I spent most of my childhood life hanging out in Toronto’s Chinatown on weekends at my dad’s office. We would get take out dim sum at Kim Moon Bakery or salted steam chicken on rice from Kim Juk Yuen. I’d watch for the Lion Dances with the cute Kung Fu guys during the significant holidays and my dad would give me a big long wooden stick to tie the lettuce leaves and red envelopes for them. The beat of their drums still move me to tears every time I hear them. Chinatown will always be a very special place for me.
When I went through the schedule for HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, I had made a note of several films that I was interested in checking out. I was particularly interested in Julia Kwan’s Everything Will Be – a film about the people and the changes of Vancouver’s Chinatown. The Sundance award-winning director really captures the essence of the people who live and work in this community from older shop keepers to the new generation of artists.
I had the opportunity to interview Julia Kwan during her visit to Toronto for the the world premiere of Everything Will Be…
How did you come up with the title for your latest documentary Everything Will Be ?
JK: The title is a variation on the neon art installation Bob Rennie donated to the city, which looms above Chinatown. It reads “Everything is going to be alright.” Some people find it comforting while others find it patronizing. It pays tribute to the sign but leaves the statement more open-ended. The Chinese translation of the title is actually, “follow the flow”. I like that both titles are very zen in attitude.
The individuals featured in this documentary are those who live and work in Chinatown, what was their reaction when you first approached them with this idea?
JK: That was one of the most challenging parts of making the film! I found the long time, working class merchants took the most convincing. My researcher and I spent almost a year trying to persuade the Lais, (the herbalists), to participate in the documentary. I think a lot of it is the Chinese reluctance to be on camera and the fear that we will interrupt their business. They also weren’t familiar with the filmmaking process and didn’t quite understand what a documentary was. Understandably, it took a lot of time to gain their trust. In fact, we hired their daughter to work on the doc and they still turned us down! Eventually, I guess we wore them down and they were a great presence in the film. Another interesting tidbit is that one of the old societies explained to us they were cautious of being filmed because in the 1980’s, Michael Cimino filmed them for his film, Year of the Dragon and they ended up using the images of their very respectable members as leaders of snakeheads and mafia kings. They’ve been weary of film crews ever since.
Growing up in Chinatown myself I see many resemblances with what you’ve captured in your documentary, particularly with the old timers. What are they concerned about for their future?
JK: Yes, what’s happening does seem to echo with other Chinatowns across North America. This gentrification is not unique to this ethnic enclave. With this film, I really wanted to highlight the Chinese seniors because through them, I can show the value of the community and how well they are supported. People like Ms. Lo, the singing lady, never leave the 11-block radius of Chinatown. Everything she needs is right there. It’s funny, I asked Ms. Lo that exactly question. I asked her what was her concern for her future and she said, “I’m 90. I think about it much”. I thought that was a fantastic answer. Luckily, for all of the octogenarians in the film, they live subsidized, public housing so I don’t think the gentrification will affect their living accommodations. However, there are many private low income apartments in Chinatown and I do worry about the residents who live in those.
Watching the footage of the herbalist made me realize that this sort of authentic and truly traditional chinatown business will probably vanish in a few years. Many “mom and pop” shops will not survive, thoughts?
JK: Yes, you’re right. I don’t think a lot of the Mom and Pop shops will survive. I remember when I first started doing the research, I counted about 20 shuttered shops along a two block radius and all of them are Chinese herbalist, knick knack shops or restaurants/bakeries. I am encouraged by these grassroots organizations like Hua Foundation, who are helping the green grocers make their signs bilingual to attract the condo dwellers. There is an effort to support these types of shops.
Vancouver’s Chinatown is in transition with galleries, condos and artists moving in…what do you think is the appeal?
JK: They always say that the first sign of gentrification is when the artists move into the neighbourhood and quite often, it’s in an ethnic enclave. It’s because the rent is cheap. The ironic thing is that they move in, clean up the neighbourhood, inadvertently cause the real estate prices to rise and they can no longer afford to live there anymore. But initially, they are attracted because of the affordability.
My affection for Toronto Chinatown and memories of being raised at my dad’s office there runs deep and I sense the same for your experience? What are your favourite memories of your Chinatown?
JK: A friend of mine watched the trailer the other day and she said it made her heart ache for the Chinatown of her childhood. I guess the film grew from that ache she talked about. I remember the vitality of the community at that time. I also remember the darker aspects like dodging the drunks along Main and Hastings so it’s not an entirely romanticized vision of my childhood Chinatown! However, there was such a strong sense of community. I remember my Mother only ever seemed like she was in her element in Chinatown. She would say hi to so many people and she told us to address everyone as Auntie or Uncle, even though we weren’t related. Those are my memories that I hold – the sense of connection and community and that’s what I tried to reveal with this film.
Synopsis: As dawn breaks and most of the city still sleeps, the long-time merchants of Vancouver’s Chinatown are hard at work. They haul out their produce stands and set up their makeshift vendor carts in preparation for what they hope will be a busy day. But, like many ethnic enclaves in urban centres across North America, their clientele is dwindling. This once vibrant and thriving neighbourhood is in flux as new condo developments and non-Chinese businesses move in and gradually overtake the declining hub of the Chinese community. Everything Will Be, from Sundance award-winning director Julia Kwan, captures this fascinating transformation through the intimate perspectives of the neighbourhood’s residents, diverse merchants and new entrepreneurs, who offer their poignant reflections on change, memory and legacy. Night and day, a neon sign—an art installation—that reads “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT” looms over Chinatown. Everything is going to be alright. The big question is—for whom?