“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”, so goes the final line of Robert Towne’s screenplay for the classic 1974 film in which the titular “Chinatown” is more of a defeatist state of mind than an actual place. Not so in veteran documentarian Karen Cho’s latest work Big Fight in Little Chinatown which casts its lens on the residents of an urban Chinese diaspora determined not to let their unique and historical communities be eroded or destroyed by outside forces.
With Chinatowns dotting all corners of the North American map, you could easily make a season’s worth of television about these vibrant communities, but this film chooses to focus on some of the more famous ones. We start in New York where local activists fight feverishly against a state-sponsored “vertical jail”, not only because of their aversion to increasing America’s over-incarceration of her citizens, but also due to the detrimental effects that construction (noise, dust, etc.) would have on the neighbouring, mostly elderly residents.
A few hours away in Montreal, residents fight to gain heritage designation for the few remaining properties that make up contemporary Chinatown, a community whose footprint has been eroded by ever-increasing condo development. This sentiment is shared by an also-shrinking Chinatown in Toronto.
Several time zones away on the west coast, the historic Chinatown in Vancouver has had more success than many in resisting the development pressures and freeway construction that have hurt and sometimes even destroyed other ethnic enclaves. While gentrification is still a pressing concern, this Chinatown’s woes are more everyday dealing with both fallout from rampant street drug use from the neighbouring Downtown Eastside and rising anti-asian racism among the general populace.
If all this weren’t enough, this doc happened to be shot largely during the COVID pandemic from 2021 to early 2022. Chinatowns suffered the double-whammy of both economic hardship caused by ever–shifting government pandemic restrictions and the aforementioned rise in anti-Asian racism due to bigoted reactions to the virus’ Chinese origin. Most of the Chinatown’s are essentially half-functioning under capacity restrictions and social distancing. Almost everyone wears a mask here which serves to both contextualise and also unfortunately date the film somewhat.
Cho’s film moves swifty, yet surely and effectively through its various subjects and locales, weaving an effective and striking tapestry that while about Chinatowns on the surface, also speak to larger issues like generational family duty, democracy, gentrification, racism, and shared community which ultimately affect us all on some level.
The film also raises the question of whether the future of Chinatowns are as curious tourist attractions to be kept under glass or as vital communities for the many residents who still call them home. After all, as one interviewee points out: many Chinese-Americans and Canadians are expected by their families to ultimately move out of Chinatown into larger suburban settings.
It honestly feels like the film could have made a much larger meal of these existential questions, but the stories it does share are all compelling enough in their own right to keep this doc’s big heart beating straight ‘till the end credits.
Big Fight in Little Chinatown succeeds foremost as both a love letter and a rallying cry for an ethnically Chinese, yet uniquely North American community. If nothing else, it might encourage audiences to visit their nearest Chinatown and join the fight themselves.
Big Fight in Little Chinatown screens as a part of DOXA on Thurs, May 4, 7pm @ SFU-David Mowafaghian Cinema