Representing Chinatown: Reflections in Film and Photography

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from Meniscus Magazine, January 2014
by Christopher Bourne

“We Landed/I Was Built-in/Passing Past: New York’s Chinatown on Screen” is a wonderfully eclectic series that runs at Anthology Film Athenaeum from January 24-26. New York’south Chinatown is one of the nigh iconic neighborhoods in New York, with a long, rich history, one which embodies how immigrants have transformed America’s urban landscapes. This series offers artful and provocative perspectives on how Chinatown has been documented and depicted on flick, and how it has figured in the pop imagination. Consisting of five themed programs, this is a multimedia series, encompassing documentaries, archival footage, fiction films, performance art pieces, literary readings and photography slide shows. “Chinatown on Screen” is co-curated by Asian CineVision program manager Lesley Yiping Qin, filmmaker and video artist
Lynne Sachs
(whose latest film “Your Day is My Nighttime” closes the serial), independent curator and critic Xin Zhou, and video creative person and documentarian Bo Wang.

Appropriately for the venue, experimental and avant-garde film is well represented. One of the more than unusual discoveries of the serial are films by the late Tom Tam (who passed away in 2008), a doctor, community activist and filmmaker, who devoted his life to improving the health of the residents of Chinatown, and artistically documenting in his movie work the area where he lived and worked for most of his life. Tam was also instrumental in founding the Asian American Motion-picture show Festival in 1972, which eventually became Asian CineVision, the organization supporting Asian American moving picture artists which runs the Asian American International Film Festival. Tam is represented in the series with iii of his short, silent experimental films, shot in the ’60s and ’70s. The well-nigh purely experimental of these is
“Boy on Chinatown Roof,”
its flickering, strobed images of the titular boy and a sectioned human beefcake model – a nod, maybe, to Tam’due south day job – creating a striking impression. The other two films are more than closely connected to Tam’s customs activism:
“Chinatown Street Festival”
documents a health fair Tam organized which offered medical screenings to residents and included street performers as entertainment, while
“Tourist Buses, Go Home!”
concerned Chinatown residents resentments and protests against Caucasian tourists bottleneck the streets to gawk at the neighborhood. “This is our community, not a zoo!” reads one protest sign, while other residents enhance middle fingers at the tour buses. Both films employ such visual manipulations equally sped upward motion and time lapse photography to raise the documentary footage.

A scene from Shelly Silver's "5 lessons and 9 questions about Chinatown." (credit: Shelly Silver)

A scene from Shelly Argent’s “v lessons and 9 questions virtually Chinatown.” (credit: Shelly Silver)

Shelly Silver’s remarkable ten-infinitesimal short
“5 lessons and ix questions well-nigh Chinatown” (2009) was commissioned by The Museum of Chinese in America for their “Chinatown Film Project.” The motion-picture show covers 152 years of Chinatown’south history, with witty, elegant editing juxtapositions, expressive employ of Chinese characters, documentary footage (both original and archival), and a multilingual voiceover that examines many issues in its very brief running time. The origins of Chinatown, the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Deed that restricted clearing in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the changes wrought by gentrification, and even a brief visit to a little girl’s house are all included in this nicely packaged historical and social portmanteau.

A scene from Shelly Sliver's "Touch." (credit: Shelly Silver)

A scene from Shelly Sliver’southward “Touch.” (credit: Shelly Silvery)

Silver extends her inquiries and explorations of Chinatown, where she has resided for more than 25 years, in
(2013), a short quasi-documentary feature that filters street scenes through the fictional consciousness of its unseen, unnamed narrator (voiced by Lu Yu), who returns after 50 years away to intendance for his dying mother. He is a librarian who dreamed of being a photographer, and his voiceover provides his observations of the people, sights and sounds of the neighborhood he managed to escape for a long fourth dimension, simply is now compelled to render to. The film’s verbal and visual text is an constructing of research, interviews and fictional elements that is beautifully layered, and plays as a sort of collective consciousness of Chinatown, and an intriguing expression of the connections between the physical and psychic spaces of the neighborhood. Silver, in one of the witty juxtapositions typical of her work, contrasts her work which places Chinatown at the eye of her inquiry with another that uses it as a local color properties: Woody Allen’due south “Whatever Works,” which nosotros observe being filmed. Silver performs a very fitting reversal of cinematic subject positioning, in which the residents of Chinatown are the stars, while Woody Allen and Larry David become fleeting extras.

