For documentarian Karen Cho, signs that one often associates with death ironically point to a living, breathing Chinatown. “I remember telling my cameraman and cinematographers that what I was most excited about seeing were funeral stores,” says Cho, recalling her time filming in New York City’s Chinatown. “The ones that have the paper and objects that you burn–the sticks, money, all of that. This funeral parlour store is the thing that, when I see [it] in a Chinatown, I know that Chinatown is alive.”
Cho is talking about the items needed for traditional Buddhist funerals, ones you can’t find in any Walmart or corner store. They’re specific, unique, and can only be found in shops tailored specifically for this purpose. You can usually only find these stores in predominantly Chinese communities. When Cho comes across one of these shops in a Chinatown, she therefore knows that there are actual Chinese residents living there. The Chinatown in question isn’t simply a tourist destination.
“When there’s a strong residential base in the Chinatown, there’s going to be [Chinese] grocery stores, the eye doctor, the notary, the pharmacist. Basic services that are for residents versus the Disneyfied Chinatowns like London,” Cho explains. “Montreal even went that way because they tore down all our residential buildings, and then it became outward facing. Everything in Chinatown is [now] made for tourists — key chain shops, bubble tea places, all this kind of stuff.”
Cho’s latest film, Big Fight in Little Chinatown, explores the ever-changing history of Chinatowns, specifically ones in North America, including Montreal (Cho’s hometown), Vancouver, New York City, and San Francisco. The film not only dates these neighbourhoods back to their settlement, but Cho also looks at the present-day fight to keep them from being swallowed by gentrification.
In many ways, the idea for the film began when Cho was in production on her first documentary short, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain. That film examined the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada and its ongoing effects on the country and Chinese-Canadians; naturally, the film launched in Chinatowns across the country when it was released in 2004. “I really got to know the different Chinatowns in Canada and the communities that were connected to them,” says Cho. “To come back almost 20 years later and see some of the Chinatowns that I knew so well in a period of decline or erasure was concerning.”
Cho began research for the film by connecting with various organizations and associations like Coast to Coast Chinatowns Against Displacement, a grassroots coalition fighting to save the heritage of Chinatowns in the US and Canada. She attended a conference hosted by Coast to Coast in New York City in March 2020 where she heard from community members about the threat of development to Chinatowns big and small.
For Cho, Chinatowns aren’t simply a point of interest but a connection to her own family’s heritage. A fifth generation Chinese-Canadian, the first Chinese members of Cho’s family arrived in Canada during the Gold Rush and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late-19th Century. Having emigrated from the Toisan region of Guangdong, China, Cho’s ancestors were some of the earlier Chinese-Canadians to settle in the country.
Her grandmother’s family arrived in Montreal in 1898 and her great-grandfather was a partner in Wing Lung, the business that would eventually become Wings Noodles Ltd., which continues to operate today. One of her great-grandfathers was an early member of the Chinese Empire Reform Association and would have worked alongside Alexander Won Cum-yow, an early advocate for Chinese people’s rights in then-British North America and a leader of the Chinese community in British Columbia.
In researching for Big Fight in Little Chinatown, Cho discovered that her familial elder had a bit of a mischievous side. “My family was merchant class at the time and he was a kind of market gardener, but he was also a notorious figure in Chinatown,” Cho laughs. “I discovered connections to gambling rings, running a still outside of our family house in Vancouver, and lots of stuff about him getting arrested.”
More than most people, Cho understands the importance of Chinatowns to the Chinese diaspora and why, over a century after the first Chinese immigrants came to Canada, they continue to be important meeting places for our community.
“Chinese were the only people in Canada to have 62 years of legislated racism against their immigration into the country,” Cho explains. “There were laws on the books until very recently in some cases, where Chinese were not allowed to own land in certain places and certain cities, or to be in certain professions. We were also not allowed to vote until after the Second World War. All of that created this environment where Chinatowns, on some level, were the only places we were allowed to be.”
She continues: “What Chinatown symbolizes for us as a community [is that] it was really the place where the diaspora was able to write its story in Canada. Amongst all these racist laws and different things against us, we still managed to carve out a space to belong in a place that was very hostile towards the Chinese.”
Through Big Fight in Little Chinatown, Cho highlights efforts of Chinese people across the US and Canada who fight to save these spaces and the rich history that comes with it. Simultaneously, she acknowledges the need for progress in Chinatown.
“It’s not ‘Save Chinatown of the 1960s’ where we built a cultural centre, put up a dragon lamp post, and made a gate — we’re in ‘Save Chinatown 2.0’ right now,” Cho observes. “Those markers were good for what they did at the time, but now the cultural heritage of the neighbourhood is really the key to [Chinatowns’] future.”
Among the main subjects of Big Fight in Little Chinatown are the Lums of New York City. Mei Lum is the fifth generation and current owner of Wing on Wo & Co., a porcelain store that is the oldest operating shop of any kind in New York’s Chinatown. Cho met Lum during her trip to New York in 2020 and was enamoured with the passion and knowledge Lum has for her neighbourhood.
Lum represents the future of Chinatowns in the film. She demonstrates how she intends to continue her family’s business but, like Cho, she understands the need for it to resonate with contemporary life in order to preserve our diasporic heritage.
“Wing on Wo [has] become a kind of Mecca for young Asian-Americans and Canadians, especially folks from the queer community. Mei runs an artists’ residency out of the basement of her shop, so it’s become a gathering space and lots of young people know about it,” reveals Cho. “It’s funny because [Wing on Wo] is like the oldest thing in the Chinatown, but it’s breathing new life and creating new cultural production.”
As Chinatowns move from the cities to the suburbs and developers, it will be the most vulnerable of our community who will feel the effects of the inevitable shift in the neighbourhood. Hopefully, though, through the efforts of advocates and leaders like Lum, and filmmakers like Cho who bring attention to the cultural importance of Chinatowns, our proud heritage will continue to thrive for generations to come.
Big Fight in Little Chinatown premiered at Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival and DOC NYC, and screens at RIDM later this month.