Kim Thúy has a restlessness about her; she is unable to sit still. It’s hard to imagine that the writer and host was once a lawyer. She even finds it ironic, seeing as the austerity of the profession is such a contrast to her bubbly public image. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth: the author of Ru and Em spent the first few years of her professional life walking the halls of the CIBC tower, right in the heart of the Stikeman Elliott law firm. “I was there all the time! I ate there, slept there, worked there… I did everything there,” she recalls, laughing. Side note: Kim Thúy ends at least half of everything she says in laughter. “Even love stories, that’s where it all happened,” she adds with a twinkle in her eye.
Is it safe to assume that she has had her fill of downtown Montreal? “Oh no! Not at all! I dream of spending my life in a 3 1/2 downtown. That’s all I need, the downtown core being so rich. It has everything I could dream of: venues, exhibitions, restaurants, movie theatres…”As a student, the young woman would make sure her schedule was as empty as possible on Tuesday afternoons. “At the time, movie tickets were half-price on Tuesdays. Imagine, $3.75! I could watch three movies in one day, running from one theatre to another! I can’t wait for the day I can do this again!”
Stockholm, Tokyo, Paris, New York, Mumbai: globe-trotting Kim Thúy, whose books are translated into 30 or so languages, has always been a city girl. She still agreed to stay at the Banff Centre for the Arts, however, located right in the heart of the forest. “It was so scary! What kind of human would choose to defy the mountains that way? Whose idea was this?!,” she exclaims with that charming exuberance we all know and love. “Stick me in the woods and I feel lost. But put me in a forest with buildings, however, and I can find my way and be happy. After all,” she adds, “I was born in the megapolis of Saigon.”
While they were living in Granby, where they moved after fleeing Viêt-Nam, the Thúy family was sometimes sent to Montreal by their friends to stock up on rice. “There was an Asian grocery store on Saint-Laurent where all Vietnamese people would go. My father was among the first [in Granby’s Vietnamese community] to own a car, so we would fill up the trunk of the Pinto with rice. Montreal wasn’t too far from Granby, but to me, it was a big trip. When we would get there, I would feel right at home in the chaos of the city.”
The family would eventually move to a small Westmount apartment (her father managed a Perrette convenience store), and then to Dollard-des-Ormeaux and Saint-Henri. In moving near the Lionel-Groulx metro station, Mr. and Mrs. Thúy were hoping to keep their daughter at home, preventing her from moving in with classmates. But the downtown cores of this world, including downtown Montreal, would quickly become a refuge for the writer, who loves not having a specific itinerary to follow, instead preferring to let her instincts, curiosity, and senses guide her. “Wherever there are buildings, there are alleys, and alleys are fascinating. It’s OK to lose yourself. In Tokyo, you’ll be walking and suddenly, between two skyscrapers, you’ll find a cemetery. Or among a series of big box stores, you’ll find a small shop that can only serve two customers at a time, where you can buy a pack of matches.”
It’s no surprise that in Montreal, this foodie would have a special fondness for back doors and hidden gems, like the East Pan Asiatique, a resto-bar with a very discreet entrance on Cathcart, and Café Parvis, facing St. James United Church. The large steps at Place des arts, where people like to hang out in summer, is one of her favourite public spaces.To her, it is proof that “when a city is designed for humans, humans show up.”
Kim Thúy dreams of a downtown where gems would be accessible to Montrealers from all neighbourhoods, making all of them feel at home there. “A city cannot be looked at from the ground level only. You need to see it from above,”she says, sharing her hope that the Place Ville-Marie observatory (on the building’s 44th to 46th floor) could one day be available to all Montrealers for free. “If you want people to love something, there’s no other choice: you need to give them art and beauty.”