A Tale of Three Chinatowns explores the different stages of disappearing Chinatowns across America, but directs its attention to the ones in Boston, Chicago, and D.C. It is the second collaboration between Penny Lee and Lisa Mao (the first being Through Chinatown’s Eyes: April 1968) under Tiger Sisters Productions. Ahead of its virtual screening via the Roxbury International Film Festival on Wednesday, 6/23, we talked to director Lisa Mao about the processes in making this documentary as well as a little insight in her longstanding career in field production.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
BOSTON HASSLE: You previously worked on Through Chinatown’s Eyes. How did the topic of Chinatown draw you back into making A Tale of Three Chinatowns?
LISA MAO: It actually came to me through my dad, who was approached by Penny Lee. Initially, Penny and others had wanted to record the experiences of those who had grown up in D.C. Chinatown. At the time, my dad was running a nonprofit called the Sino-American Cultural Society that funds educational projects. Penny and her team had come to him looking for funds,and he said, “If it sounds like a film, you should talk to my daughter,” since I work in television and had some free time at the time. That’s how I got involved.
Oftentimes after the [Through Chinatown’s Eyes] screenings, people would ask us, “What’s next?” We had seen a potential film about what’s happened to D.C. Chinatown now, which is basically gentrification, and exploring what that looks like. As we started getting the ball rolling and thinking if it was a feasible project, we saw that it we couldn’t look at this in a vacuum. There are just so many places, and in my preliminary research it seemed like Chinatowns were shrinking everywhere. The title A Tale of Three Chinatowns came to mind — the number three is a popular number where we can compare and contrast three places and get different angles. That was the initial one-sheet treatment. As we dug into it, talking to experts and talking to people on the ground, we found about Chicago’s Chinatown and then landed on Boston as well.
BH: I think the reasons why you chose those three cities are clear in the documentary, but I was wondering if you could explain how you came about choosing those three, and if there were other cities that you were considering as well.
LM: We always knew that we would do D.C. because we knew and had spoken to the residents. Also, D.C. Chinatown is gone. It’s not really here anymore. Sure, in terms of facades and characters,there’s still a gate and there are some Asian American residents in the Wah Luck House, which is a high rise. But there were some Chinese-American businesses that had been described in our first film that were primarily gone. So we always knew that we were going to look at D.C. and explore how it became the way it is today.
In terms of looking elsewhere, we considered Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. We also considered San Francisco, for obvious reasons. San Francisco is the oldest Chinatown in the United States, but it’s also facing forces of gentrification, like big tech development. But after talking to a few people in Boston, it felt like there was a lot of activism in this very small area. It was also very apparent that there were a lot of forces that were at play geographically. You had commercial developers, residential developers, and institutional development. Even public development decades ago, by way of highways. It seemed like there were a lot of players involved, which made for a very rich story.
BH: You mentioned your dad being part of nonprofit and helping you connect with Penny, but was it difficult contacting the organizations from the different cities and getting them to share their stories?
LM: As a field producer in my career, oftentimes when I request for interviews and things like that, they’re met with some kind of reticence at the beginning. Whether it’s an author of a paranormal book, or a coin collector, or a resident of Chinatown, you just don’t know how it’s gonna go. It’s the work of production, making phone calls. It’s hard to get people to initially speak because they’re busy and they don’t know who you are. They don’t know if you’re trying to sell them encyclopedias or if you want money from them.
I’d say that once we laid out what we were trying to accomplish, people would give us time because, ultimately, they realize that we’re trying to give a voice to the topic. Then it was like, “Okay, we want to be helpful and we’re here to speak.” It takes time pre-interviewing people, but we’re appreciative that people gave us that time and that they agreed to it.
BH: Some other people were part of bigger Chinatown organizations, but then there was someone in the documentary who was a mother getting through the day. Was it harder to get down to the ground level of residents who might have not been otherwise informed of the project?
LM: The community really helped. In Boston, the mom who we interviewed had actually gone to the CPA for help. We were asking for residents who had faced some kind of adversity in housing issues. They had a few people to put forward that we interviewed and, honestly, there are some that didn’t make it into the film just because we ran out of time. In Chicago, similarly, we went to the community center, which is an important resource for recent immigrants who are trying to get their citizenship or trying to learn English. They were looking for childcare for their families. We told the Community Resource Center what we were looking for and they said, “We found a resident who lives and works here and this person would be great to talk to.” We really relied on them to help us find those voices.
