by Jana Monji, AsAmNews Contributor
The documentary Big Fight in Little Chinatown asks: What is a Chinatown?
What Chinatown was to those living there during the turn of the last century was very different from the people who wrote and sang the 1915 hit song Chinatown, My Chinatown.
With the US Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Canadian Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 and other racists policies, the Chinese were made unwelcome in North America. Thus, Chinatowns are a legacy of persistence because in the US and Canada, Chinese and other East Asians were driven out of towns and cities, they were lynched and they were hated.
Big Fight in Little Chinatown looks at three Chinatowns: Vancouver, Manhattan and Montreal. These have managed to survive over a hundred years. The Chinatown in Vancouver was settled between 1886-1920. The Chinatown in New York (Manhattan) founded in the mid-1800s. The Chinatown in Montreal was unofficially recognized in 1902.
Formed during times of great adversity, the Chinese were only allowed to take up residence in undesirable areas. Yet cities, communities and property values change. Freeways and gentrification now threaten Chinatowns as well as each successive generation striving to become economically sound enough to get out.
According to this documentary, Chinatowns often used the tactic of the San Francisco Chinatown. When threatened with possible dismantling, that Chinatown created a distinctive architectural style. By asserting a strong identity, Chinatowns could become attractive destinations. The documentary doesn’t touch of the downside of that such as its residents becoming part of the exotica for non-East Asians to experience (as is noted in Frank Chin’s 1974 play, The Year of the Dragon).
Karen Cho’s film is about the families who are proud of their history in Chinatown and the survival of these Chinatowns despite the animosity and legal discrimination. Local legislators seem dismissive of these long marginalized communities, making them easier to erase.
Yet for the Chinese, for the people who have a generational legacy of businesses or buildings, Chinatown can be family. One person says, “My feeling is if we sell, our forefathers would roll over in their grave.” If a significant Chinatown disappears, will people forget the reasons these places existed and the struggles of those people?
Another person notes, “Creating meaningful places that matter often means understanding how the depth of meaning is amplified by the site.”
One might argue that Chinatowns are well past their expiration dates. Chinese people are no longer limited to certain areas. One person says, “If we want to see Chinatown continued, heritage designation is the step one and the heritage needs to be deeper than the architectural facade. It is including the intangible heritage inside the building, the activity inside the building, the way of life that we want to protect.”
With the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian hate, Chinatowns are both suffering economically and seemingly the natural center for activism. Big Fight in Little Chinatown seems to call for the examination and preservation of all historic ethnic areas because it is clear now that the racist attitudes that caused them to be formed still exist. While many may think of Chinatowns as as tourist attraction, a place of exotica to transport themselves to a faux China, that is not what they were when they were formed nor, in times of heightened racism, what they represent to marginalized minorities. They can be places of comfort, havens from hostility and a reminder of what was and still is.
In its Los Angeles premiere, Big Fight in Little Chinatown screened at the Japanese American National Museum as part of the 39th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on 7 May 2023 and also online Monday, 8 May 2023.In Cantonese, Mandarin, English, French and Toishanese with English subtitles.
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