More to the Chinese side: the ruminations of a fifth-generation Chinese American filmmaker.
Like so many Asian American artists, I became a filmmaker to see myself represented. I was tired of watching the same film about the tribulations of the white middle class that I had seen the week before. I was equally frustrated with the state of Chinese American cinema, where the majority of films seemed to be about the struggles between present-day ABCs (i.e., American-born Chinese) and their Chinese-born parents. As a fifth-generation Chinese American of mixed descent, I knew that the diversity of stories in our community was much greater than what was being represented in either community or mainstream media. Fueled by a desire to see my Chinese American experience represented, I became a filmmaker.
Although I never connected my passion for movies with my racial identity while I was growing up, my experiences as a college student at New York University showed me how strong the link actually was. NYU attracted me because I knew that it was the school that Spike Lee attended, and I related to the political bent of many of Lee's films. I arrived at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU thinking, or at least naively hoping, that I would be taking classes with scores of people of color who shared my political passions and moral sensibilities. The reality of my experiences could not have been farther from the truth. Despite its placement in one of the most diverse cities in the world, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts remains a bastion of whiteness. A few high-profile alumni and professors, like Ang Lee, Christine Choy, and Spike Lee, serve to mask a student body that is overwhelmingly white, suburban, and upper middle class. I realized soon after arriving that I was chosen, in spite of my less than stellar high school grades, because I added a speck of color to NYU's sea of lily white. I was accepted to NYU in part because I am Chinese American.
At NYU, I put a human face to the type of people who create the images that the vast majority of Americans watch in movie theaters every weekend. NYU is one of a triumvirate of schools--along with USC and UCLA--that provides the bulk of Hollywood "talent," and I could see even from my classmates' student films that they would follow in the footsteps of the classes that had come before them. The content of the work that my classmates at Tisch created, while technically adroit, reflected the lack of diversity at the school. I saw amusing student films about bowling in the woods and about giant killer mice but few films featured any actors of color, and I never saw a film that seemed to be driven by a developed political or moral argument.
Surrounded by suburban whites, I felt strangely out of place at NYU. My interest in classic Japanese cinema, modern Hong Kong films, and movies by Asian Americans made me somewhat of an anomaly at a school where my classmates' favorite directors were David Lynch, Woody Allen, or even Steven Spielberg. When my department offered an upper-division class on Chinese cinema before the fifth generation, I was one of three students who enrolled, a reflection no doubt on the interest--or lack thereof--of my classmates.
As I got to know my classmates, I realized that these future Hollywood moguls and producers didn't make films about the suburban white middle class because they wanted to exclude other voices. They made movies about the white middle class because these stories reflected their own life experiences. If their films were vapid--albeit sometimes engaging--uncontroversial fluff, this was in part a reflection of the suburban strip-mall culture that had bred them. With few classmates of color to speak of, I became patently aware that the next generation of mainstream Hollywood films would be no more diverse than the last. While I didn't see it at the time, later in life this realization would further my commitment to grassroots community media.
I left NYU with a good grounding in film history, theory, and criticism and waded head first into a sea of personal debt. I had yet to take a filmmaking class. My two attempts to enroll in film production classes had been rebuffed by the long waiting list imposed on anyone from outside the film production department. As I stood among a crowd of purple that graduation afternoon in late May of 1999, I looked forward to putting my prestigious $100,000 film degree to use in discussions back home with friends about the movies we had rented from the local mom-and-pop video store. My first film would have to wait another two years until I was a graduate student in Asian American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles, and enrolled in Bob Nakamura's EthnoCommunications course.
I arrived at UCLA's Asian American Studies program not knowing quite what to expect. I knew of the grassroots history of the field of Asian American Studies, and I arrived hoping to find a department still deeply rooted in the community Sadly, I found a department, and indeed an entire field, grappling with its proper place in academia. In many ways UCLA's Asian American Studies Department had reached an apex: on the one hand, the program was on the verge of becoming the first Ethnic Studies Program at the university to be given full departmental status, and yet on the other hand, this new academic standing had brought to the forefront internal conflicts on the direction the program should be taking. A vocal minority of professors felt that the program should remain rooted in the community while many others felt that the program should focus on producing future academics to lead the field. The department did a good job of teaching a few large introductory lecture courses to hundreds of interested UCLA Asian American students, and it also turned out a half dozen MA candidates each year, but its presence in the various Asian American communities around Los Angeles was almost nonexistent.
