Major cities across the globe have Chinatown neighborhoods, many times marked with a decorative gate, that serve as a cultural hub. But today some of these Chinatowns are fighting to survive, while others are thriving. A new documentary called "A Tale of Three Chinatowns" explores the survival of urban ethnic neighborhoods. It airs on GBH’s WORLD channel at 8 p.m. on Monday, May 23.
GBH's Morning Edition host Paris Alston sat down with the film's director, writer and producer Lisa Mao to hear more about the documentary. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Paris Alston: So this film takes a look at three major cities: Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., their respective Chinatowns and how they came to be. What was the motivation for this film and what did you learn in the process?
Lisa Mao: Sure. So about five years ago, my production partner and I did a short film called "Through Chinatown's Eyes: April 1968" that looked at what happened to D.C.'s Chinatown during the riots that ensued after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So that film was very interesting in terms of looking at this enclave, this ethnic enclave, in the crossfire of this major event. And in doing that film, after we would screen the film, people would ask us: "What's next?" And it felt like looking at Chinatown today, and sort of seeing what's going on with D.C.'s Chinatown today, seemed like the next natural story.
When we started looking at gentrification in Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown. I just felt like, "What is going on elsewhere?" You know, as I did research, it seemed like Chinatowns were in jeopardy all over the place — San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Boston. And so because of that research, we decided to expand it to three Chinatowns.
Alston: You mentioned a little bit about why you chose D.C. Why add Boston and Chicago to that?
Mao: Yeah, so Boston's Chinatown, in doing the research, it seemed like a lot of activism was happening right now. It felt like Boston's Chinatown was basically trying to survive ... by the skin of its teeth. So that was a very interesting story to us in the sense that it was very active in terms of the activism.
Chicago we chose because that is the one Chinatown that has been growing over the last 50 years. And it's just very interesting to us. How is it that D.C.'s Chinatown finds itself as a shell of what it used to be, Chicago's Chinatown has been expanding and then Boston's Chinatown was like fighting for its life right now? So really, to look at all three was to look at Chinatowns in three very different stages.
Alston: And what were the differences that contributed to why some were doing well and why others weren't?
Mao: Obviously, Chinatown is not a monolith, right? You know, I call it a "ubiquitous neighborhood" because you find it in Paris, you find it in London, you can find it in Saigon or, Ho Chi Minh City, Houston, Vegas, Amsterdam. But all of these Chinatowns are very different. Yes, they are ethnic enclaves. And, you know, primarily were a sanctuary for ethnic Chinese at the turn of the last century. But they're all so different. And I would say, to answer your question, a lot of it has to do with geography and, of course, the government and people that surround it. Many of these Chinatowns are in the locations that they're in based on necessity or even allowance — like, where were they allowed to live?
"How is it that D.C.'s Chinatown finds itself as a shell of what it used to be, Chicago's Chinatown has been expanding and then Boston's Chinatown was like fighting for its life right now?"
Looking at Boston's Chinatown with the current location, you know, back in the day, like when immigrants first started coming in the late 1800s, that area was not highly desirable. Eventually that's where a train station was built. And if you read the history of Boston's Chinatown, it was dirty, right? It was sooty. You know, most people moved out except for the Chinese. So in many ways, geography and what's going on in the city, government, institutions that really informs and shapes how these Chinatowns develop and where they really are.
And with the example of like Chicago, Chicago's Chinatown originally was in the current financial district of Chicago. But a little bit after 1900, it was forced to move to where it is today, which was at the time a very undesirable location. In many ways, because it was in this underdesirable location, it was allowed to flourish for so long.
Alston: What you're saying, Lisa, is reminding me of Boston's Combat Zone, which came about in the 1960s and was an adult entertainment district, which is no longer in existence. But how was the neighborhood affected by that association?
Mao: Yeah, very interesting. In the film, Dr. Andrew Liang does talk about the receiving of that area — the Combat Zone next to Chinatown — he does reference it as one of the worst cases of environmental racism in our history. It wasn't good, but at the same time, City Hall was looking for a place to put adult entertainment — to contain it — and Chinatown was a recipient. At the time, obviously, decades ago, the neighborhood elders probably talked about it, clearly talked about it, and you have some folks that are thinking about business like, "OK, this could bring business to the area." But at the same time, the kind of business that it attracts — and Andrew does mention this a bit in the film — it's not really where you want to raise your children.
Alston: So many places have a Chinatown. You focus on these three cities, you've mentioned a number of other ones. Why is that? I mean, how did they come about?
Mao: Sure. So when the first Chinese immigrants came, many people know about the gold rush and laborers coming over for the gold rush. After the gold rush, they then moved on to helping build the railroads. And at that time in American history, where were people going to live? I mean, they were harassed. If you look at history books, we know that the Chinese immigrants were harassed. They formed these enclaves for safety. It was really a sanctuary for them. You know, did they choose to huddle together? It was really a choice based on survival.
Alston: And I know that these communities are obviously specifically focused on Chinese and Chinese American populations, but especially in the wake of the anti-Asian and anti-Asian American violence that we've seen coming out of the pandemic — and just in recent months, in the past couple of years — what is the relationship of these communities to other Asian and Asian American identities?
Mao: So, you know, Chinatown is a cultural touchstone for Chinese Americans, but it's also a cultural touchstone for Asian Americans and anyone who is really interested in Asian culture. I don't want to lump it all together as like a pan-Asian thing, I'm not saying that at all, but it is just available to people. And in terms of allyship, I feel like many groups, like many ethnic enclaves, could come together.
I mean, in doing this film, even though the film is about gentrification looking at Chinatowns, it's happening to many different ethnic enclaves. You know, we talked about Roxbury in Boston and the gentrification that's happening there. So I think that, you know, as an immigrant or as a person of color, I do feel like it's a touchstone for everyone.