fixed and final. Every discourse is part of a
re-enactment cycle whose actors and forms of expression are numerous.
In fact, the printed version of a fait divers is never more than just one
temporary stage of a discourse which is re-enacted in what could be called
its re-enactment cycle. An event, transformed into a story, undergoes
several re-enactments (legends, rumors, anecdotes, etc.). It is henceforth
accessible to us in the form of the story into which it has been built and
each of its re-enactments constitutes a different version of the story.
The Other in the fait divers of Quebec
The fait divers is the prototype of discourse on violence, exclusion and
marginalization, and the immigrant is one of its favoured characters. It
draws a profile of a law-breaking Other, a transgressor that is often
personified by the immigrant, the neo-citizen (not to say the non-citizen).
The relation between the transgression described and the ethnic origin of
the transgressor contributes to the moulding of the image we build of
immigrants and of their country of origin.
The versions of a fait divers that we find in daily newspapers
must be distinguished from the much longer and more detailed versions
that we find in specialized papers. In this article we only deal with fait
divers found in daily newspapers in urban Montreal. Some of them figure
on the very first pages of the paper (usually local crimes) while others can
be found in the mid-sections and some even in the sports pages (usually
foreign fait divers). Local fait divers are those which concern directly a
given community (the transgressor lives in the community and the event
takes place in the immediate environment of the reader). Therefore, several
pieces of information can be correctly interpreted only by the people to
whom the story is addressed, only by the “initiated” (people who share
Maffesoli, Michel, “Une forme d’agrégation tribale,” Autrement, no 98: 90: “l’une des
multiples formes d’agrégation sociale, un des fils qui permettent aux personnes de se
rencontrer, de communier. … le fait divers après avoir été événement puis image, il devient
commentaire d’un petit groupe, occasion de parole commune.”
Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers of Some Montreal Newspapers
information on familiar places, common practices, etc.). The literal sense
of the story remains, of course, intelligible also to those outside the
community in question. In any case, the local fait divers carries also, and
in particular, pieces of information of pragmatic nature which cannot be
understood by a person who is not directly concerned by that fait divers.
A story makes implicit and explicit use of the cultural knowledge of the
reader. Stories relating events taking place abroad concern a community
insofar as they confirm our prejudices of the Other and intrigue us by
their exoticism or strangeness. Local or international, these stories play a
part in shaping the image that a community makes of other communities.
Thus, certain crimes are associated with certain ethnic groups,
and each community becomes associated with criminal characteristics
which will feed discourse based on perceptions and racial prejudices. Here
are some examples from our corpus, illustrating some of the most common
prejudices concerning the immigrants in Quebec:
The Italians are associated with the mafia and organized crime:
“Microphones in the graves of the mafia”
(“Des micros dans les tombes de la mafia”6)
“To the Lachine Canal to get rid of his wife”
(“Dans le canal Lachine pour en finir avec sa femme”7)
The Arabs are associated with barbarian and cruel manners, religious
“Thieves got their fingers cut off”
(“Voleurs aux doigts coupés”8)
“Stoned to death for having raped two little girls”
(“Lapidé à mort pour avoir violé deux fillettes”9)
Blacks are associated with violence, incidents in the Montreal metro,
street fights and gang attacks:
Journal de Montréal, 16th December 1990: 2.
Journal de Montréal, 11th June 1991: 3.
Journal de Montréal, September 1990: 25.
Journal de Montréal, 15th May 1991: 61.
Sylvie Dion
“Incidents in the metro”
(“Incidents dans le métro”10)
“Brawl in a bar on Papineau Street, two blacks arrested”
(“Rixe dans un bar de la rue Papineau, deux noirs arrêtés”11)
The Latino-Americans are associated with drugs and poor treatment of
“Cocaine in the buttons of his trousers”
(“La coke dans les boutons de culotte.…”12)
“Cocaine in a push chair”
(“La coke dans une poussette”13)
“Would exchange baby for a tape recorder”
(“Échangerait bébé contre magnétophone”14)
“They sold their children at an auction”
(“Ils vendaient leurs enfants aux enchères”15)
Finally, the Asians, many of whom own or work in restaurants or grocery
stores, are most often associated with unclean conditions of the
establishments and cases of food-poisoning:
“On the menu: mice excrement and cockroaches”
(“Au menu, excréments de souris et coquerelles”16)
“Cockroaches replaced by mice at Mon Nam”
(“Des souris délogeuses de coquerelles au Mon Nam” 17)
They are also attributed sick humor and perverse sexuality, as illustrated
by the following examples:
“Baby left on a doorstep at Christmas, a father’s cruel joke”
(“Bébé abandonné devant une porte à Noël, une farce cruelle du père”18)
Journal de Montréal, 15th April 1991.
