Photo Credit: Josh Frank
Big Fight in Little Chinatown, directed by Karen Cho, examines Chinatowns across North America, drawing similarities between the issues they’re facing while spotlighting the stories of people who live, work, and build community in these districts. Through interviews, archival images, and animated map visualizations, the film contextualizes the pressures from cities and developers to redevelop Chinatown in a long history of Chinese exclusion, displacement, and anti-Chinese rhetoric, but it also illuminates unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the fate of Chinatowns across the continent is precarious, the message is a hopeful one: Chinatown has survived multiple attempts at redevelopment because of organized movements that are willing to fight for what they love, and today, we are called upon to do the same. The documentary invites viewers to grapple with tough questions around what we value about Chinatown, how to balance preservation and reimagination, and what sacrifices are needed to retain this community.
The cinematography and sweeping instrumental soundtrack enhance the poignance of the scenes, reminding viewers that every conversation between community members, every opportunity to connect with Chinese cultural traditions, every moment that helps people feel like they belong, are at risk if private developers and municipalities have their way. This is not to say that living in Chinatown is a walk in the park, rather, despite the locations’ origins and the challenges of living and sustaining a business there, it’s worth staying there because that’s where people can find a connection to others from the same background and to their shared culture. There’s a key theme around the importance of honoring one’s elders and one’s history. This can take many forms, from practicing ancient traditions to taking over the family business to fighting to preserve senior housing.
While the film calls attention to the institutional pressures facing Chinatowns and the anti-Asian sentiment that skyrocketed during the height of the pandemic, it chooses to focus on the strength, resilience, and community-building efforts of those who are committed to preserving a culturally-rooted way of life. The town hall meetings, the protests, and the active resistance stem from people’s love for Chinatown and the sense of connection and belonging they feel there. As one of the organizers shared, “Chinatown is not a museum, it’s our home.” There’s an irony in that statement–Chinatowns were redesigned with ostentatiously oriental architecture as a survival mechanism, so it is not surprising that non-residents see Chinatowns as little more than a tourist attraction with cheap baubles. In the film, this architectural history is shown as one of many examples of residents of Chinatown resisting erasure. Since the very beginning, Chinatown’s existence was unwelcome, and the fact that many of them have survived until today is a testament to the continual civic engagement by the people who care. Though at times, the film’s emphasis on preserving Chinatowns overshadows the opportunity to reimagine what Chinatown can look like in the wake of the pandemic and the values of the younger generation of Asian Americans shift beyond making a living to crafting a meaningful life.
The film gives viewers a renewed appreciation for the importance of Chinatowns not just for the predominantly Chinese immigrants who made a living in the area, but also as a symbol for cross-cultural solidarity and resistance against the forces of racism and capital. It’s an invitation to join the fight, but even more than that, it’s a recognition of the unsung heroes who devote their energy to creating a welcoming Chinatown for all.