ABC (American-Born Chinatowns): Exclusion x Inclusion

A Tale of Three Chinatowns Film Poster


Chinatowns have played an instrumental role in the urban landscape as centers of influx, community, economic activity, and cultural preservation. These communities formed out of necessity, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 led to a boom in Chinese-owned businesses including restaurants. Today, there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than there are McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, KFCs, Wendy’s, and Taco Bells, combined. On this episode of cultureXchanges, we speak to Lisa Mao and Penny Lee, whose documentary film A Tale of Three Chinatowns profiles Chinatowns in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Boston to look at the forces affecting each urban community and the cultural impact of Chinatown on American cities.

Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts. 

On this episode of cultureXchanges, we are taking a look at the cultural impact of Chinatowns across the United States. We hear from Lisa Mao and Penny Lee, whose documentary film A Tale of Three Chinatowns profiles Chinatowns in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Boston to look at the forces impacting each urban community and the varying challenges they face. 

Penny Lee is the co-producer and editor of A Tale of Three Chinatowns. Her editing portfolio include documentaries, cable network TV series, independent films, training videos, commercials, sizzle reels, as well as promotional videos for government agencies, private corporations, trade associations, and non-profit organizations. Penny produced, directed and edited the award-winning short documentary “Through Chinatown’s Eyes: April 1968” and also a collection of short stories about Chinese American Veterans. Some of Penny’s cable network clients include Discovery Channel, National Geographic Television, and Travel Channel.  Her network projects and her passion for storytelling continues to drive her to create and produce content highlighting the immigrant experience in the United States, with a primary focus on the Chinese-American voice.

Lisa Mao is the director, writer, and co-producer of A Tale of Three Chinatowns.  With a career in non-fiction television as a development executive and producer, Lisa is responsible for the creation and launch of more than 500 hours of programming for channels including History Channel, National Geographic Channel, HGTV, Animal Planet, Investigation Discovery, and Travel Channel. Her credits include Travel Channel’s “Man Vs. Food Nation,” “Extreme Forensics” on ID and “Deadly Shootouts” on Reelz. In addition to her television work, she also wrote and produced the award-winning short documentary “Through Chinatown’s Eyes: April 1968.”  Lisa is committed to helping people share their stories to reveal the complex fabric of the human condition. 

TK Harvey – Thank you. I’m really grateful to all of you for joining us. I want to first start off with our director and the producer. I wonder if you could share a little bit more with our audience about your film, the tale, first three Chinatowns and what you really hope your audiences will take away from this documentary.

Lisa Mao – Hi, thanks TK. Our film A Tale of Three Chinatowns, it’s a documentary that looks at three different Chinatowns in the United States and looks at their current state of health. We look at Boston Chinatown, Chicago Chinatown, and Washington D.C.’s Chinatown and we explore why they are in the current states that they’re in. Chicago’s is thriving, D.C.’s is a shell of itself, and Boston’s is fighting for its survival. So, we interview former and current residents, as well as activists and local officials to try to understand how each of these Chinatowns finds itself in the current state that they’re in.

TK Harvey – How did you decide on these three? It sounds like, you know, they all are in different stages of evolution, right? Did you feel that these three were really emblematic of the different phases of these centers?

Lisa Mao – Yeah, that’s a great question. When Penny and I, Penny Lee, my co-producer, and I were looking at this topic, you know, DC is right in our backyard, and we were very familiar with Washington D.C. and its story. Penny can speak more to her relationship with DC, but it felt like there was an obvious choice because at one point it had been a thriving neighborhood and now really, it’s not. I mean, it’s a thriving neighborhood as a neighborhood, as a Chinatown, it’s debatable whether or not it should still be called Chinatown. And then Chicago’s was another obvious choice because it is the one Chinatown that has been growing over the last 100 years. And we thought, how is that? We have two very big contrasts here. And then, you know, in the middle, we were looking for a Chinatown has struggled, which there are many. So, we had many to choose from and you know, Boston, it felt like there was a lot of activism going on. Also, in terms of challenges, you know, there was commercial development as well as institutional development and it felt like there were a lot of players and stakeholders involved in that story.

