L.A. Asian Pacific Film Fest 2023 Interview: Karen Cho on How a Community Rallies in “Big Fight in Little Chinatown”

When Karen Cho was doing archival research for her latest film “Big Fight in Little Chinatown,” the precious scraps of footage she could find in the archives of Canada’s public broadcast network CBC regarding Chinatowns throughout the country could only make her more emboldened that he was on the right path in wanting to document the communities that have been long under threat, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’d been buried in there, it wasn’t even digitized,” Cho said of what she and her research team was able to resurface. “It’s a running joke because I’m part of the Chinatown Working Group in Montreal and I work with the people organizing to save the Chinatown, so whenever we have an event or do something, I always say, ‘We have to take a picture’ because at the time when you’re in the fight, you don’t necessarily take time to document or think about what you’re doing. You’re just putting out fires everywhere. But as someone who digs into those treasure troves of archives of the past, [you see] how important it is to have that photo of that action that happened to be able to tell a story into the future.”

Cho is able to speak to multiple generations in “Big Fight in Little Chinatown,” rolling cameras at a critical time for the Asian community when the lockdown imposed by the coronavirus brought potentially devastating effects to the small businesses that already operated on thin margins to create sustainability within the neighborhood and unravel the social fabric that had been built up for decades as elders were especially susceptible to the virus. However, as the director observes, this once-in-a-lifetime crisis wasn’t as rare a calamity within the long-marginalized areas where Chinese immigrants to Canada and the U.S. have made a home for themselves, ultimately setting up residence on the fringe of cities where few would want to live after being brought over to work jobs no one else would want on the railroad and in factories.

Yet in the century-plus since this great migration, the denizens of Chinatowns have built up communities to be proud of, though their hard-won success has had consequences beyond their control – becoming attractive to outside developers who realize success can be had in previously undesirable areas and when family businesses have been set up with the goal of providing their children with opportunities that weren’t available to them, passing them on from one generation to the next isn’t always possible. “Big Fight in Little Chinatown” visits hubs in New York, Vancouver, San Francisco and Cho’s own hometown of Montreal to show both the immediate danger facing these communities as well as the strong cultural values and traditions that they’ve leaned on to withstand so many other challenges in the past. What could be seen as a tragedy unfolding becomes a celebration of resilience and Cho offers as passionate a rebuke as anyone presented in her film to anyone who continues to see the residents of Chinatown as foreigners, illustrating the ideals of family, entrepreneurship and prosperity that are at the core of North American values and seeing the roots they planted grow into cherished quarters in the major cities they are a part of.

Following its premiere last fall at DOC NYC, “Big Fight in Little Chinatown” has raised awareness here and abroad about the precarious state that many of these areas find themselves in today and on the eve of the film’s premiere in Los Angeles at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival and San Francisco at CAAMFest, Cho spoke about doing her part to preserve their legacy on screen as well as off, capturing a particular tumultuous period for Chinatowns and how her personal history influenced the film’s ability to engage from a specific perspective.

Because the issues facing Chinatowns in general were  well beforehand, was this in mind before the pandemic really wreaked havoc?

It wasn’t conceived with COVID in mind because it just so happened that the very, very first research trip I did was right when COVID hit New York and it felt like I was at a coast-to-coast gathering of Chinatowns against displacement and then of course, when I came back to Montreal where I’m based, they shut down New York three days later. Originally, I thought, I’ll just wait a couple of weeks, and then I’ll go back and film. But of course, that wasn’t the case. It became very obvious that COVID was becoming a part of the story, but it also gave a sense of urgency to the storytelling because COVID came down so brutally in Chinatown. There were the regular business shutdowns and health stuff, but then there was the stigmatization of the neighborhood and all the uptick in anti-Asian racism, which really echoed the past of Chinatown, so it was a really important time to be documenting these neighborhoods because of what was happening.

Because you move around North America, did one place lead to another or did you have the scope of this in mind from the start?

