Tag Archives: Chinatown on Screen

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.




Alan Chin Chinatown Street celebration photo hi res

Chinatown Street celebration photo by Alan Chin

January 24 – January 26, 2014


Whether you see Chinatown as a place or a state of mind, a purgatory or an oasis, a shrinking immigrant community or an expanding business district, its presence in our cinematic imagination is enormous. Situated north of NYC’s Wall Street, east of the Tombs, west of the old Jewish Ghetto, and mostly south of Canal, the neighborhood that began in the mid-19th century has maintained its distinct character – savory, hardscrabble, succulent, and cacophonous.

WE LANDED/I WAS BORN/PASSING BY explores a provocative array of images of the community from the 1940s to the present day. By embracing the perspectives of grassroots activists, performance artists, conceptual visionaries, home-movie makers, punk horror devotees, and journalists, the series raises questions about how we look at the neighborhood and how its representations have reciprocally shaped our imagination. Who lived in Chinatown at the beginning? Who lives there now? How and why has it changed? What language best describes Chinatown? Whose voices do we hear?

Inspired by the fabulously observant 1960s poetry of Chinatown’s very own Frances Chung, this 5-part film series looks at the streets, desires, shops, and struggles of an iconic community that only begins to reveal its stories when the most obvious outer layers are pulled back. Comprised of documentaries, archival footage, home videos, literary readings, photography, and performance, the series rings in Chinese New Year by opening a window to both early and contemporary conditions. Through it all, geography, memory, and observation compress and expand the imaginary and the real of this beloved section of the Big Apple.

Curated by Lesley Yiping Qin, Lynne Sachs, Bo Wang, and Xin Zhou.

Anthology Film Archives | 32 Second Ave, New York, NY 10003 | (212) 505-5181

24週五7:30 影片集1紐約華埠之兩個寒夜

Part of the Chinatown Film Project commissioned by the Museum of Chinese in America, Jem Cohen’s NIGHT SCENE IN NEW YORK is a close nocturnal observation of the people and lights of this urban milieu. In contrast to Cohen’s beautifully shot yet vernacular street scenes, conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s black-and-white video work expresses a more distant gaze on the Chinatown community, offering an ambivalent and imaginary take on the same cityscape. VOYEUR CHINATOWN (1971) Dir. Gordon Matta-Clark | NIGHT SCENE NEW YORK (2009) Dir. Jem Cohen | A reading Annie Ling from Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple: The Poems of Frances Chung.

Sat, Jan 25 6:00pm | PROGRAM 2: THE TOUCH OF AN EYE
125週六6:00 影片集2視線的觸覺

The view from above – the bird’s eye view – can be omniscient and detached, playful and wicked. Shelly Silver’s TOUCH, a restrained yet endlessly sensual ciné-essay on loss and presence, takes us on a journey that begins with the psyche of an enigmatic son who returns as both insider and outsider to a Chinatown from which he escaped. Celebrated 1960s community activist Tom Tam also shot irrepressibly inventive experimental films of the world he fought so hard to defend. Tam’s pixilated glimpse of a boy on a roof gives voice to a child’s sense of flight and the realization that he will never have wings. BOY ON CHINATOWN ROOF (1970s) Dir. Tom Tam | TOUCH (2013) Dir. Shelly Silver. Followed by a reception.

25週六8:00 影片集3華埠問題考

How can realities be engaged if the idea of a place has already been mediated by a sense of otherness and displacement? It all began with the name “Chinatown”, a specific place that can be found in many cities of the world. THE TROUBLE WITH CHINATOWN, originally aired on WNBC in the 1970s was a survey of social and educational problems. A 2013 CNN “exposé” on the “dirty, dangerous firetrap” at 81 Bowery Street sparked the eviction of the tenants who couldn’t afford another place to live. The reactions today can be linked to Tom Tam’s silent film TOURIST BUSES, GO HOME! that protests against Chinatown tourism. Shelly Silver’s 5 LESSONS AND 9 QUESTIONS ABOUT CHINATOWN interweaves fragments of neighborhood lives with questions of history, change, a sense of belonging and home. Followed by an informal talk by photographer Corky Lee, an activist in the Asian and Pacific American community for the past forty years.  WNBC-TV THE TROUBLE WITH CHINATOWN (1970) Dir. Bill Turque | TOURIST BUSES, GO HOME! (1969) Dir. Tom Tam | 5 LESSONS & 9 QUESTIONS ABOUT CHINATOWN (2011) Dir. Shelly Silver | CNN report on 81 Bowery St: “Eviction & Protest” (2013) | Photos and artist talk by Corky Lee.

26週日5:00 | 影片集4包厘街戲單

Quotidian life is provoked and embodied in this eclectic playbill of Chinatown. We begin with a quietly rueful look at the closing-down of MUSIC PALACE, the last Chinatown movie theater on Bowery Street. In contrast is MAKING CHINATOWN, a reenactment parody of Polanski’s CHINATOWN and its profiling LA Chinatown as a lawless enclave. From the upfront self-mocking of PAPER SON, to two lesbians munching fortune cookie messages in I AM STARVING, to following grocery shoppers home for dinner in THE TRAINED CHINESE TONGUE, everyday experiences constantly negotiate the personal. Interspersed are two historical documentations of Chinese New Years in the 40s and 60s. Chinatown-born photojournalist Alan Chin will provide his vision of the neighborhood through his candid, sharply rendered insider’s eye. MUSIC PALACE (2005) Dir. Eric Lin| MAKING CHINATOWN Pt. 7 (2012) by Ming Wong | I AM STARVING (1998) Dir. Yau Ching | THE TRAINED CHINESE TONGUE (1994) Dir. Laurie Wen | YEAR OF THE RAT (1963) Dir. Jon Wing Lum | Photo slideshow by Alan Chin.

26周日7:30 | 影片集5二英里的時光

Mixing live readings and videos, this program investigates domestic and public spaces in the two square miles of Chinatown. Shanghai-born performance artist Jiaxin Miao carries his suitcase between Chinatown and Zuccotti Park and then boldly sprays colors onto roast ducks. Galvanized by flickering and fast forward motions, revered political activist Tom Tam’s intimate camera work captures the communal life of a health fair in Columbus Park. Lynne Sachs’ hybrid documentary is set in shift-bed rooms in Chinatown where performers transform their everyday movements into dance and are tenderly challenged to leave their shared, self-supporting world. After traveling ten thousand miles to get here, what is it like to go five miles further? Followed by readings of work by novelist Ha Jin and poet Frances Chung, who belong to two different generations of Chinese-American writers.  A reading by Herb Tam from a novel Ha Jin | CHINATOWN STREET FESTIVAL (1970s) Dir. Tom Tam | CHINAMAN’S SUITCASE (2011) Featuring Jiaxin Miao | YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT (2013) Dir. Lynne Sachs | A reading by Paolo Javier of poetry by Frances Chung.