DOXA 2023: Big Fight in Little Chinatown is a story of resistance, resilience, and hope
Karen Cho was in New York City for a conference to discuss what can be done about the gentrification, displacement, and erasure of Chinatowns across the continent. She was there to represent Montreal’s Chinese community, but also for a documentary she had in the works.
The date? March 2020.
“Three days after I got back from this gathering, they shut down New York for COVID,” Cho says in a phone interview with the Straight. She had already been doing research for what would eventually become Big Fight in Little Chinatown, but little did the director know at the time that the pandemic—and the violent uptick in anti-Asian hate that would be borne from it—would become such a prominent feature in the story she was about to tell.
“Thankfully, I had met all these Chinatown organizers and these different Chinatowns on the ground, in person,” she says. It’s those connections that launched the New York portion of the documentary, which explores the fight to preserve the history and culture of Chinatowns in New York, Montreal, and Vancouver.
Set to premiere at DOXA Documentary Film Festival on May 4, Big Fight in Little Chinatown marks the opening presentation of the festival, and prominently features Vancouver’s own Kam Wai Dim Sum and Hon Hsing Athletic Club.
“These kinds of legacy businesses are so key to both the history of the neighbourhood, but also as anchors for the future,” Cho notes. “And finding someone like William [Liu], the second generation owner of Kam Wai Dim Sum, was really important to me, because he has a foot in the history; that business has been there for 40 years.”
Cho, who resides in Montreal, says that there was an urgency to the stories being told—especially one that hit close to home. The pandemic was closing down shops as filming commenced, resulting in a sense of desperation for those trying to stay afloat.
“Developers kind of descended onto the neighbourhood, and really took advantage of the vulnerabilities that were going on,” Cho says. “They almost bought out the most historic block of our whole Chinatown, including the Wings Noodles buildings. We were like one condo project away from losing our Chinatown altogether.”
While the three different Chinatowns featured in the documentary had their own unique battles to fight in preserving the history of—and ensuring a future for—their respective community spaces, Cho notes that there is an overarching constant at the foundation of Big Fight—not just for these communities, but for marginalized areas in any city.
“When you talk to Chinatown after Chinatown,” she says, “you realize there is a pattern of displacement and expropriation that have gone on in these neighbourhoods—and not just Chinatown; all neighbourhoods of colour, all marginalized neighbourhoods, all low-income people have faced similar issues. So I hope that audiences will take away the fact that the Chinatown story is the story of neighbourhoods in a city, and why it’s important to protect those vibrant neighbourhoods and affordable neighbourhoods, and to have walkable and sustainable neighbourhoods for the future of the city itself.”
After the DOXA premiere, the documentary will go on a coast-to-coast tour of Chinatowns throughout North America. Cho says that the community screenings will include traditional Chinese subtitles. She hopes that, by bringing Big Fight in Little Chinatown to the local level, the stories it showcases will resonate with and inspire those who may be struggling to hold onto their own cultural communities—and perhaps even inspire people to actively work towards future prosperity and growth.
“What frustrated me in the past is that, in the media coverage, [there] are all these news stories that are basically ringing the death bell for Chinatown; just writing it off as a neighbourhood where the erasure of the place is inevitable,” Cho says. “I knew this wasn’t the case. The idea that a community just sits there and watches passively as their community is erased—this is not true, and it was never true. So I wanted to focus on the agency of the Chinatown communities and their efforts.
“I looked very hard for those pockets of resistance, pockets of resilience, and the stories of hope,” she continues. “Of people that are really stewarding the neighbourhood into the future as well. And where Chinatown isn’t just a thought of the past or a piece of nostalgia, but an active, living community today.”
That coast-to-coast tour will bring the documentary back to Vancouver’s own International Village for a community screening on June 3.
“It’s so amazing to be able to take this story that the community gave you, and give it back to the community,” Cho says. “To allow them to use the film as this kind of tool to advocate for the struggles in their Chinatowns.”
Big Fight in Little Chinatown will be shown at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Thursday, May 4 at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, and on Tuesday, May 9 at the VIFF Centre. Tickets are available at DOXA’s website.