Karen Cho Chinatown

Mei Lum in New York City’s Chinatown

The fight for Chinatown is on, in Montreal and across North America

We spoke with Karen Cho, the filmmaker behind Big Fight in Little Chinatown, screening at Montreal’s documentary festival on Saturday.

I’ve long been a fan of Karen Cho’s work and often point to Status Quo: The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada as a documentary well worth seeing in order to better understand the challenges of violence against women, access to abortion and universal childcare — even in a country as progressive as Canada. 

The Montreal documentarian’s films are compelling and socially relevant, but also immensely watchable. She doesn’t preach, she points out exactly where the problems are and lets you draw your own conclusions. In her latest documentary, she points her lens to gentrification, cultural erasure, community resiliency, displacement and what cities stand to lose when they lose integral parts of what make them special — those beating hearts found in living neighbourhoods that essentially help make cities what they are today. 

The focus of Cho’s latest documentary Big Fight in Little Chinatown, screening at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), is simple: Chinatowns in North America are under threat of disappearing, and along with them, the rich history of communities that fought from the margins for a place to belong and call their own. Cho documents attempted evictions by real-estate speculators, years of neglect and marginalization by city administrations, as well as legacy businesses and tenants often too exhausted by the financial and psychological ramifications of a global COVID pandemic and the recent uptick in anti-Asian hate to defend what they love and want to preserve. 

The film closely follows the collective fight to save five Chinatowns across North America. Her camera takes us to New York City, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and briefly to San Francisco, and introduces us to young and old Chinatown members with deep roots in their communities working hard to both save and revitalize them. Cho highlights their ‘David vs. Goliath’ fighting spirit with an unflinching yet tender gaze. This is a fight that’s personal to her. 

Cho’s connection to Montreal’s Chinatown

Karen Cho Big Fight in Little Chinatown
Big Fight in Little Chinatown by Karen Cho

The Montreal director is a fifth generation Chinese Canadian with deep family roots both in Montreal and Vancouver. The first Chinese members of her family arrived in Canada during the Gold Rush and the building of the CP Railway in the late-19th century. Her grandmother’s family arrived in Montreal in 1898 and her great-grandfather was a partner in the company that would eventually become Wings Noodles Ltd. — a business that continues to operate today and is Quebec’s leading producer of Chinese noodles and cookies. 

“The first film I ever made 20 years ago right out of film school was In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, which documents the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada, and the very first frame was shot in Montreal’s Chinatown,” she tells me. “I have these intimate connections with the community, and fast-forward to the present, I could see so many places that I knew and loved were in this period of decline, neglect or active erasure.” 

Cho wanted the film to be an exploration of what we lose when we lose these places where the Chinese diaspora wrote their story in North America. 

“I attended a North American gathering of Chinatowns fighting displacement in March 2020,” she says. “I came home from that conference three days before they shut down NYC and the rest of the world for COVID. At first, I thought the story would be more about gentrification, but COVID added itself to the film’s storyline, the film unfolded during this particularly brutal time in Chinatowns where they were stigmatized and experiencing an uptick of anti-Asian racism we haven’t seen in a very long time. And all this exacerbated gentrification pressures in the neighbourhood where developers came in and took advantage of all these vulnerabilities taking place in the community.” 

The battle for the soul of Chinatown 

The film showcases NYC’s Chinatown and the community’s fight against marginalization. Among the people featured is Mei Lum, a fifth generation Chinese American and current owner of Wing on Wo & Co., a porcelain store that’s the oldest operating shop in New York’s Chinatown. Cho’s camera follows the residents as they stage protests and obstruct construction, fighting against a future high-rise jail smack dab in their neighborhood, part of a city plan to shut down Rikers Island by 2027. A 350-feet-tall cement monstrosity is expected to be built barely 50 feet away from a public park, which would necessitate close to a decade of constant construction, demolition work and toxic dust. 

“Low-income tenants and businesses who can’t afford to leave won’t survive this,” says one of the protest organizers in the film. 

Montreal’s Chinatown fights back 

Cho had no original plans to feature Montreal’s Chinatown in her film, because she considered it too small and there was nothing happening at the time.

“But during the filming, the Wings Noodles building was purchased and then our community found out that in the most historic block, the Wings Noodles block, developers had started acquiring land, buying building after building on that lot for a large condo development,” says Cho. “We knew that if we didn’t move fast, we would lose it.” 

A huge mobilization by concerned local citizens (not all of them Chinese) took place over the course of the last three years, making headlines and forcing politicians to take notice. The film documents that fight, along with the most recent victory: Montreal’s Chinatown attaining provincial and city heritage status and the City of Montreal ’s executive committee approving changes to the urban plan, including new zoning that would limit building heights and densities in the area.

“The fact that we were able to get heritage status for Chinatown at the provincial and city level is huge,” Cho says, “but it’s also step one. The community wants a revitalization of the neighbourhood, but it needs to be centred around the cultural heritage and value of Chinatown, not just this idea of shiny new buildings and shiny new people and everyone gets displaced.” 

Expendable neighbourhoods 

Cho is right to be wary. Historically, marginalized or ethnic neighbourhoods have been treated by city administrations as dumping grounds or places that can easily be demolished and erased to make way for the new. 

“Urban renewal is always in non-white neighbourhoods,” Henry Yu, a historian at the University of British Columbia points out in her film. “That pattern is prevalent in North America,” he continues, “to rid cities of the blight of non-whites.” 