Journal de Montréal, 15th October 1990: 3.
Journal de Montréal, 27th April 1991: 41.
Journal de Montréal, 17th May 1991: 21.
Journal de Montréal, 23th December 1990: 15.
Journal de Montréal, 4th January 1991: 12.
La Presse, 27th October 1990.
La Presse, 9th February 1991.
Journal de Montréal, 28th December 1990: 11.
Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers of Some Montreal Newspapers
“Ruined because of sex!”
(“Ruiné à cause du sexe!”19)
“His penis cut off and thrown down the toilet”
(“Son pénis coupé et jeté aux toilettes!”20)
The Asian in the fait divers
Every week, in the Saturday edition of several daily papers in Quebec,
notably that of La Presse and Journal de Montréal, a fait divers column is
dedicated to the condemnation and the fines given to merchants and
restaurant owners who have been found guilty of unclean establishments
by the inspectors of the city’s environment section. Among the most
obtrusive headings:
“Cockroaches and rodent excrement everywhere!”
(“Des coquerelles et des excréments de rongeurs partout!”21)
“Cockroaches were dancing on the table”
(“Les Blattes dansaient sur la table …”22)
“Excrement in the window!”
(“Des excréments dans la vitrine!”23)
These fait divers report all sorts of offences related to food and
public hygiene. The great majority of restaurants found in these stories
are Asian (Chinese, Vietnamese). To these we can add the occasional
international fait divers, also dealing with restaurants or eating habits,
such as the one which appeared in the Journal de Montréal on March
24th, 1991: “Sandwiches stuffed with human meat.”24 It is the story of a
Pekinese restaurant owner who, over a period of several years, served
special sandwiches that made his establishment famous. The stuffing of
the sandwiches was made of human flesh, supplied by the restaurant
owner’s brother who worked in a crematory! This happened in Peking but
Journal de Montréal, 15th December 1991: 14.
Journal de Montréal, 12th March 1991: 7.
La Presse, 4th May 1991.
Journal de Montréal, 4th May 1991.
Journal de Montréal, 11th May 1991.
Journal de Montréal 24th, 1991, “Pains farcis à la chair humaine.”
Sylvie Dion
it could just as well have happened in Montreal’s Chinatown. The selling
of human flesh and involuntary cannibalism is a subject often associated
with Asians and with exotic food.
The Asian restaurants attract us by the exoticism of their cuisine,
very distinctive from the traditional culinary practices of Quebec. In the
minds of Quebecers, China has for long represented the antipode, another
world, the land of the missionaries, 25 the Chinese children of Sainte
Enfance (a charitable organization) that could be “adopted” for just a
couple of cents. Eating at an Asian restaurant means breaking away from
the ordinary routine. But this adventure is not risk-free: a number of legends
and fait divers as well as a great many rumors are there to remind us of
the potential dangers. In fact, notwithstanding the appetizing presentation,
the consumer does not always recognize what is on his or her plate. There
is doubt as to the origin of certain meats: cat meat or chicken meat—who
can tell after they have been rendered unrecognizable by the chefs? What
goes on in the kitchen while we are tasting the wine and waiting for our
meal? It seems that certain spices they use to season (or to conceal) the
food cause serious allergies …26
An episode of the famous American cartoon, The Simpsons,27
warns us of the risk that is sometimes involved in Asian exoticism. Under
pressure from his wife Marge and their three children Bart, Lisa and
Maggie, Homer Simpson agrees to take his family to a Japanese restaurant.
Sceptical and consulting the menu with disgust, he says: “What could I
possibly choose, everything seems so bad!” Then he tastes the food, lets
himself be seduced by its appearance and the aromas, and ends up pigging
out on the food. At the end of the meal the waiter tells him that he has
very probably eaten the poisoned part of the fish that he had just finished
eating. Homer spends the rest of the evening at the emergency ward of the
In the same episode, the depraved sexual manners of the Asians
are also evoked. It is because of these manners that Homer got poisoned
in the first place. Indeed, during the meal the Simpson family were having,
Several idiomatic expressions in Quebec French show this: “creuser jusqu’en Chine”
(“to dig till China”) which means “to dig a very deep hole;” “se croire en Chine” (“as if
one was in China”), used when one wants to express a feeling of being disoriented; “se
rendre en Chine” (“to go to China”), in other words “to go very far,” etc.
Roberge, Martine, La Rumeur, Cahier du CELAT, Quebec, 1989.
The Simpsons, Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky, producers, George Meyer, coproducer.
Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers of Some Montreal Newspapers
the chef left the restaurant in order to make love to a woman who was
waiting for him at the back of the restaurant in her car. The chef left the
kitchen at the hands of his young, inexperienced assistant whose job it
became to cut up the fish ordered by Homer.