In many ways, Asian American Studies has become a victim of its own success. Back in 1969, in San Francisco, Asian American Studies started out as a way to bridge the community-academy divide. Thousands of Asian American activists waged a prolonged student strike to establish a department that not only taught about the experiences of Asian Americans but also acted outside the academy to better the life experiences of the entire community. Bringing then underrepresented Asian American students into the university to work on projects that would be helpful to the Asian American community was the original purpose of Ethnic Studies. But as the years wore on, much of this original mission became lost in the melange of unintelligible, post-structuralist psychobabble that is, even now, slowly consuming our discipline.
Professor Nakamura, a tenured professor of Film and Asian American Studies and long-time social activist and artist, realized the need for a course that would give Asian American students specific skills that could be used in the betterment of their various communities. EthnoCommunications teaches Asian American Studies students with no filmmaking experience how to make video documentaries in the hopes of training a legion of Asian American community filmmakers. In this age when one is more likely to hear "Foucauldian Biopower" in a graduate level Asian American course than be required to go out into the community, EthnoCommunications is a throwback to another era.
The EthnoCommunications program provides a refreshing alternative to the established film schools around the country that fail to seek out students of color to admit, and then fail to educate the students of color they do admit, about anything other than how to light a shot or which lens to use at which distance. The need for our communities to have people to represent our stories properly and realistically in visual media such as film and video is paramount. Ethnocommunications fills a needed void by teaching Asian American Studies students who already have an understanding of the issues facing our communities about how to make documentaries.
Over the course of three quarters, students in EthnoCommunications learn how to bring a documentary from proposal to screening. In the first quarter, students learn how to write a treatment of their ideas and how to turn that treatment into a viable grant application. Bob Nakamura and Vivian Wong, the program's assistant director, teach students the basics of camera work and editing, thereby giving the students the requisite skills to turn their treatments into short ten-minute video documentaries. In the second quarter, students perfect their editing skills, while workshopping their short documentaries as a class. In the third quarter; the students fine-tune their videos, sometimes lengthening them to fifteen to twenty minutes. Guest professional filmmakers visit the class, giving the emerging student filmmakers criticism and encouragement.
Thus after four years of attending one of the most prestigious film schools in the country, I finally took my first film class as a grad student at UCLA. My first film, More to the Chinese Side, was written, directed, and edited with my good friend Sharon Lee. The treatment we had written called for us to explore the life of my grandfather, Edward W. Gow, and his life growing up in the Southern California farming town of Oxnard. Logging hundreds of miles in Sharon's car, we made the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco no less than five times in order to interview members of my family about their remembrances of my grandfather. We hoped to juxtapose these stories of my grandfather that the various members told to us with a discussion of their views on their own identity, thus showing a bridge between my grandfather, his children, and his grandchildren. It wasn't until we started editing that we realized we had conceptualized a film a little bit more complex than could fit in our allotted ten minutes. So we focused the theme of the video solely on identity, specifically the ways in which Edward Gow's grandchildren negotiate their identities as biracial Chinese Americans.
Although originally we began with a documentary much broader in scope than the one we ended up with, in editing More to the Chinese Side, we were quite conscious of the ways that Chinese Americans and mixed-race people had been represented in popular culture. Although the film does not overtly reference other texts, we saw More to the Chinese Side very much in dialogue with both dominant mainstream and community representations of Chinese Americans. On this critical level, we had two specific goals with More to the Chinese Side: first, we tried to represent the life of a fifth-generation Chinese American family, thus challenging the largely held conception that Chinese Americans are all recent immigrants; and secondly, we hoped to present an image of a multiracial family that was wholesome and well adjusted, thereby showing that not all mixed race families or mixed race people were mentally disturbed or psychologically maladjusted.
As has been documented elsewhere, one of the most common Chinese American representations in mainstream cinema is that of the perpetual foreigner. From Fu Manchu to Jackie Chan, Chinese in America have been represented as the Yellow Peril, the unassimilable other against which white society defines itself. We are the domestic Orient to the American Occident. The body of literature on this subject is massive and need not be repeated here. But it was this understanding of Chinese Americans being seen as perpetual foreigners that influenced our work on the documentary.
