A Changing Chinatown

0 Posted by - April 14, 2015 - Reviews, Screen

Julia Kwan’s NFB-produced Everything Will Be (Canada, 2014) examines the gentrification of Vancouver’s Chinatown as an uneasy balance of preservation, assimilation, and creative re-purposing.

A flurry of condo development encroaches on the neighbourhood’s familiar faces, such as the witty nonagenarian newsvendor and the members of the senior’s singing club. Meanwhile, younger community members inherit their family businesses and open new restaurants, galleries, and stores, anticipating the neighbourhood’s change while staying connected to its history. Although Chinatown’s future is uncertain, Kwan’s film rises to a challenge set by a chic cocktail bartender who infuses her Chinese medicine-inspired libations with chakra-sensitive sound frequencies: to translate Chinatown’s unaligned new and old energies for each other. The result is a complex meditation on vitality, life span, and transition, wherein a diverse community negotiates renovation and conservation as complimentary forces.

Everything_Will_Be_LG-2It would be too easy for Everything Will Be to represent Chinatown as ethnically homogeneous, positioning non-Chinese residents as intruders or even colonizers. In a far more nuanced approach, Kwan presents a Chinatown that has already been in cultural transition for decades; a place that has never been just one place. Chinese and non-Chinese residents are all active, and vital, members of this community. An elderly and beloved Italian grocer recalls when Chinatown was as predominantly Italian as Chinese, and a middle-aged poet reminisces about deceased “friends” from his boarding house with whom he never spoke due to the language barrier. Every Chinatown resident in this film seems utterly at home, regardless of how, when, or why they moved there.

Beyond ethnic demographics, the film’s other major political charge is the balance of the “hard” and “soft” forces of gentrification occurring within the neighbourhood. Demolished buildings and aggressive condo advertisements are actively rewriting Chinatown’s streetscape. The soft gentrification (or what Gayle Rubin might call “small g gentrification”) inside the remaining buildings, however, is far more difficult to parse ethically.

Kwan contrasts the preservation and renovation strategies of two local art impresarios: a young Chinese man who returns to Chinatown to open a storefront art studio where locals are encouraged to graffiti the walls; and, a Caucasian gallery owner on a mission to collect and display relics of the “real” Chinatown. Both cases are well-intentioned but unsettling; the studio goes bankrupt and must be repainted as a blank canvas, and the comparatively affluent gallery owner’s delight in new acquisitions can be difficult to reciprocate – his exuberance perhaps most unsettling when he instructs elderly Chinese residents on their own histories as they visit his latest architectural intervention.

The awkward coexistence of hip lounges hosting neo-burlesque shows and un-renovated canteens hosting mahjong tournaments lets Chinatown’s past, present, and future live together as neighbours in this compelling and refreshing documentary.

Ultimately, Everything Will Be meets you as a stranger, then invites you home for dinner and conversation.

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