MONTREAL -- Don't expect Montreal's Chinatown to be the same after COVID-19, say those at its centre.

"It’s such a small Chinatown, and to see some things closed up kind of hurts," says Eric Ku, who now owns Dobe & Andy Restaurant after taking it over from his dad, who opened it in the 1980s.

All the change "hurts me," he said. "Hurts us as a community."

Chinatown had changed a lot even before COVID-19 and the unique little enclave was threatened.

Back in the day, "it was a safe place for Chinese people to do their groceries and go eat dim sum on Sunday and buy their ducks," Ku said.

But over the years, it's been nearly swallowed up by downtown.

Now, at a crisis point, some of the area's defenders are taking action to try to preserve it, with the city's help. While concerns have circulated for months, the first concrete steps will take place this summer.

"It is our history, our culture, our tradition, our landmark in Quebec," said Jimmy Chang, with the Chinese Association.

"How special is it that Montreal’s Chinatown is the only francophone Chinatown in all of Canada?"

Most recently there's been a sharp increase in vacant lots there, as well as construction. The city's taking the first steps to protect the area, starting with just defining it.

"There is a challenge in even determining what is the perimeter of Chinatown, so that’s one of the first things we want to do," said city councillor Cathy Wong, who sits on the executive committee.

But the city doesn't want to just stem the current damage but to look at the big-picture situation, she said.

"A lot of Chinese have raised the fact that parts of Chinatown were destroyed because of Palais des Congres, because of Guy Favreau, so the consultations will take into account not only the current Chinatown but the historic Chinatown."

In another move, Montreal city government has asked the province to grant Chinatown a historic designation, which would ensure that new buildings would conform to the old style of the area.

Some say preserving the area depends on restricting development, but others say Chinatown needs an influx of people right now.

"Gentrification or development doesn’t have to go unabated in the community," said Karen Cho of the Chinatown Working Group.

"New developments need to make reference to the living community around them -- the buildings around them, the human scale of everything in that neighbourhood."

Ku, the restaurant owner, said that when he sees construction underway, "as long as it brings more traffic into the area, I’m fine with it. As long as it preserves the heritage of Chinatown."

Recommendations from the working group will be issued in a few weeks.