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Filmmaker Karen Cho debuts new doc, Big Fight in Little Chinatown

‘There’s a recurring pattern of active erasure,’ says the School of Cinema grad
May 25, 2023
By Ian Harrison, BComm 01

Photo of a man waking in front of a storefront in Chinatown Still from Big Fight in Little Chinatown, a new documentary by Karen Cho, BFA 01

Karen Cho, BFA 01, is a Montreal-based documentary filmmaker whose credits include In the Shadow of Gold Mountain (2004), Seeking Refuge (2009) and Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada (2012).

A graduate of Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Cho’s work has given voice to people on the margins and, as a result, helped her make sense of her own identity and place within Quebec and Canada.

This is true of her new film, Big Fight in Little Chinatown. With COVID-19 as a backdrop — the pandemic challenged the film’s production but also heightened its inherent drama — the documentary uses extensive archival material and first-person testimonials to tell a story of resilience in the face of expropriation, gentrification and racism.

Cho recently sat down to talk about her latest project, her body of work and her time as a student at Concordia.

When you looked at the footage you had compiled for Big Fight in Little Chinatown, what were some of the common threads between the neighbourhoods you explored?

Karen Cho: There’s a recurring pattern of active erasure across all Chinatowns and all marginalized communities at the intersection of racism and urban planning. Every Chinatown is different, but the historic urban Chinatowns are located in the downtown core of cities. When they were set up it was often the most undesirable place in the city, but that land is now worth a lot. So there’s gentrification pressures but also a history and pattern of expropriation of the land, because of various government programs, cities putting freeways through these places, dropping stadiums on these communities, or, in the case of New York City, putting a prison in the neighbourhood. This pattern of gentrification, of urban-planning pressures and forces, happens in all urban Chinatowns.

Portrait of a woman wearing a white T-shirt with a khaki blazer and jade pendant Karen Cho, BFA 01

You have said that you wanted to penetrate the tourism façade as you filmed these neighbourhoods. How did you gain the trust of community members to be able to do that successfully?

KC: I think a lot of it goes back to my first film, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, about the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. And I should say, too, that I’m fifth-generation Chinese-Canadian on my father’s side. I have very deep family roots in Montreal and Vancouver’s Chinatowns. So I have personal connections to these neighbourhoods — and there was some general awareness about my previous film, which I shot in those two Chinatowns and also premiered in Chinatowns across Canada. There were previous relationships there I could draw on for Big Fight. They either knew me or knew my other film and its point of view. That helped me to gain access to many of these spaces.

When you reflect on the interviews you conducted for the film, is there any one person or interaction that stands out?

KC: Probably William Liu, the owner of Kam Wai Dim Sum in Vancouver, who basically gave up an opera career for his family. Some of the footage of him in the film is from the first day of shooting, when I had literally just met him and was asking some initial questions, almost like a casting video. Within five minutes of talking to him, I knew he had to be integral to the film. He was just so connected to the history and the future of Vancouver’s Chinatown. His business is an anchor in the community.

Your films have touched on questions of who belongs and who gets to be considered Canadian. What have you learned about your identity as a result?

KC: There has been a lot of unpacking of my identity in my work. A lot of unlearning from what was drilled into me in school growing up in Canada, going through the education system here and reading the history books. I’m British-Irish on my mother’s side and my father is Chinese-Canadian. There are deep Canadian roots on both sides. But the Chinese side is the one seen as foreign, even though my white maternal grandfather emigrated here from Plymouth, England, and is the most recent arrival to Canada in my family. On day one, he was automatically considered to be a Canadian, whereas my Chinese family had been here for more than 100 years. My father, to this day, still gets asked where he comes from.

The very first film I did, I made it because I didn’t learn about the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act from any of my textbooks. When I found out about this history, based on me asking my grandmother about our roots, she told me that she was separated from her older sister who wasn’t allowed to come here.

Then I got hold of this book, Strangers in A Strange Land: Chinese Immigrants From 1885 - 1939. The last page just ends with the fact that Canada passed a law that barred Chinese immigrants. The end! I thought, how is that the end of the book? This is the beginning of a story!

So a lot of my exploring in filmmaking is uncovering untold histories or telling stories from marginalized points of view. Being a woman and anglophone person of colour in Quebec, you never feel like you completely belong. And you never feel like your identity or history is reflected in the mainstream at all. My films are trying to always allow different people to speak their truths and be the experts of their own experiences. In this way, I kind of find myself and also challenge traditional narratives about who is a Canadian.

What stands out to you most about your time at Concordia?

KC: I loved my experience in film school. What stands out to me the most was that you had to work with your fellow students. It was collaborative and all about teamwork. We had a role to play and a common mission, which was ultimately about creation. And you get to do so much in the program, beyond just your own films. For other people’s projects I got to do sound, I was a production manager, I did camera, you learn all these different roles. You gain a respect for all the components that go into the finished product.

Some of your collaborators on Big Fight are also Concordians, like editor Ryan Mullins [BFA 05, GrDip 08] and producer Daniel Cross [BFA 91, MFA 98]. Can you talk about that sense of community with fellow Hoppenheim alumni?

KC: Yes! And I also worked with Van Royko [BFA 04, MFA 12], a grad and cinematographer. You just cross paths a lot with fellow alumni, like Ian Olivieri [BFA 00], for instance, who was my co-collaborator all the time in school. He produced my second film. So many of the folks I know, like Katherine Jerkovic [BFA 02, MFA 07], she has her films in the cinemas now — it’s amazing, these are people I came up with in school and to this day I work with them as members of my crew, in the edit room, or see them at different festivals, or we work on TV together. Some of my longest friendships are with people I went to Concordia with.

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