In the fait divers which deal with the Asian restaurants of Montreal,
it is not so much a question of exotic food but rather of unclean
establishments. Without a doubt a touchy subject for Quebecers, unclean
conditions are a visible sign of a disturbing reality, marring the reputation
of the establishments and their employees. At the heart of everyday worries
and the most common of practices, cleanliness is often the first criterion
(and the only one if it is negative) in the evaluation of an establishment or
a person. The clean represents that which is acceptable, under control,
normal. Conversely, the dirty (or the unclean) represents that which is
unacceptable, excessive, abnormal.
In this sense, it would be interesting to study the anecdotes people
tell about the trips they have taken since they usually include information
about the cultural practices related to hygiene. Once back at home, the
traveller tells about the cleanliness of restaurants, hotels and public toilets,
comments in positive or negative terms about the cleanliness, or the
apparent cleanliness, of the people.
Incidentally, in traditional rural Quebec, the issue of cleanliness
entered the collective popular imaginary, identifying the beggar or the
vagabond as foreign, dirty and badly-dressed. There are many legends
that tell about the damaging things done by these people, also called
“guénilloux” (“wearing rags”) and “jeteux de sorts” (“witches”). The
dirtiness of these social misfits was often enough to justify their rejection.
In this vein, a Quebec version of a type 750A story the ridiculous
wishes entitled “The two foresters turned farmers”28 recounts the different
destinies of two lumberjacks who had received three wishes each from a
magic source. The first lumberjack, married to a tidy woman, makes
judicious wishes and becomes rich and prosperous. The second one,
married to an untidy woman, makes eccentric wishes and remains poor
and unhappy all his life.
This rural discourse on cleanliness is still very much alive and
has been productively reformulated in the urban setting and displaced
from the Quebec poor vagabond to the foreign immigrant, particulalry
the Asian. The fait divers on Asian restaurants are in fact stories of a
Lemieux, Les vieux m’ont conté, vol 8, story no 8, “Les deux forestiers devenus fermiers.”
Sylvie Dion
successful hunt in which Montreal city inspectors discover and expose
transgressors and poisoners. The discovery of unclean conditions is the
main goal of such a hunt. Every transgression is described in a detailed
fashion. The unclean conditions take several different forms. First these
stories examine the physical space, in particular the areas where the food
is prepared or stored and where it is exposed to insects and vermin:
“In fact, that day, the inspectors noticed that the flooring behind the
service counter was torn and covered by a black, greasy and sticky
“Excrements of mice here and there, dead cockroaches, dust and
grease, this is what two MUC inspectors found during their visit to
the Parc de Chine Ltée restaurant, situated at … in Montreal.”30
Words such as grease; greasy; mould; fly, mice, vermin excrement;
blackened, charred, sticky, gluey kitchen utensils; yellowish, blackened,
stained walls, walls soiled with black stains or with dried food left-overs
constitute the semantic field of unclean conditions and of disgust. The
presence of mice or of traces of mice or cockroaches, dead or living
cockroaches are not merely proof of the insalubrity and the strangeness
of the place but also evoke the image of a place of witchcraft.
From time to time, we can add to this vermin hunt the discovery
of non-labelled food items of unidentified origins and of food items kept
at inappropriate temperatures.
At the Kuy Lim grocery store, … “food not conforming to regulations,” in other words food items “of unidentified origins,” were
sold …. Since there were no labels on them and the owner was not
able to produce any receipts, the inspectors immediately destroyed
the food before it got away.”31
“Un restaurant chinois sale, graisseux et très croûté!” (“A dirty, greasy and very grubby
Chinese restaurant”) Journal de Montréal, 29th September 1990: 4.
“En fait, ce jour-là, les inspecteurs ont remarqué que le revêtement du plancher, à l’arrière
du comptoir de service, était déchiré et couvert d’une croûte noire, graisseuse et collante.”
“Restaurant chinois condamné pour malpropreté” (“A Chinese restaurant closed due to
uncleanliness”) Journal de Montréal, 27th October 1990.
“Ça ne sent pas bon derrière le Burger King …” (“It doesn’t smell good behind Burger
King …”) La Presse, 6th July 1991.
“à l’épicerie Kuy Lim, … on vendait des ‘aliments non conformes à la loi,’ c’est-à-dire
‘de provenance inconnue’ …. Les inspecteurs ont immédiatement détruit ces aliments
avant qu’ils ne prennent la fuite, car ils ne possédaient aucune inscription, et le propriétaire
n’a pu fournir aucune facture.”
Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers of Some Montreal Newspapers
Thus, these articles denounce at the same time the potentially
dangerous exotic food (in the example above, the food seems to have the
ability of running away on its own …) and those who prepare, handle,
transform and eventually sell this poisonous food “of unidentified origins.”