Likewise we were conscious of the extent to which Asian American films were often built around the conflict between second generation Chinese Americans and their American-born parents. From Chan Is Missing to Joy Luck Club and Wedding Banquet, this conflict, which is both generational and cultural, drives so many of the films made by Asian American filmmakers. While this is no doubt a reflection of the high number of first- and second-generation filmmakers in the Chinese American community, this image silences the voices of those of us who have been here longer.
These films often hinge on the idea that Chinese from China are more Chinese than Chinese born in America because of their proximity to the culture and fluency in the language. Likewise, ABCs in these films are often portrayed as less Chinese because of their birth in the United States and their less-than-perfect Chinese language ability. In this type of construct, language ability and birth are privileged over action and personal choice. This type of cultural reading of Chinese American identity is problematic on a number of fronts. First of all, by privileging culture over action, these filmmakers make Chinese American identity into something that is bestowed on individuals based on their place of birth rather than being something that is grappled with, performed, and negotiated. In reality, of course, the extent to which people embrace their ethnic identity and see themselves as members of ethnic communities is determined not by the place of one's birth or the fluency of ones language skills but by the extent to which a person participates in a community.
More to the Chinese Side is constantly in dialogue with this cultural concept of identity. The documentary argues that even though my fifth-generation family doesn't speak Chinese or stay in contact with relatives in Asia, we are still Chinese American. While the issues of who and how people are included in our community may seem irrelevant to some, in fact these issues lay at the heart of who we are as a community. As a fifth-generation Chinese American who looks white, I find more resistance within the community to my identifying as a Chinese American than I do in the broader white society. On a number of occasions after showing the film, I have been challenged by members of the "progressive" Asian American community on the way I choose to identify myself. Offended by the idea that someone who is half white and doesn't speak Chinese would claim to be an Asian American, these progressive Asian Americans have been vehement in their demands that I acknowledge that I am half white, as if this in some way invalidates my Chinese heritage. While I never deny that I am part white, neither will I let that stop me from identifying myself as a Chinese American.
Phenotype aside, people have a hard time accepting me and other fifth-generation Chinese Americans like me because, discursively, my generation does not exist. In mainstream and community media alike, the image of the Chinese American is too often that of the recent immigrant. Our great-grandfathers are allowed into the history books because at the time they still had queues and wore straw conical hats and thus fit nicely with the stereotype of Asians as perpetual foreigners. But our great-grandparents are then frozen in time, bachelors without families that never bore children. The very existence of us, their great-grandkids, causes confusion in the representational universe because we are so far from this image of the massimilable Other. One of our goals with More to the Chinese Side was to put the story of my generation on the small screen, thus combating this representational absence.
The second common mainstream representation that we actively engage in in More to the Chinese Side is less well documented but no less apparent, and that is the constant conception that mixed race people are at best socially maladjusted and at worst psychologically deranged. Historically, this conception has been perpetuated in two ways, first by the presence of mixed race characters in film who are deranged--think Warner Oland in yellow face as the villain in Shanghai Express--and second, by having mixed race actors play roles as monoracial characters, thus denying the audience the opportunity of seeing mixed race characters on screen as "normal" individuals.
In More to the Chinese Side we were very conscious to show a multiracial family made up of well-adjusted individuals. We didn't portray my mother as a crazy sinophile, nor did we portray my father as a whitewashed yappie. Rather we showed them for who they are, two people whose paths crossed and who fell in love with each other. Indeed the scene in the film that seems to elicit the most audience reaction is when my mother pretends not to be a vegetarian so that she can go and buy a hotdog from my father's hotdog stand in order to have a chance to talk to him. While it is common in film to see white men desiring Asian women as objects, instances of white women courting Asian American men are close to nonexistent.
In the same way, the video sets out to show my brothers and cousins as individuals who each have chosen to negotiate their Chinese identity in their own ways. For my cousin Jonathan this has meant being an Asian American Studies major. For my brother Eddie this has meant believing in Chinese superstitions, while for my brother Max this has meant having an "Asian" car. While their Asian American identities are much more complex than this, the parts of their identity that they choose to highlight in the interviews are telling. While in many ways all people perform their identities, for many multiracial people, like myself, the ways in which we choose to perform our identities often determines the degree to which we are accepted by our peers. For many of us, the performance of our identities is a constant negotiation between our phenotype and the expectation and assumptions placed on us by other members of our community Multiethnic Asian Americans must often "prove" their identities in ways that others in the community do not have to do.