BH: I know you worked in a lot of nonfiction programming, like the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, for a long time before making these documentaries. By the time you decided to create them, did you feel like it was an idea that was brewing for a long time or did they just come as perfect opportunities to make something about Chinatown?
LM: Throughout my career, and even probably from my childhood, I’ve always been a storyteller. I think we all are. For that first Chinatown film, the opportunity presented itself. I really feel lucky that my dad introduced me to Penny, because it felt like they were interviews that were looking for a story to hold them together. For me, that first project was a confluence of many of my past experiences. I love history and had done graduate work in history. It’s interesting, because once you do one, you’re like “Wow, I can do this. Let’s do another one.” But it wasn’t much that I felt “How am I going to do this?” but more as “Who’s got the time?” With the first film, I actually was freelancing and did have some time to devote to the project, which was only twenty-five minutes, whereas this one is ninety. It took more of my nights and weekends on top of my full time job. I actually took vacation time to go to Chicago and Boston.
BH: And I don’t know if I read this somewhere, but it took you three years to finish, right?
LM: Yeah, we started it in 2018.
BM: Based on your previous works, would you say that this would be your longest project?
LM: Production takes a long time. Even if you’re looking at a show for the History Channel or National Geographic, it takes time. I had a former colleague who used to work for a crime-related show production, and they were able to do those shows in thirteen weeks from what we call pre-production to delivery. That is lightning speed. Most shows could take anywhere between seven to eight months to complete, and up to two or three years depending on the subject matter and location. Controllables and uncontrollables, like the pandemic. There were so many productions, not just our film, that had to stop because of the COVID protocols that were being devised. We had basically finished principal photography in 2020, but maybe we could have gotten this film out sooner without the pandemic.
BH: One of the cool things about your documentaries is that they’re placing Asian immigrants as part of the larger historical blueprint of building America. And I know you’ve kind of answered this when you were talking about how this film came to be, but for future projects, if you are doing any, do you find yourself following that same narrative?
LM: At the end of the day, it’s about helping people find a voice. This country has a rich history. There’s a diverse, rich population that makes it the United States of America. It’s such a complex fabric, and I personally feel like the more we can share with each other, the more understanding we might have for one another. For these two projects, they happen to be about Chinatown. I don’t know if I would necessarily, you know, stay in this in this space. I most certainly could, since I’m Chinese American and I have a connection to it. For me, it’s really about the story. Wherever or whatever story that needs to come out — that’s what drives whatever project I might take on for the future.
BH: The last thing I wanted to ask — and this is probably a hard question to answer, because I think this is what the documentary is also asking — UMass Professor Andrew Leung brought up the question, “Who is Chinatown for?” The documentary explains reversal white flight and how it affects the way we’re interested in Chinatown. How would you really define Chinatown for people, especially in its purpose? Do you find it as a historical landmark that we’ll need to preserve or do you find it as this kind of this living, breathing space for residents?
LM: I personally think that Chinatown is a breathing, adapting community, or even mindset, in place. When I think about the history of this country, there are things that are always changing. We did talk to other Chinese-American communities: San Gabriel Valley, Flushing, Northern Virginia, and parts of Maryland. I don’t want to say that we’re looking at replacements for Chinatowns, but more about how they have moved and evolved. What Chinatown was in the beginning has changed so much to what it is today. I feel that in itself, evolution is our answer: it’s constantly changing and meeting the needs of the people at the moment, whatever that looks like.
This country is a very diverse, complex, multifaceted place of culture and people. Knowledge is power, but it’s also having information and experiences available. In addition to our film [showing at ArtsEmerson’s Shared Stories series], there’s also A Reckoning in Boston. I’m really excited to see that because from what I’ve read, there are a lot of parallels. In one of our earlier trailers that we did for the film, I didn’t want to have the word “Chinatown” mentioned in the first minute. I wanted people to see kids play and going to school and others talking about their livelihoods. At the end of day, we’re all people trying to make it in this world. So I wanted to get across that, yes, this film is about Chinatown, but really, it can apply to anyone and to any community.
A Tale of Three Chinatowns will be screened virtually via the Roxbury International Film Festival (co-presented with ArtsEmerson’s Shared Stories series) in conjunction with James Rutenbeck’s A Reckoning in Boston on Wednesday, June 23 @8PM, followed by a post-film conversation with the filmmakers. It will also be available to stream from June 23 to June 27!