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MTLtimes: Jimmy Chan delivers wake-up call with new documentary “Saving Chinatown”

By: Stuart Nulman – | mtltimes publication

Saving Chinatown – It’s difficult to see a city, suburb or neighbourhood become the victim of age, neglect, apathy and multi-million-dollar real estate development that can easily hinder or harm its heritage, or even worse, obliterate its existence that would render it just a slowly faded memory.

That was the case of Montreal’s Chinatown district. A vital part of Montreal’s downtown core for over a century, Chinatown’s decline began as early as the 1970s, when a chunk of its land was used to construct the Complexe Guy Favreau. Slowly, Chinatown began to shrink to a shell of its former self thanks to growing gentrification, the rise in anti-Asian racism, and a great deal of government promises that ended up in inaction. And to make things worse, two separate events dealt Chinatown an even further blow to its dilemma: in 2019, it lost its designation as a major heritage site, and the following year, the lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to many of its businesses to shut down and see themselves on the brink of permanent closure.

Jimmy Chan ‘ Saving Chinatown”

For veteran filmmaker and community activist Jimmy Chan, the decline of Montreal’s Chinatown was too much to bear. He has been involved as a leading figure of the city’s Chinese community for nearly 40 years, served as President of one of the oldest Chan Associations, and has tirelessly volunteered his time and efforts towards helping Chinatown’s merchants and residents. In fact, during the pandemic, Jimmy has volunteered and donated countless meals through his West Island-based family-owned restaurant the Wok Café, which fed many frontline and healthcare workers, the homeless and many of Chinatown’s elderly population.

However, Jimmy’s passion and dedication to Chinatown has never wavered, and he wasn’t ready to deliver its autopsy as to its slow decline. Instead, he used his talents as a filmmaker to create a much larger awareness of Chinatown’s proud past to other communities and future generations, as well as what can be done to provide its future. 

After three years of tirelessly filming, interviewing and editing, the end result became his compelling 46-minute documentary “Saving Chinatown: The Rise of the Dragons”, which had its world premiere in Montreal at the beginning of this October, and was screened for a second time during the Canada China International Film Festival on October 23, in which both occasions were met with loud, enthusiastic ovations from the audience.

Saving Chinatown poster vertical

“I’ve been a filmmaker all my life, and throughout my time serving the Chinatown community as a volunteer, I have witnessed a lot of harsh things. So I decided to one day make a documentary about the subject that no one has done before,” said Jimmy during a recent phone interview. “Throughout my more than 30 years in the community, I have connected with a lot of good people, and many of them were aware of the growing racism, but they were too proud to talk about it and too proud to talk about it with their kids, and I didn’t think that was right. If you stand up and speak up about racism, you not only learn about your past, but you can become a better person, too.”

The documentary traces the century-long history of Montreal’s Chinatown, as a place of hope and dreams for its Asian immigrants, as a thriving community, as well as its gradual decline. The story is told not only through Jimmy’s point-of-view, but also through interviews with longtime and current Chinatown residents, merchants and community leaders, plus Montreal politicians and media personalities.

“I saw how Chinatown became smaller and smaller to the point of nearly disappearing, thanks to the development of a lot of commercial buildings in the area, which was not good,” he said. “I talked to city politicians to get their help to save Chinatown, but nothing concrete happened. Then the city put together a panel commission to look into the issues and concerns dealing with Chinatown, but nothing happened. That’s one of the reasons I decided to do the documentary, so that everyone will know about Chinatown’s past and the hardships the immigrants face when they settled here a century ago, which many people never really knew about. This will help them develop a greater appreciation of this community’s history.”

Besides examining the past, present and future of Montreal’s Chinatown, the documentary also chronicles some of the initiatives that Jimmy launched as a means of action for the well being of the community and its people. That is greatly exemplified with the creation of a nighttime neighborhood watch patrol to give the residents and merchants an extra means of security. 

“There was a point that the residents couldn’t rely on the police, but I educated them to call 911 if they saw anything suspicious. But instead, I would get the calls all the time, which became quite stressful for me,” he said. “Then there was the incident when a skylight’s windows were broken when heavy objects were thrown through it, followed by a bucketful of grease from a nearby restaurant. The police never came to investigate. I then called 911 and was told to come to the station to file a report, but they did not pursue it further because, according to the police, no one was hurt. That’s when I decided to establish the night patrol for the health and safety of the Chinatown community.”

Jimmy has been encouraged with the overall positive reaction and feedback from “Saving Chinatown”, especially during a recent screening in Toronto. “It was a very emotional experience. The audience cheered loudly and many of them were crying when the screening ended. During the Q&A session, the young people in the audience said they felt so good after seeing the documentary, because they felt they were no longer alone and that it served as a wake up call for humanity, which touched me a lot,” he said.

As a result of being galvanized from the positive feedback the documentary has garnered since its premiered, Jimmy hopes to have it screen in New York City and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the future. Plus, he plans to put together a sequel. However, he is also galvanized by the tremendous outreach “Saving Chinatown” has created in such a short time. “The more one reaches out, the more touched they are to make some change in the world,” he said. “We are all human beings. And when we begin to understand one another, it will be a better world for all of us.”