Penny Lee – Yeah, hi TK. So, in addition to that because I grew up in DC Chinatown and I have the connection with Washington, DC and the people that live here and used to live here and so forth, we were able to get the people to speak in our film. And also, same thing for Boston. I knew some friends who knew people and they were able to just agree to be in our film and we interviewed them. So, I think it was also very important that in our film we tried not to use a narrator and use first person, interview the primary sources, and keep it real and authentic. And so that was one of our goals that we wanted to meet in producing and making this film.

TK Harvey – Yeah, stepping back a little bit in terms of the origins of these urban communities and really how they were rooted in America’s racist, exclusionary laws. Really how important they were and still are in terms of maintaining a sense of cultural identity, a sense of belonging. I wonder if you could say a few words along those lines.

Lisa Mao – You know, we do touch on this at the beginning of the film, just sort of the origins of Chinatown in San Francisco at the end of the 1800s. Really, Chinatowns were sanctuaries. You know, you had immigrants coming in from primarily Guangdong province coming in for, you know, first, you know, the gold rush and then of course the railroads. And it wasn’t so much like people were accepting them with open arms, there was violence against them, and these immigrants, they had to collect in numbers to feel safe. So that’s really in terms of the origins of Chinatown. Historically, that’s really where their origins come from. Now, when you look at 20th century, the turn of the century, and what we envision as Chinatowns today, you know, those Chinatowns also, you know, again, they were, you know, when you talk about several generations later, again they were sanctuaries, they were places where newcomers could find resources. Obviously, there’s a lot of familial connection in the Chinese culture in Chinatown, a lot of the families that came over created their own family associations and they really were used as resources for newcomers, you know, in terms of getting jobs. You know, figuring out how to, how to pay for things, housing, education, and whatnot. Chinatown and its role has changed over the decades, of course. And then, you know, truthfully, we can’t ignore the, you know, the restrictive covenants that make up much of the 20th century in terms of U.S. cities. Yeah, I think most people, many people don’t even know what they are. You know, we refer to, you know, terms like redlining and things of that nature. But, you know, in many neighborhoods, as Americans moved out of the cities or, you know, created neighborhoods within the city, developers created. Start of covenants, basically excluding outright excluding certain groups from even being able to purchase a home or build a home in certain areas. You know some of these restrictive covenants were very pointed African Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans were targeted and also, they used other ways. For example, saying that, you know, only a single family home can be built in this neighborhood, and it had to, you know, the budget had to be over a certain amount of money. OK, not under a certain amount of money, but over a certain amount of money, right. So, there are all these restrictive covenants that existed, and some of them didn’t even expire until the 80s as in the 1980s, so, In that way, again, a neighborhood like Chinatown, it was sort of a it was a survival mechanism.

Penny Lee – Yeah. And a lot of the time towns are pretty much self-contained. Like Lisa said, they have their own credit union. They have their own family associations who help other people, other people with the same surnames. We’ve got family associations, the Lee’s, the Wong’s, the Chen’s, and so forth. So, they help each other for a long time. And I can just say, like for example in D.C., I know if this one family and their grandfather came here in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, they could not, you could, as the Chinese person, you cannot buy anything, any land, any property for a long, long time and they rented all these years and then later on as the sons and the sons later on, the renters that they rented the landlord when the Chinese able to purchase, Then the landlord decided to give them rights to purchase that property. And so that’s how their family kept these buildings within the family all these years.

TK Harvey – Yeah. And a lot of ways, I think you said it really well, Lisa, that was sort of a survival by assimilation, and you know, so it gave this sort of sanctuary for these communities to thrive and maintain their own personal and national identities, right? Would imagine, you know, as this evolved, and maybe even more in recent times, you know, the neighboring communities have perhaps begun to value Chinatowns as a as a glimpse into new cultures and new cuisines and different types of fashion. And it’s hard to pinpoint exactly in tangible terms the impact from a cross cultural, cultural diplomacy perspective. But you know, some Chinatowns have served as tourist destinations.

Penny Lee – We interviewed someone that says that they rarely go outside of Chinatown because, I don’t know, maybe they felt not safe outside, so it’s also familiarity within the neighborhood. And the only time they would go outside is when they go to school, but then they come home, and they come back to their community because that’s where they felt safe.

TK Harvey – Yeah, I wonder if we could touch on just the evolution of Chinatowns. Obviously, they are getting smaller and smaller due to increased commercialization rights, real estate leasing, you guys have already mentioned a number of points. Some would believe that this process is a deliberate approach to displace these communities. What did you find in your research, and do you have more to add to that?

