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Reel Asian: ‘Big Fight in Little Chinatown’ Considers the Historic Value of Chinatowns

Eye Steel Film/Nathaniel Brown

Many years ago, I was travelling through Morocco with a friend and made a joke that I would find a Chinese restaurant somewhere in the North African country. She laughed, followed with, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” As we walked around Marrakesh’s medina and turned a quiet corner, we came face to face with China Quick. To be fair, I didn’t go in and don’t know if Chinese people were actually running the restaurant, but the fact that a Chinese(-inspired?) restaurant was among the Moroccan food stalls and markets amused and delighted me. Is Chinese emigration really that far-reaching?

Marrakesh, Morocco (Photo by Rachel Ho)

Chinese people have managed to build strong communities in every corner of the world, from Jamaica and the West Indies to Mauritius and Panama, suffice to say Canada and the US. The historic reasons for such a wide-spread diaspora can be traced back to cheap labour needs and colonialism, whereas emigration today is typically from a more privileged position. With these settlements, naturally there came Chinatowns, and although the purpose and makeup of these neighbourhoods look different today than when they were first developed, they still hold great importance for the Chinese diaspora.

Director Karen Cho’s latest documentary, Big Fight in Little Chinatown, explores some of North America’s biggest Chinatowns, including Montreal (Cho’s hometown), Vancouver, San Francisco, and New York City. Speaking with community members and advocates, Cho investigates the historical significance of the neighbourhoods and the fight to preserve them.

Big Fight in Little Chinatown enlightens viewers as to the family associations and legacy businesses that early Chinese settlers (dating as far back as the 19th century) established. But most of the film’s runtime is devoted to the current predicament our neighbourhoods face.

Chinatowns, of course, haven’t been immune to the aggressive gentrification movement sweeping most Western countries. Considering that many new arrivals, particularly from mainland China, no longer “need” to set up in Chinatowns as their first stop but are going straight to the suburbs, it is only logical that the number of residents is decreasing and buildings are falling into disrepair. But, as Cho’s film shows, there is still a thriving culture and countless residents who call Chinatown home.

The efforts of grassroots advocacy groups in both the US and Canada are highlighted with protests against a skyscraper prison in New York City and the fight against condo development in Montreal. And while the cause can feel hopeless at times, Big Fight in Little Chinatown also gives hope to the future, especially with community members like Mei Lum, the fifth generation owner of Wing On Wo & Co., New York Chinatown’s oldest operating shop, who hasbuilt artist residencies for young Asian-Americans in her shop.

The fight to save Chinatowns, big and small, is ongoing. Films like Big Fight in Little Chinatown bring the issue to the forefront and will hopefully inspire the Chinese-Canadians and Chinese-Americans, especially the younger generations, to get involved. Just like the many heritage buildings and sites developed and built by Anglo-settlers, our history deserves to be preserved, too.

The Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival is in-person and online from November 9 to 20.


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