Chinatown on Screen: An artful view of an iconic NYC neighborhood

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from Meniscus Magazine, January 2014
by Christopher Bourne

“We Landed/I Was Born/Passing By: New York’s Chinatown on Screen” is a wonderfully eclectic series that runs at Anthology Film Archives from January 24-26. New York’s Chinatown is one of the most 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 film, and how it has figured in the popular 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 Night” closes the series), independent curator and critic Xin Zhou, and video artist and documentarian Bo Wang.

Appropriately for the venue, experimental and avant-garde film is well represented. One of the more unusual discoveries of the series 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 film work the area where he lived and worked for most of his life. Tam was also instrumental in founding the Asian American Film Festival in 1972, which eventually became Asian CineVision, the organization supporting Asian American film artists which runs the Asian American International Film Festival. Tam is represented in the series with three of his short, silent experimental films, shot in the ’60s and ’70s. The most purely experimental of these is “Boy on Chinatown Roof,” its flickering, strobed images of the titular boy and a sectioned human anatomy model – a nod, perhaps, to Tam’s day job – creating a striking impression. The other two films are more closely connected to Tam’s community 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 clogging the streets to gawk at the neighborhood. “This is our community, not a zoo!” reads one protest sign, while other residents raise middle fingers at the tour buses. Both films employ such visual manipulations as sped up motion and time lapse photography to enhance the documentary footage.

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

A scene from Shelly Silver’s “5 lessons and 9 questions about Chinatown.” (credit: Shelly Silver)

Shelly Silver’s remarkable 10-minute short “5 lessons and 9 questions about Chinatown” (2009) was commissioned by The Museum of Chinese in America for their “Chinatown Film Project.” The film covers 152 years of Chinatown’s history, with witty, elegant editing juxtapositions, expressive use 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 Act that restricted immigration 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’s “Touch.” (credit: Shelly Silver)

Silver extends her inquiries and explorations of Chinatown, where she has resided for more than 25 years, in “Touch” (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 care 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 time, but is now compelled to return to. The film’s verbal and visual text is an amalgam 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 center of her inquiry with another that uses it as a local color backdrop: Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works,” which we 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 will experience some nostalgia in cinematographer Eric Lin’s 2005 documentary short “Music Palace,” which covers the final 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 affection, and mournful reflection on inexorable changes. The owner reminisces on the standing-room only crowds of the past 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 further into the distant past with each passing day and new technological advancement.

Performance artists offer their takes on Chinatown in two pieces in the series. Shanghai-born Jiaxin Miao, in his 2011 piece “Chinaman’s 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 protest are on the soundtrack, but the protesters themselves are long gone. Los Angeles’ Chinatown, as depicted in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” gets a subversive treatment in Singapore-born artist Ming Wong’s “Making Chinatown, Pt. 7,” which was originally part of a 2012 installation at Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles. Wong recreates key 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 have little to do with the actual place; recasting himself in roles originally played by non-Asians highlights the racial coding inherent in these fictional constructs.

Food is a major part of the Chinatown experience, and this gets a surreal spin in Yau Ching’s 1998 short film “I’m Starving,” about a black woman in a Chinatown apartment who is haunted by the ghost of a Chinese woman in the apartment. Far from an unwanted presence, the ghost is the black woman’s lover; the ghost sniffs the living woman, 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 consume, in lieu of actual 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, made 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 as a series of live performances in Chinatown and other areas of the city. The film is set in a Chinatown “shift-bed” apartment, where the residents, mostly migrant immigrants, rent shared beds among people who work different hours of the day. The performers are Chinese non-professional actors – ranging in age from their 50’s to their 70’s – playing themselves and performing monologues based on their own stories. The cast also 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-up camerawork is shot on HD digital video, 16mm and Super-8 film. The uses of urban space, 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 find expression in these stories which are deeply affecting and movingly performed.

For more information on these and other films in the series, visit the Anthology Film Archives’ website.