A scene from Eric Lin's "Music Palace." (credit: Eric Lin)

A scene from Eric Lin’s “Music Palace.” (credit: Eric Lin)

Cinephiles of a particular stripe volition experience some nostalgia in cinematographer Eric Lin’due south 2005 documentary short
“Music Palace,”
which covers the last days of the last movie theater in Chinatown that screened mostly Cantonese-language films from Hong Kong. The peeling walls, torn seats, and grandly ruined atmosphere are depicted with amore, and mournful reflection on inexorable changes. The owner reminisces on the standing-room only crowds of the by that have disappeared, he says, due to the proliferation of pirated videotapes. The projectionist and a regular patron also offer their thoughts. “Music Palace” documents an age and a type of moviegoing that recedes farther into the distant past with each passing day and new technological advancement.

Performance artists offer their takes on Chinatown in ii pieces in the serial. Shanghai-born Jiaxin Miao, in his 2011 piece
“Chinaman’southward Suitcase,”
carries a suitcase filled with roast ducks through Times Square and other familiar New York locations, spray paints the ducks different colors, and hangs them up in a Chinatown restaurant window. Miao also travels to Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests; the sounds of protestation are on the soundtrack, but the protesters themselves are long gone. Los Angeles’ Chinatown, as depicted in Roman Polanski’south “Chinatown,” gets a subversive handling in Singapore-born creative person Ming Wong’s
“Making Chinatown, Pt. 7,”
which was originally office of a 2012 installation at Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles. Wong recreates cardinal scenes from “Chinatown “– in part 7, the final scene – in which Wong himself plays all the main roles, both male and female. This is Wong’s response to the use of Chinatown to create a mythology and sinister associations that accept little to practice with the bodily place; recasting himself in roles originally played past non-Asians highlights the racial coding inherent in these fictional constructs.

Nutrient is a major part of the Chinatown feel, and this gets a surreal spin in Yau Ching’s 1998 brusk motion-picture show
“I’m Starving,”
well-nigh a black woman in a Chinatown apartment who is haunted by the ghost of a Chinese woman in the flat. Far from an unwanted presence, the ghost is the black woman’s lover; the ghost sniffs the living adult female, taking in both her smell and the smell of the food that that represents the pleasures she can no longer partake in. The ghost and the woman eventually swallow, in lieu of bodily food, the printed representations and symbols of such, including takeout menus and fortune cookie messages. The longing and desires for food and sex reflect the filmmaker’s own; this was filmed in her own apartment, and is a poetic expression of her experiences in New York, fabricated shortly before she left the city.

A scene from Lynne Sachs' "Your Day is My Night." (credit: Lynne Sachs)

A scene from Lynne Sachs’ “Your Day is My Night.” (credit: Lynne Sachs)

Many modes of expression are combined in Lynne Sachs’
“Your Day is My Night”
(2013), an extraordinary hybrid of documentary, performance and theatrical monologues that began its life equally a series of live performances in Chinatown and other areas of the metropolis. The picture show is gear up in a Chinatown “shift-bed” flat, where the residents, mostly migrant immigrants, hire shared beds among people who work different hours of the twenty-four hour period. The performers are Chinese non-professional actors – ranging in historic period from their 50’due south to their 70’s – playing themselves and performing monologues based on their own stories. The cast likewise includes a Puerto Rican actress, whose interactions with the Chinese actors lend richness to the performances. “Your Day is My Night” is a poetic evocation of the experiences of Chinese immigrants, with rich visual textures; the often intimate, close-upward camerawork is shot on Hd digital video, 16mm and Super-8 film. The uses of urban infinite, familial relationships born out of shared historical and personal experiences, China’s turbulent past which created these communities in America, childhood memories and personal aspirations, all observe expression in these stories which are deeply affecting and movingly performed.

For more information on these and other films in the series, visit the Album Picture Athenaeum’ website.

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