Montreal filmmaker Karen Cho sees Chinatowns in Canada as places with layered meanings. Once a haven for Chinese bachelors due to a discriminatory head tax and exclusion legislation, these neighbourhoods have survived for 150 years in some cities, including Vancouver. This is despite extended periods of intense racism directed against Chinese people in Canada, as well as pressure from the real-estate sector to gentrify.
“To me, Chinatown is kind of like this blade of grass growing in the cement—that, maybe, shouldn’t be there,” Cho tells Pancouver over Zoom. “It’s in a hostile environment.”
Her most recent documentary, Big Fight in Little Chinatown, chronicles how community advocates and local businesspeople are resisting gentrification and breathing new life into Chinatowns in New York, Montreal, and Vancouver. She’s delighted that her film will be screened as part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. That’s because Vancouver’s Chinatown is connected to the broader district.
“It’s a real honour that the film will be there,” Cho says. “So folks—I hope from different groups that represent the Chinatown-Downtown Eastside neighbourhood—can be in dialogue around that.”
Her family roots extend into Chinatowns in Vancouver and Montreal. Her 2004 National Film Board documentary, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, featured stories from residents of both cities who had paid the racist head tax. Some also spoke of their family’s suffering as a result of 1923 legislation banning almost all Chinese immigration to Canada. This law was repealed in 1947.
As a result of this earlier film, Cho visited many other Chinatowns for screenings.
“That was almost 20 years ago now,” she says. “So, fast-forwarding into the present, I could see the state of these places.”
Pandemic created big hurdle
She began thinking about her latest film in 2019 when gentrification resulted in “two giant holes” on two sides of Chinatown in Montreal.
Then in March of 2020, Cho attended a gathering in New York City of representatives of several Chinatowns. This set the stage for her to to make a documentary focusing on Chinatowns in a few cities. Initially, she hoped to include Chinatowns in San Francisco and possibly Havana and London.
However, her plans to film in New York’s Chinatown encountered a huge obstacle when the city was shut down in the pandemic. Making things worse, COVID-19 restrictions prevented Cho from crossing the border into New York to film. This occurred as its Chinatown community was mobilizing to fight plans to place a new jail in the area.
Cho also faced another challenge: capturing the energy of Chinatowns in Vancouver and Montreal in the midst of a pandemic. Just as she was working on the film, Chinese restaurants couldn’t host huge banquets.
“Logistically, it was very difficult because I wanted to show how special and vibrant and amazing these Chinatowns are—and the living community within that,” Cho says. “But it’s really hard to do that when you’re in lockdown and everybody is not gathering anymore.”
A spirit of resistance
Fortunately, she found a cinematographer, Nathaniel Brown, who could film activists in New York trying to save their Chinatown. Cho gauges the health of Chinatowns by the types of businesses in the area. If there are hardly any green grocers, for instance, that’s a major concern. It suggests that local residents’ needs are not a priority. Moreover, if there are too many key-chain shops and hipster coffee bars, it’s a sign that the neighbourhood is catering to outside forces.
One thing she noticed in New York’s Chinatown, on the other hand, was a full-on funeral parlour. Plus, stores offered paper effigies that can be burned as part of a Chinese person’s last rites.
“I remember telling the cinematographer, ‘Shoot the funeral store!’ Because to me that tells me the place is alive,” Cho says with a laugh. “People are still doing their cultural practices in the neighbourhood.”
Big Fight in Little Chinatown makes use of music to reinforce the spirit of resistance that imbues the film. With the help of music director David Drury, Cho included the song “A Stranger in Paradise” in a section dealing with New York’s Chinatown. This version was sung by The Cathays, a doo-wop group of Asian American singers who performed in the neighbourhood in the 1950s and ’60s.
“So, it’s literally a song from the community,” Cho says.
The Cathays sing “A Stranger in Paradise”.
Chinatowns symbolized Chinese presence
In the Montreal section of the film, she included “Chinatown Blues” by Quebec’s Luc de Larochellière.
“If you understand French, the lyrics of that song are very poignant,” the director explains. “It’s about people from the suburbs—outsiders—looking in at the shop windows at the Chinatown folks and realizing that they have it better than all these people in Chinatown. And Chinatown is a kind of state of mind.”
Big Fight in Little Chinatown draws attention to historic and contemporary racism, which exploded in violent incidents of anti-Asian hatred during the pandemic.
In one section of the film, UBC historian Henry Yu tries to contextualize this. According to him, many in society have wanted to see the death of Chinatowns for a very long time.
Yu points out that clusters of Chinese-language signs and Chinese-operated businesses in Chinatowns have long symbolized the existence of Chinese people. In Vancouver, this led a mob of white racists going on a rampage in 1907, shattering shop windows and assaulting Chinese residents.
“If you want to get rid of the Chinese, you train your bull’s eye—your target—onto Chinatowns,” Yu says.
Watch the trailer for Big Fight in Little Chinatown.
Retaining Chinatown values
Fortunately, as Cho’s film demonstrates, business owners and activists in three major Chinatowns in North America haven’t given up the fight to preserve these cornerstones of their heritage.
Nowadays, Cho is not overly concerned about new languages being spoken in various Chinatowns as long as these areas maintain their values.
Furthermore, she hopes that they remain a haven where new immigrants can gain a foothold and open family businesses.
“In my Chinatown, there are a lot of Vietnamese folks and francophones when the original people, like my grandmother, spoke Toisanese or Cantonese,” Cho says. “To me, it’s about that Chinatown spirit.”
The Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival will present a free screening of Big Fight in Little Chinatown at the Carnegie Community Centre Theatre. It takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday (November 3). The festival runs from October 25 to November 5 at various locations.