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“A Tale of Three Chinatowns”: a few words with director Lisa Mao

By Stephen Grigelevich

August 13, 2021 4 min read

There are so many reasons to watch “A Tale of Three Chinatowns,” the feature length documentary directed by Lisa Mao and produced by Lisa Mao and Penny Lee. Recently showcased at the Roxbury International Film Festival, the film spotlights the Chinatown neighborhoods of Chicago, D.C., and Boston, which live in three phases with respect to cultural integrity. Through personal narratives and scholarly examination, the film illustrates how housing policy, historical discrimination, and traditional community values have shaped the settlement, reconstitution, and both the maintenance and disintegration of various parts of these landmark communities. We caught up with Director Penny Lee to ask a few questions about the film.

Lisa, in this film, you lay out so many themes, from the nuances of gender and family in Chinese culture, to the histories of American structural racism and housing injustice. Were there any topics that you found particularly challenging to communicate to the audience? Or, was there a theme or story that you were particularly inspired to explore in this film?

The bigger question I was trying to explore was: how could three communities all start out as immigrant sanctuaries with a shared history and decades later have such different realities? Why is DC's Chinatown's community so small yet it still looks like Chinatown on the surface? How is it that Chicago's Chinatown is petitioning for a new public high school for their community and securing a new library, park, and field house? What are the Boston Chinatown activists fighting for day in and day out and how has the neighborhood not been swallowed up completely by the Combat Zone, luxury condos, and universities? In interviewing activists and residents in the different cities, unique themes organically percolated up to the surface.

In this film, Chinatown is depicted largely as a neighborhood whose integrity and existence continue to be under threat by policy and real estate interests. In addition to the challenge of preservation, do you have hopes, desires, or concrete visions for what Chinatowns of the future could look like, either from an urban planning or a social/cultural standpoint?

This question is not an easy one to answer. Chinatowns, like other neighborhoods or communities, are living, breathing places. There is constant change as new people move in and out. As a cultural touchstone for Asian Americans and for immigrants settling into the US, Chinatowns are an important resource. But when a population has moved and thus, also relocated their cultural center, the shell of an old Chinatown risks becoming objectified and commodified. Chinatown isn't just a tourist destination for people to sum up a whole diaspora within a 5-block radius. The question we pose in the film - "who is Chinatown for?" - is to elicit deeper discussions about the future of Chinatowns or other ethnically centered communities. As long as there are still immigrants who need services and support, Chinatowns are needed. But what if there is a decline in such an immigrant population? Then does Chinatown become more of a living museum of sorts? As immigrant populations from Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland and other early feeder countries to the US declined in the early 20th century, so too did the presence of related concentrated ethnic enclaves. DC's Chinatown actually used to be a predominantly German neighborhood. How do we deal with assimilation and walking the fine line of adding to the fabric of American life while still preserving elements of one's heritage? At the end of the day, I support healthy diverse communities that promote understanding. That diversity can come in the socio-economic form as well as cultural.


As I write this, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act into law. Any thoughts or sentiments you'd like to share about such an event?

Our country is made up of a diverse population of experiences and histories...histories that our ancestors carried to this country and histories that people created in their adopted homeland. Except for those of Native American descent, the rest of us came from elsewhere. In the spirit of historian Howard Zinn, giving these diverse and often under-represented voices a place to speak and share is so important to our understanding of "the other." It also includes millions of previously ignored people into this nation's complex story. We fear what we don't understand and by illuminating the true diversity of histories of the American people (roses as well as thorns) and how they overlap, complement and conflict with each other, hopefully we can dispel a lot of that fear to make way for more compassion and empathy. I hope that there is space in education for all to be seen.

Any words for our Boston readers who are planning to see "A Tale of Three Chinatowns"?

As we were editing the film, it really felt like we had enough material to create separate films for each city. We captured so many interviews describing Boston's Chinatown historically and up to today. Boston's story was particularly powerful as it showed the service and desire to give back to and to fight for one's community. There was and continues to be boots on the ground activism in Boston's Chinatown and it is an example to many other communities, not just the other Chinatowns of the world, of how to affect change.

See A Tale of Three Chinatowns now on Vimeo. $10


Check out all the art and columns of August's Boston Compass at


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