Despite the occasional challenges at screenings over the way I choose to identify myself, the documentary in general is nearly always well received. Often audiences marvel at how loving my family appears to be. Both Sharon Lee and I have always taken this as a compliment as this was one of the goals we set out to achieve in making the film. While our film is not overt in its political content, it does in many ways try to raise complex social issues while highlighting for other Asian Americans a voice that is often unheard.
My second film was quite a different venture. Revisiting East Adams was a project that my friend Jenny Cho and I did together for the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. I wrote, edited, and produced the documentary while Jenny served in all these capacities as well as being the film's director. Revisiting East Adams is a film that captures the history of one of Los Angeles' oldest and now nearly forgotten Chinese American neighborhoods. In the early 1930s when Los Angeles's Old Chinatown was demolished to make way for Union Station, most Chinese residents fled to one of three other communities: New Chinatown, the smaller City Market Chinatown, or the adjacent East Adams neighborhood, which had ample cheap housing and no restrictive covenants. East Adams then came to serve as a bedroom community for many of the Chinese working in and around the City Market Chinatown. Our documentary covers the history of the East Adams neighborhood from its inception in the 1930s through its disintegration in the 1950s. Through interviews with former residents we paint a picture of what it was like to grow up in this diverse Chinese American community.
Few films have been made of this first group of second-generation Chinese Americans who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s. This was the generation that lived through the Depression, that witnessed the internment of their Japanese American neighbors, and that fought in World War II. These experiences and others have made this group as a whole see themselves not as Chinese living in America, as most previous generation had, but rather as Chinese Americans. Most of the men who fought in World War II are proud of their service to the United States. These veterans present a side of the Chinese American experience rarely seen in mainstream society
Making this film we saw many similarities between this original group of ABCs and the current group of second-generation Chinese American youth. These second-generation Chinese Americans who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s played in their own sports leagues and founded their own clubs. Like many Asian American youth today, they were interested in cars and racing. They attended Chinese school and helped in their parents' grocery stores. They negotiated the largely integrated public schools of Los Angeles and had friends from other ethnic groups. Yet when it came time to serve in World War II, many of these young men saw themselves as completely American. Unlike their Japanese and African American neighbors, most Chinese Americans were placed in all white units and most returned proud to have fought in a war they saw as just.
Their story challenges the representational norm for Chinese Americans in film in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to start. Simply representing older Chinese Americans speaking English without an accent is a challenge to representations of Chinese Americans as perpetual foreigners. Indeed, the complexity of the individuals who appear in Revisiting East Adams is a challenge to the one-dimensional caricature of Chinese Americans seen in most mainstream media. And while their story does draw parallels to the Chinese American films that deal with the experiences of second-generation youth today, the details of their story put an unconventional twist on the prevailing genre.
I feel blessed and humbled that both the documentaries I have worked on have been as well received as they have. More to the Chinese Side played at a number of film festivals and was nominated for the Golden Reel Award at the Visual Communications Film Festival before being picked up for distribution by NAATA. Likewise, the response to Revisiting East Adams by former residents of the neighborhood was nothing short of astounding. We distributed hundreds of DVDs to former community members and sold out our first public screening at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.
Despite their success, both documentaries were made with inexpensive consumer cameras and little equipment other than a tripod and a lav mike. They were both edited on Mac PowerBooks and shot completely on DV tape. More to the Chinese Side was made for about $500 and Revisiting East Adams for about $5,000--miniscule budgets when compared to even the cheapest of independent films. The speed of advancing technology has given our community the power to tell the stories of our experiences in a relatively presentable way for little money. Indeed, distribution remains the biggest obstacle for determined new filmmakers, and even this obstacle, with the proliferation of websites showing videos online, is slowly crumbling.
As the technology improves, it is imperative that we invest in programs like EthnoCommunications that teach young people how to document their own lives. These programs must not be limited to elite universities like UCLA but must be brought into our public high schools, middle schools, and community centers. With the power to make our own media and capture the real experiences of our community in all its complexities, we no longer have to waste our money to see the mindless commercial drivel Hollywood turns out. The right type of investment in the right type of organizations can insure that even Chinese Americans living in the poorest neighborhoods in our community can represent and speak for themselves, thus ensuring that the stories of our community are preserved in all their diversity and complexity for generations to come.
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|Title Annotation:||8D Paper|
|Publication:||Chinese America: History and Perspectives|
|Article Type:||Personal account|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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