The immigrant, the refugee, is he not often considered to be “not
conforming to regulations” and “of unidentified origins?” The dirtiness,
the grease and the filth only hide the real nature of things. The dirtiness of
the establishments becomes by association the dirtiness of the owners of
the establishments and the owners are foreigners. These restaurant owners,
at whom we point our finger, are not really part of the group, they are not
considered to be full-fledged citizens (or they are no longer considered as
such because of the transgression they have committed), we do not know
their background, we have doubts about their identity (who are they exactly,
where do they come from, why have they left their country?); and finally,
the fact that they are dirty and want to poison us, justifies ultimately our
rejection of them.
The Asian restaurant, depicted as above, gives concrete expression
to the fear and to the potential threat the Other represents for us. This fear
often manifests itself as disgust. Food judged unfit for consumption
becomes poisoned food and the person who produced it becomes a
The diffusion of these fait divers in conversations reinforces the
prejudice towards immigrants’ behavior, judged strange or abnormal.
People feed their conversations on these fait divers, which will be
remembered in connection to other similar stories echoing prejudice, as
these made-up phrases demonstrate:
Chinese restaurants apparently serve cats (rats) to their clients.
Asian restaurant owners are apparently really dirty, especially in
Montreal, there are apparently bugs and vermin everywhere.
The Chinese apparently eat dogs and rats.
In short, the Chinese and the Vietnamese poison the Quebecois.32
As a conformist discursive practice, as a vehicle of generally
accepted ideas, as a story of transgression featuring ordinary people in
real-life situations, the fait divers, by its thematic recurrence and its
popularity among the people, has an impact on cultural presuppositions
and prejudice, and consequently, on intercultural relations.
Roberge, Martine, La Rumeur, Cahier du CELAT, Quebec, 1989.
Sylvie Dion
Whenever different cultures meet, we are faced with a complex
situation which raises problems for both the immigrant and the host society.
Even before two people of different cultures start talking to each other,
they already have a preconceived image of the other person. When a person
is placed in a situation in which he/she has to interact with people from
other cultures, he/she does this by the rules of his/her own culture and by
the perception he/she has of this other culture. There is a risk of being
misunderstood unless the persons involved acquire a certain knowledge
of each other’s cultures.
The fait divers expresses a xenophobic fear of being contaminated
by the Other, the threat represented by the Other becomes real and the
transgression related justifies the exclusion of the Other because this Other
is dirty, a poisoner, a rapist, a person guilty of fraud, a thief, a murderer.
Accompanied by a rumor or a legend, the fait divers relates, re-enacts and
feeds prejudices and generally accepted ideas. Whether in its oral or written
form, this popular genre feeds our ignorance of the immigrant, ignorance
which in turn moulds the fait divers. Their unremitting circulation in our
daily lives transforms these stories into particularly powerful tools of
Poison: Asians in the Fait Divers of Some Montreal Newspapers
Works Cited
Auclair, Georges. Le mana quotidien: structures et fonctions de la
chronique des faits divers. Paris: Anthropos, (Coll. sociologie et
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Barthes, Roland. “La structure du fait divers,” in Essais critiques. Paris:
Seuil, 1966.
Baillon, Jean-Claude ed. “Faits-divers annales des passions excessives,”
Autrement, Paris: No 98, April 1988.
Campion-Vincent, Véronique and Jean-Bruno Renard eds. Rumeurs et
légendes contemporaines, communications 52, Paris: Seuil, 1990.
Campion-Vincent, Véronique and Jean-Bruno Renard. Légendes
urbaines, Rumeurs d’aujourd’hui. Paris: Payot, 1992.
Dion, Sylvie. “Le fait divers comme genre narratif.” Imprévue, théorie(s)
du texte et du genre. Etudes sociocritiques. Montpellier, 1988, N o
2: 45-55.
Dion Sylvie ed. “Autopsie du fait divers.” Tangence. Rimouski, N o 37,
—. “La rupture de la quotidienneté.” Autopsie du fait divers. Tangence,
Rimouski, N o 37, 1992.
Du Berger, Jean. Pratiques culturelles traditionnelles. Quebec: Rapports
et mémoires de recherche du CELAT, No 13, January 1989.
Kristeva, Julia. Étrangers à nous-mêmes. Paris: Gallimard, 1988.
Musée National des Arts et Traditions populaires (France), Le fait divers
[exhibition / edited by Alain Monestier and Jacques Cheyronnaud].
Paris: éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1982.
(exhibition held in Paris, at the Musée des arts et traditions
populaires, from 19th November 1982 to 18th April 1983,
exhibition catalogue.)
Roberge, Martine. La rumeur. Cahier du CELAT, Quebec: 1989.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Nous et les autres. Paris: Seuil, 1989.

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