A quick look at the facts only serve to prove Yu’s point. Construction of a new City Hall in Toronto in 1961 destroyed half of Chinatown. Most of it was expropriated and razed starting in the late 1950s to build the new Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. When Vancouver’s Chinatown was targeted for urban renewal projects, more than 11 blocks were taken out and more 3,000 people were relocated. 

“These neighbourhoods were seen as expendable,” says Yu. “This is where you can put a freeway through Chinatown.”

Montreal was no different with regards to this type of development pattern. “Between the 1960’s and the 1980’s at least 200 structures (mostly residential buildings) were destroyed in Montreal’s Chinatown during this ‘urban renewal’ period,” says Walter Chi-Yan Tom, a member of the Chinatown Working Group. 

“When they built the Guy Favreau building in the early ‘80s, they took out a third of Chinatown. The Complexe Desjardins building, the Hydro Québec building followed… As construction progressed, Chinatown was practically stamped out. Everything around it has been developed and that little bit is all that’s left.” 

Cho says they had to dig deep into Radio-Canada archives to find that footage. “This is the first time that story of Montreal’s Chinatown is being told in an audiovisual way,” she says. “Chinatown is the second oldest neighbourhood in Montreal after the Old Port. Every single building my family lived in or worked in was demolished during that period of expropriation and urban renewal. Two churches and a factory were also lost. These are places where a community gathers, where the congregation would come, and the factory employed people. There was a real rupture in the urban fabric of the community because these buildings are nesting places for both tangible and intangible heritage.”

It’s bitterly ironic that ethnic neighbourhoods —created initially because of racism and exclusionary laws like the Chinese Head Tax and laws preventing the Chinese from owning land in certain places, neighbourhoods where newcomers could establish a foothold and find a sense of community, along with social services, affordable food and housing — would be so targeted during COVID and feel the brunt of xenophobia again. “We’re living in an era that harkens back to a time when Chinatowns were built,” says one of the activists in Cho’s film. 

Prioritizing and protecting authenticity 

Big Fight in Little Chinatown by Karen Cho

“Gentrification is not a natural phenomenon,” says Cho, “it’s the result of a series of choices and priorities that a city lays out. People supporting Chinatown stood up and asked a very critical question: who are we building the city for? What are the priorities around this? In a way, heritage status was step one. It was to bring down the crazy amount of real-estate speculation that was happening in our Chinatown, but also to protect things into the future. We’re not just fighting for the old here. We’re literally fighting for the future.”

Cho says that part of the problem is that Montreal’s Chinatown (one of few francophone Chinatowns in the world) is often seen as a tourist attraction or a ‘foreign’ place versus a 150-year-old neighbourhood that tells the story of the settlement of this city and a living community. 

“You need to consider the residents, their needs, the vibrancy, their quality of life,” she says. “If those things become your priority, then the choices you make help the neighbourhood. How do we retain these legacy businesses in Chinatown? The Wings Noodles factory has been making noodles out of that place for 100 years and the restaurants in the neighbourhood serve those noodles. There’s an authenticity in the businesses found in Chinatown and several of them are made-in-Quebec, made-in-Montreal success stories.” 

Cho believes cities should foster all the best parts of Chinatown to build it into the future. “The sociocultural heritage economy can be a drawing point, both for the community itself and to tourists,” she says. “Why would you want to go to a random chain when you can go to an authentic place? The very first Hong Kong BBQ restaurant in all of Quebec is in Montreal’s Chinatown, Dobe & Andy. Their father brought in this special way of cooking this BBQ 40 years ago, but the younger generation is putting a new twist on it. It’s both old and new at the same time.” 

Communities like Chinatown can also offer ideas with regards to urban planning. 

“Chinatown is like the quintessential Jane Jacobs neighbourhood that all urban planners dream of,” says Cho. “It has the human scale, it’s affordable, walkable, sustainable. All these things we want to build into the community, but all the seeds of this already exist in Chinatown. How do you take the best parts of Chinatown and breathe new life into them? Chinatown can be a blueprint for the inclusive city building of tomorrow.”

Galvanizing community spirit and pride 

In the meantime, the fight continues. “No one is going to kick us out of our house,” says an activist in Cho’s film. “This is our house. I don’t call it resistance. I call it staying where you belong.” 

One of the big things Cho hopes audiences take away is really looking at cities around them with a critical eye and recognizing the intersection between racism and urban planning. 

“How does that play out in any given city?” she asks. “Chinatown is a stand-in for other marginalized communities that have been wiped off the map, that didn’t survive when the freeway flattened them. Critically thinking, who are we building this city for? But I also want to show people that these are North American neighbourhoods, they’re the story of the settlement of our cities, the vibrancy of our cities. They’re not separate from the rest of the city, but a vital part of what makes our city so great.” 

Big Fight in Little Chinatown has two RIDM screenings. The first, which took place on Thursday, was sold out. The second showing is on Nov. 26, at Cinéma du Parc at 1:15 p.m. The documentary will also be broadcast on TVO Ontario, and Radio-Canada will air a shorter version with subtitles in the future. The production company is also planning an impact campaign, bringing the film into different communities, holding community screenings and engaging with different Chinatowns and different organizations to use the film as a point of dialogue and hopefully a community tour across North America. ■

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