Yeah, one thing led to another, like for example my own Chinatown in Montreal is quite small, and initially I I didn’t think it would be a large part of the story. There wasn’t much happening, and there wasn’t much of the Chinatown left, but there’s these very notorious in Montreal developers that descended onto the neighborhood and bought the Wings Noodle Factory, which actually happens to be the oldest operating business in our Chinatown. My own great grandfather was one of the original associates of the business that became Wings Noodle, so in Montreal, we could see that we were literally one condo project away from losing our Chinatown. As a filmmaker, I couldn’t reconcile this idea that I would just be observing or filming the erasure of my own Chinatown, so the cameras quickly turned to a very active fight that just emerged while we were filming.

And even the producers EyeSteel Film have a very rich history of doing engaged, activist storytelling, so I talked with Bob Moore, my producer, and said, “Look, we need to use this footage now. The community needs it. Our Chinatown is about to be swallowed up.” So we used some of the raw footage and things that also ended up ultimately on the cutting room floor to make videos that were used by the Chinatown Working Group up here in Montreal to get the word out and to mobilize people against the kind of erasure that was happening for us, so COVID made the storytelling pivot. I was originally intending to focus very heavily on San Francisco’s Chinatown because it’s the first one in North America, and also the Chinatown in L.A., because it’s very active with a lot of tenant organizing there and it’s also a Chinatown that’s not just comprised of Chinese people, but a big Latinx community and I wanted to explore all of those different things. But I couldn’t even cross the border for the first nine months of making the film [because of COVID] whereas my own Chinatown, I could literally just bike down there with a camera and capture things as it was happening.

Did you find differences in how each community was fighting back or even what it was against or was it mostly overlap?

One thing that was really important to me, and that’s why the film focuses on more than one Chinatown, was this pattern of erasure that I was noticing in all the Chinatowns — and it’s really an intersection between racism and urban planning and the priorities of cities and the choices they make. And even though each Chinatown is different, there’s that similar history in the sense of “This is where we put the freeway, this is where we drop the prison, this is where we expropriate all the land” because this community is seen either as a foreign community, a community of least resistance, or a community that doesn’t have enough power or privilege to fight back, so I did want to draw those parallels.

That’s also why in the editing, as the COVID story unfolded in forward fashion, we also went back in time with the archives. We start in 1981 when Montreal gets expropriated, back to the ’50s in Toronto when the City Hall takes [Chinatown] out, back to the Exclusion Era that set the stage for the family associations of Vancouver, and then back to the very first Chinatown in San Francisco in 1906, after the earthquake when the city was scheming to wipe the place off the city map. You see how generation after generation after generation, there’s always a fight to protect these neighborhoods.

But it’s true every Chinatown has its own unique struggle. New York is fighting against the jail, Montreal is just fighting to have heritage status, and Toronto, it’s big box chains that are coming in, so every community needs to strategize, pivot, and find different tactics of protecting the neighborhoods and it works out in different ways. There’s different philosophies around [about] how do we make this a vibrant place for the future? Some of the smaller Chinatowns, [there are] some people who want shiny new buildings and other people want to preserve the character of the past and shepherd that into the future. Larger Chinatowns have a bigger residential base, and [generally] stronger ecosystems if we think of Chinatown in terms of having things like grocery stores or eyeglass stores or [businesses] that are not just for tourists but for actual residents.

The introductory scene with Jan Lee, a landlord on Mott Street in New York, sets the tone perfectly for the film that follows, standing his turf during an interview after being asked to move off the street – when you shot it, did you know you had an opening? 

Jan was in the middle of talking about the authenticity of a neighborhood and then of course someone interrupts the interview and he has such an authentic New York reaction to the whole thing, so as soon as we saw that, it’s like a blooper or an outtake, but I [thought] “That’s the cold opening.” We had to use this moment because it was important for us – and for the storytelling of the film in general to really anchor the communities of Chinatowns in North American neighborhoods. [For instance] a lot of the music in the film actually comes out of Chinatown — and it’s American music. In the case of New York, the first song we used, “A Stranger in Paradise,” was sang by a doo-wop group called the Cathays that were based in New York’s Chinatown in like the 1950s and ‘60s, and I didn’t want to have like erhus or orientalized-type of music to make it feel like a foreign place because these neighborhoods are very North American and they’re so rooted in the history of the cities that they’re in. And Jan’s attitude as a real New Yorker sets this tone and it’s also focusing on the agency of the community. It’s not just a helpless community watching as gentrification happens to them. It’s an active community and the word “fight” is in the title of the film because the community does have agency to fight back and has done so generation after generation.