Lisa Mao – You know, I think it’s a complicated question and there’s no one answer, right? You know, when looking at Washington DC’s Chinatown, DC is not a state. I live in the district myself, and even though I pay taxes, we don’t have representation. I mean, that’s just the facts of it. So, I think when you look at Jesus’s Chinatown being so close also to the capital and federal buildings and whatnot, it was a different time. You know, we did another film about the riots of ‘68 and how those really affected Chinatown also. And again, I feel like it’s not, it’s not apples to apples across the board with all these Chinatowns. I think some of it honestly was just very practical and they’re very practical things that occurred with D.C.’s Chinatown many people move to the suburbs. You know, that was going on and so people left. And as one of our interview subjects reminded, he said, you know, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, D.C.’s trying to tell him wasn’t exactly the safest place. It was fun, but it wasn’t exactly desirable as it is now, and which by the way, we see in other neighborhoods, too. I think about 14th St, you know, when I was a teenager. And what it is now, I mean, you know, my dad had floors him every single time. I tell him like no, there’s million dollar condos now there now. And you know, at Trader Joe’s, it’s very shocking. But you know, I would say that is it intentional? Is it deliberate? Maybe in some cities it is right because people are coming back into the cities. I lived in San Francisco for a number of years. And I lived in North Beach, which is right next to Chinatown, and they are going through something very similar because people want to live in the city again, because of the services, because things are closed, people not have to drive anymore. Is it deliberate? Yes, for some who want to make money, but you know, we have to ask ourselves which, you know, Lydia Lowe mentions this in that film. Who is the city for? Is it only for the wealthy? You know what I mean? Like, we have to really examine that as a, as a people, as a society and really ask that question not just of Chinatown, but for all people.

Penny Lee – I think the Chinese are also easy targets in my opinion in some ways because like for example. You know, easy. Chinatown was on Pennsylvania Ave, OK, they built the Federal Triangle, we moved to H Street. OK, fine. Now they’re facing a homeless shelter on 5th St and there’s lots of issues that right now Chinatown was dealing with the homelessness. Pooping and peeing in front of the president’s yards and I always felt, well, the homeless people are the responsibility of the city. Well, what are they really doing to help us in Chinatown? I think we get a lot of lip service because we’re easy targets and I don’t think that’s fair, but that’s reality. That’s what’s happening now.

TK Harvey – And it does seem that, you know, there are no two Chinatowns the same a lot of ways, right? You had mentioned that the urban center in Boston is doing well, maybe perhaps even growing, whereas Chicago might be in the middle, middle stages and whereas DC is a more tragic example I guess of potential. So there really is no formula for this, right? It’s a question of leadership and priorities for culture in a lot of ways at the at the highest level.

Lisa Mao – Yeah and for Chicago and Boston, it’s the reverse, actually.

TK Harvey – Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Lisa Mao – It’s Okay, Chicago is growing.

TK Harvey – Okay.

Lisa Mao – And Chicago is trying to get a public high school in their neighborhood, which is amazing.

TK Harvey – Wow, that’s really great. Obviously during the COVID pandemic, Chinese restaurants trying Chinatowns in general so steep decline of clientele, this led many businesses to shut down both temporarily and permanently in fact. What sort of impact did the pandemic have on Chinatowns? And I know that that’s a loaded question, but perhaps you could say a few words on that.

Penny Lee – Well, right now in D.C. is really have affected so many restaurants and properties. I mean if you look at H Street right now, I can name three restaurants. Jackie’s clothes, Ming’s has closed, Eat First has closed. I mean literally there’s only Tommy Chang’s on H Street on that side that’s open. And then across the street you’ve got Chinatown Gardens on H Street that’s open and also Big Wong’s is there. But I’m saying that a lot of the Chinese restaurants are struggling. I mean, they’re only busy when the arena has a, you know, basketball or concert or something happening in the arena, some events happening, people come to Chinatown and sometimes they go eat, but it’s just not as busy as it used to be. So, it’s just really the kind a lot and it’s really sad to see.

