This is a critical time for North America’s historic Chinatowns, which are facing a mix of gentrification, redevelopment pressure and commercial competition from suburban Chinese enclaves. But Chinatown won’t go without a fight. A new wave of activism is building bridges between generations, communities – and between different Chinatowns across Canada and the United States.
That’s what filmmaker Karen Cho discovered when she set out to work on her documentary Big Fight in Little Chinatown nearly four years ago. Since its release last spring, it has been touring historic Chinese neighbourhoods from Los Angeles to Winnipeg to New York, along with film festivals where it has screened to great acclaim.
“Wherever we go, people are like, ‘That’s the story of my Chinatown,’” says Cho. “Every city is unique, but on a certain level the choices that cities have made around Chinatown are similar. It’s been a dumping ground for all the things you don’t want.”
As we speak, Cho is fresh off a screening in Washington, DC, where Chinatown exists mainly as a decorative gate and a number of restaurants. “It’s like the poster child of what not to do with Chinatown,” she says. Over the years, most of the area’s Chinese population has been displaced by developments like a hockey arena and shopping mall. It’s one of roughly 10 historic Chinatowns still in existence in the United States, along with another right in Canada. Some are large and robust, like that of San Francisco, one of the oldest on the continent. But others risk disappearing in all but name, joining dozens of extinct Chinatowns across the two countries.
That’s a fate that people in many Chinatowns are actively trying to resist. And it’s what drew Cho to New York in March 2020 for a forum to discuss the displacement happening in Chinatowns from coast to coast. She was preparing to begin filming her documentary when Covid hit. Chinatown was particularly affected; even a year after the first lockdown, consumer spending in the neighbourhood was 85 percent below 2019 levels, compared to 65 percent for New York as a whole. And the spread of the pandemic was accompanied by a terrifying surge in anti-Asian hate crimes.
“It felt like a throwback to Chinatown’s origins, which were in exclusion,” says Cho, referring to how early Chinese migrants to North America were forced to rely on each other in the face of widespread racism and official segregation. “It became increasingly urgent to tell the story.”
And that story is not just one of marginalisation and struggle but of resistance and survival. Big Fight in Little Chinatown focuses on historic Chinatowns in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, creating a lively, empathetic portrait of four communities that are each distinct but interconnected. It’s something that Cho knows well. Raised in Montreal, whose Chinatown was first settled in the 19th century by workers who had built the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway, she also has a family connection to Vancouver’s Chinatown, which is where that railway originated. “I’m fifth-generation Chinese-Canadian so I have deep roots in both of those Chinatowns,” she says.
A number of threads run through the film. One is about intergenerational businesses that have been operating for more than a century, like Wing’s Noodles in Montreal or Wing On Wo, a general store and porcelain shop in New York, which embody Chinatown’s long entrepreneurial history but also the precarious nature of its heritage, which is at risk of disappearing with every passing generation. Another is the enduring vitality of Chinatown culture, with clan associations that have provided vital support to Chinese immigrants over the years as well as a cultural lifeline to young Canadian- or American-born people of Chinese descent.
But perhaps the most significant part of the documentary looks at the rise of a new wave of activists who are fighting not just to preserve Chinatown but to prepare it for a new future. “I think a lot of activism in the past was focused on symbols, things like gates and museums,” says Cho. “Now it’s going deeper into questions of equitable development. We want revitalisation without displacement. And we’re not just moving in silos. We can take examples from what other Chinatowns are doing.”
That’s made particularly clear by Montreal’s Chinatown, which emerged as a sleeper star in Cho’s documentary when, halfway through production, a property developer acquired a historically significant block. The block includes buildings dating back to the 1820s, home to Wing’s Noodles, a temple, a privately-owned Taiwanese library and a number of businesses. It’s nearly all that remains of the Chinatown’s original heart, most of which was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the Guy-Favreau Complex, a megablock home to government offices, shops and apartments. And the property investors who bought the block seemed likely to redevelop it into high-rise apartment buildings or hotels: the zoning permitted a building up to 35 storeys tall on the site.
Drone footage in Cho’s documentary makes it clear just how small and vulnerable Montreal’s Chinatown is. The Guy-Favreau Complex is just one of many urban megaprojects that have walled in the neighbourhood over the years. In the 1960s, a hundreds of buildings were demolished to create a large urban boulevard. The opposite side of Chinatown was hemmed in by a six-lane expressway built in a trench. Montreal’s convention centre and a recently-built megahospital bring business to the neighbourhood but also prevent its expansion. More recently, high-rise apartment towers have been mushrooming on Chinatown’s fringes. With the acquisition of the historic block, “we were one condo project away from losing Chinatown,” says Cho. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might be filming the end of my own Chinatown.”
Instead, the threat of redevelopment laid the groundwork for a new future in which Chinatown has the potential not simply to survive but to thrive. Faced by the threat of redevelopment, a diverse group of activists banded together to form the Chinatown Working Group, with around a dozen core members supported by several dozen other participants. “There were a lot of issues affecting Chinatown, but there was also this concrete thing we could do: there’s this one block that we could get heritage protection for,” says Amelia Wong-Mersereau, an arts worker who handled communications for the Working Group. “We were trying to have Chinatown mentioned every week in the media.”
The plan worked. With significant media attention, the Working Group found a receptive ear in the government, which for the first time was dealing with a united front representing Chinatown interests. Last year, Montreal’s municipal administration downzoned the neighbourhood to prevent new high-rise construction and discourage property speculation. And this year, Quebec’s provincial government announced the creation of a new heritage district that encompasses the threatened block, effectively making any redevelopment impossible.
But that was just the beginning. The Chinatown Working Group laid the groundwork for a permanent non-profit organisation, the Jia Foundation, that is trying to build a path forward for the neighbourhood. “The main question is, how do you continue the intangible heritage?” says co-founder Jessica Chen, a city planner who moved to Montreal from Vancouver a decade ago. Saving the buildings but not the life inside of them is how cities like Portland, Oregon or Washington, DC ended up with Chinatowns that look but don’t play the part.
“Chinatown is an ecosystem,” says another Jia co-founder, musician and community activist Parker Mah. He gives the example of the buildings owned by clan associations, which usually contain shops, affordable housing and community space within a single low-rise structure. Most of those associations date back more than a century, when they served as a rallying point for anyone with the same surname, such as Chan or Tam, who often came from the same villages in the Taishan region of Guangdong. All these years later, they continue to play an important role in Chinatown – and the fact that most of them own their land has served as a bulwalk against gentrification or redevelopment.
That has inspired the creation of Chinatown community land trusts in Toronto, Los Angeles, Boston and New York, which are raising funds to buy Chinatown properties and take them off the private market. Mah and Chen say there isn’t yet a similar initiative in Montreal, but through the Jia Foundation they are working on a five-year plan to improve community facilities; Chinatown currently has no public library, community centre or recreational facilities. They have also partnered with a local university to produce quantifiable data about some of the issues facing Chinatown, such as derelict properties with absentee owners; many of the area’s buildings are empty except for a few shops on the ground floor.
And for now, at least, they have wind in their sails. In September, the Jia Foundation hosted the Chinatown Reimagined Forum, which brought activists and academics from across North America to Montreal where they discussed the future of Chinatowns across the continent. When it came to raising awareness, “Karen’s film made a big difference,” says Chen.
It’s little wonder why. What is clear watching Big Fight in Little Chinatown is that these neighbourhoods are not simply tourist attractions or relics of the past; they’re pugnacious communities, full of life. “Chinatown is not a museum,” says Cho. “It’s rooted in the past – but it’s a neighbourhood of the future.”