Is it Time for a ‘Big Fight in Little Chinatown’ Everywhere? ⭐️⭐️⭐️

“Big Fight in Little Chinatown” asks:  What is a Chinatown? What Chinatown was to those living there or those of East Asian descent visiting there in the 1910 and 1920s was very different from the people who wrote and sang the 1901 Tin Pan Alley song “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” That song was a hit in 1915, when federal government had already made it clear that the Chinese were unwelcome with the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

While the Chinese Exclusion Act closed down most legal immigration of the Chinese in 1882, it was followed by other immigration acts that banned other Asians from entering the US.  For Canada, Chinese immigrants were mostly banned as a result of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923. There were other forms of legal racism, from alien land laws to head taxes that the Chinese and other Asians had to endure, including lynchings. These are a matter of history, not conjecture. Chinatowns were small islands of resistance. 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 such Chinatowns: Vancouver, Manhattan and Montreal. These are not necessarily the oldest in North America, but they 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.

These communities formed during times of great adversity, when the animosity of a nation was expressed in local and federal laws, when the Chinese and others were only allowed to take up residence in undesirable areas. Yet cities, communities and property values change. Freeways and gentrification threaten Chinatowns as well as each successive generation striving to become economically successful enough to leave the very real estate that made their success possible.

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.”

The value of a Chinatown as someone who is not Chinese but of East Asian descent is comfort. I lived for a year in a city without a Chinatown. A group of us took the train just to get bags and bags full of groceries. After that,  I thought I’d never in a North American or European city without a Chinatown. How else would I get the supplies I needed for East Asian-based comfort food? And in times when people who look East Asian are facing increasing hostility, where can one feel relatively safe walking around except in a place that is predominately East Asian, where one can blend in?

“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,” another person notes. 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” is a 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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