Lisa Mao – Yeah, I mean, I think during the early days of the pandemic. And again, we, we’ve seen this before in our history, right or not our current history, but in history where a group is vilified as the source, right, and really objectified in that way. And I would say that for you know this pandemic obviously you know it came from China and you got Chinatowns. And Chinatowns, as neighborhoods were targeted, I mean not just even you know, from the business standpoint, them shutting down just like many restaurants, not even in Chinatown shut down. I mean many businesses suffer, but you know, because it’s a location where there are a collection of Chinese Americans or Chinese people, Chinese descent. You know, Asian hate was very, you know, it was a targeted Asian hate. So, you know, I think that that is challenging and also not surprising. I mean it’s, you know, it’s when I think about the Spanish Flu, you know, the last pandemic from 100 years ago, was it really the Spanish Flu? No, it was not. That’s just what it was called because maybe, perhaps it came from Spain. I don’t know. You know? Or who knows. So, yeah, I think that for Chinatown, because of its association with the origin of the virus, you know, that just gave people reason to hate, hate on Asian Americans.

Penny Lee – I mean, I think there’s more hate and or discrimination or violence in New York than I’ve heard of then in D.C., but still, it’s all the same.

Lisa Mao – Oh—San Francisco, Atlanta, I mean it’s really everywhere.

TK Harvey – And certainly a growing rise as a result of COVID unfortunately. I wonder if we could shift gears a little bit and talk about the diversity within these communities. You know many of these Chinatowns have you know other significant populations of non-Chinese in these neighborhoods, Asian Americans that live and have businesses in these neighborhoods. Can you speak a little bit about this diversity and how is it shaped these neighborhoods or continues to?

Lisa Mao – I think it’s a really interesting, wonderful development that’s occurred. You know, one of our interview subjects and Dr. Leong, he talks about that. It is a touchstone not just for Chinese Americans, but for Asian Americans or anyone really, who’s interested in Asian, in Asian culture. You know, I think that, you know, one thing that we also need to be cautious of is even the diversity within the Chinese diaspora. Right. Because, you know, when you look at Chicago, they do have a second Chinatown. There’s more Vietnamese Chinese that are there. They might be Vietnamese, they might be Vietnamese Chinese, they might be Chinese American. But, you know, I think there’s also that that is a nuance that many people don’t realize, right, is that. Even within the Chinese diaspora, there is diversity. You know, there are Malaysian Chinese, Filipina Chinese. When I went to Vietnam for the first time and I went to the Chinatown in Saigon, I was like, whoa, there’s a Chinatown here, too. I mean, I just, it blew my mind. And so, I think that some of that diversity. This is truly, you know, like Korean restaurants or you know, Indian restaurants coming in, which is again, it’s great because it it’s these neighborhoods, Chinatown, it’s born out of diversity, right out of inclusion. And so, I think it’s only natural that these other cultures are coming in, but at the same time some of them are—it’s a nuance, it actually might be diversity within the diaspora.

Penny Lee – you know, I mean, just because it’s Chinatown, it’s not like you’re non Chinese, you can’t be part of this neighborhood. No, it’s never, it’s never been like that.

TK Harvey – I’d imagine very welcoming too and it’s kind of a nice surprise to see sort of a diversity ecosystem emerging and these urban centers and I think everyone stands to benefit from that so that that’s really wonderful. Just finalizing our discussion here, you know if Chinatowns continued to decline, which seems to be a pace for most, what do our cities stand to lose and really is the capstone here, is there anything our audience can do to get engaged in the process?

Penny Lee – Wow, I think shopping kind of town eating Chinatown, continue to go to Chinatown. And wherever you go, whether it be other cities and other states, there’s a Chinatown, go check it out. That’s a good start.

Lisa Mao – Yeah, yeah, and just to build off Penny’s response, I mean it, it’s also about, I mean, you know, what does the city stand to lose? What does a culture stand to lose, right? I mean, the great thing about the United States of America, you know, I think that in our ambition, we are inclusive, we are a nation, except for, of course, those who were originally here, we are primarily a nation of immigrants and Chinatown is just another avenue way of really bringing that through. What can people do? They can, yes. First you know, of course you know, put your money where your mouth is and you know, go out there and support businesses, but also just also to be interactive and to share what your experience has been, to get other people excited to then go there or to learn more. I mean, I think that’s one of the best things to do is just to spread awareness of the place and also the culture and what you can find there.

TK Harvey – That’s wonderful. Thank you. And thank you both for sharing your time with us again in the film is titled “A Tale of Three Chinatowns.” Thank you both.

Penny Lee – Thank you.

Lisa Mao – Thank you, TK.


Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy, in its many forms, on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy. 

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