After the film’s premiere at DOC NYC, Gary Lum, one of your subjects, said something really moving about how he felt as an Asian, he’s often asked to hold these stories in and he was getting to tell them for the first time. Did you actually sense you were tapping into that as you were making the film?

I was so touched when Gary said that because that was what we were hoping for. It was really important for me to break past this tourist facade of Chinatown that everyone experiences on the street level — the shop front, the windows, or the restaurants. The camera itself literally travels into the Chinatown, going down the stairs, like into the back kitchens, up to the second floor, all of these places where the soul of the community really resides, and it’s being in those places where the point of view of the film [lies], it’s like what Mae Lum says in the film, I experienced Chinatown from my storefront window, looking out – and the goal of the film was really to take that point of view from the residents, looking out onto the change that was happening in their neighborhood.

It really struck me like my own Chinatown was an active erasure while making the film. We would go onto the websites of these condo developers and there’s the Chinatown gate in Montreal, and you’d go on the website of these luxury condo developments and they would say, “We’re a beautiful luxury condo right in the heart of Montreal, right near the Cafeteria du Spectacle at the old port,” as if it’s like a new place. But that neighborhood is actually called Chinatown, so they were literally rewriting the history of a neighborhood that had been there for 150 years, and the history of a people that had been there. It was so disturbing to me and how easy it was to do that and the reason why is because our narrative [as Asian Americans and Canadians] is never been woven into the narrative of the city, so it was so important to tell those stories from that point of view and to have Jerry and Jan, who have thick New York accents [for instance] — it’s a testament to how long people have been there, but also combating that narrative of who and what does a New Yorker look and sound like.

Was there anything that you might not have expected but could embrace? 

Sometimes you have a feeling or a hunch about something. I grew up going to Chinatowns and I always remember like being taken through the neighborhood with my grandmother who grew up there, and when I would go with her, she spoke Toisan. She was born in the neighborhood, and everyone knew her and it was like having the secret keys to the neighborhood. You just go in every door, everyone’s welcoming you when you get this perspective on the place that’s just so special, so at the beginning of making the film, I really wanted to seek out these legacy businesses that had been there so long, because they were in this in-between place, having one foot in the past but also represented the future.

When you spend more time in the businesses like Kam Wai Dim Sum, the business that’s featured in Vancouver, it was such an eye-opener to me because on one level, it’s beautiful. They’re hand-folding everything, and they’re a success story [as far as] selling frozen dim sum. But on another level, they are a business so committed to the neighborhood — their business model is affordable food in a neighborhood where people need affordable food — and they’re a place of stability for all the people whose lives are very unstable, be they because they’re getting displaced or they’re marginalized, so you can see how these businesses that in any other neighborhood maybe just a business, but in Chinatown, it’s part of that ecosystem that keeps the community alive.

What’s it been like getting this out into the world?

It’s been amazing. Of course, I loved making the film, but the best part in a way of the whole process, especially as a documentarian, is being able to take that story and give it back to the community and you know you’ve done your job as a filmmaker when the people in the film feel like it’s their story. One of the best pieces of feedback I’ve had from one of these screenings in Toronto was someone coming up to me and saying, “Karen, I didn’t make this film, but this is my story. In New York, DOC NYC and Reel Asian up in Toronto were happening [the same weekend], and I couldn’t be there for my second screening [in New York], but Jan Lee took over the Q&A and the folks in the film, it’s their film after that, so if they are willing and can take it and shape it the way they want, I think you know you’ve told the story from the proper point of view — their point of view.

“Big Fight in Little Chinatown” will screen at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival on May 7th at 6 pm at the Japanese American National Museum and available online starting May 8th through the end of the festival. It will be screening next at CAAMFest in San Francisco on May 13th at 2:30 pm at the Great Star Theater.

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