Chinatown might seem like just another tourist attraction. But for many Chinese American families, it has been a sanctuary and cultural lifeline.

A Tale of Three Chinatowns, co-produced by Lisa Mao and Penny Lee, profiles Chinatowns in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and features the voices of residents, community activists, developers, government officials who have a connection to these once-ubiquitous neighborhoods. Through these perspectives, the film shines a light on the pressing concerns of urban development and gentrification through the eyes of those on the front lines. The producers are part of a GBH panel discussion celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month on May 12. The film can be seen on May 27 on GBH 44.

Lisa Mao and Penny Lee
Lisa Mao (left) and Penny Lee (right)
Lisa Mao: Photo by Nicole Tieman / Penny Lee: Photo by Matt Klinger

“Most people know about Chinatown. They drop in, have a meal and then drop out,” said Mao. “But it’s so much more. It’s alive and changing and evolving.”

The Chinatowns featured in the film from GBH WORLD’s Local, USA are on a continuum—from thriving to barely surviving. Chicago’s Chinatown is a story of growth where the Asian American population has increased and its borders have expanded. In contrast, Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown has dwindled to an estimated population of 300 residents of Chinese descent. The Chinatown in Boston finds itself somewhere in between these two extremes, as various groups fight for the neighborhood’s valuable property.

For Lee, the story of Chinatown in Washington, D.C. is a personal one. She was born in Hong Kong, and her family emigrated to America in 1967, settling in Washington, D.C. “Our Chinatown is getting smaller, and there’s not any real preservation of our history,” Lee said. “If we don’t share this with our children and our grandchildren, or even among ourselves, it’s going to get lost and forgotten.”

When Lee was exploring options for doing a film about the Chinatown in Washington, D.C., she met Mao’s father, a Chinese immigrant and a leader of the Sino-American Cultural Society. He helped connect the two filmmakers, and together they worked on their first short documentary, Through Chinatown’s Eyes: April 1968, about Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown during the civil disturbance following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That work led to A Tale of Three Chinatowns. At one end is struggling Washington, D.C. At the other is Chicago. “In Chicago’s case, Chinatown was forced from its first location to another less desirable neighborhood, which actually allowed them to grow over the years,” Mao said.

For the third, the filmmakers wanted a city in transition. Boston’s Chinatown has a long history of displacement, starting in the 1950s when land was taken in the neighborhood for a major highway and then for the construction of medical buildings. Many families left, but some of the children of Chinese immigrants went on to have successful careers, returning to volunteer and invest in the Chinatown community.

“Boston is unique,” said Lee. “It has a lot of advocacy, a lot of people who speak up and have a voice to protect and preserve the community.”

What was surprising about Boston, Mao said, was everything that is going on behind the scenes to support Chinatown residents through housing, education, commerce and more. “It takes work—maybe you don’t see it, but it’s there,” she said. “Because of that, I am hopeful for Boston Chinatown.” Meet Paul Lee, a Boston lawyer and activist who is featured in the film, here.

The neighborhoods that eventually became known as Chinatowns originated because it was a way to segregate people who were different, said Liz Cheng, GBH general manager for television, including GBH WORLD. “But over decades, Chinese and other members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander populations used them to their benefit to create places where they could feel at home with food, language, customs and culture,” she said. “They helped each other, and they definitely turned a negative into a positive.”

The film does an extraordinary job positioning how fragile the current Chinatown in Boston is, Cheng said. “It has to be more than the community itself that wants to preserve it. A film like this is very important to get the word out that the public needs to join the fight for its future,” she said.

There are more than 50 films on GBH in May related to the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) diaspora, including 10 GBH WORLD films that are addressing a whole host of issues, from hate to COVID to criminal justice.

“We believe with the heightened number of attacks and pandemic-related challenges to the AAPI community, that it’s time to focus on Chinatown and the resilience of its people,” Cheng said.

A Tale of Three Chinatowns is a perfect fit for Local, USA, which shares hyperlocal stories that resonate in communities across the country,” said Chris Hastings, executive producer of GBH WORLD. “It’s giving you a story that’s not on the front page but is unfolding before your very eyes here in Boston and beyond.”