|Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco: Chinatown: Interview with Producer/Director Felicia Lowe|
[Editor's Note: Please note that the following material dates from the PBS premiere in July 1997]
Felicia Lowe, who grew up in Oakland, California's, Chinatown, tracked down the history of San Francisco's Chinatown to create a documentary for KQED's ongoing series, Neighborhoods: the Hidden Cities of San Francisco. It premiered locally in March of 1996 on Channel 9 to critical acclaim. The San Francisco Chronicle said, "No San Francisco district could prove to be more tenacious than Chinatown. Filmmaker Felicia Lowe seizes smartly on that tenacity." The San Francisco Examiner exclaimed, "KQED's fine new historical documentary is marked by stylistic grace notes." Asian Week proclaimed that it's "a documentary that may change the way most of us think of Chinatowns everywhere." And the San Francisco Bay Guardian pointed out that it's "a fascinating look at the history and intricacies of life there." Following are Felicia Lowe's reflections on life behind Chinatown's gates and her documentary.
How do you tell the story of a place that compresses 5,000 years of Chinese History into 150 years of American history and come up with a 60-minute documentary?
It's not the kind of place you can cover in sound bites. I knew that San Francisco's Chinatown was called 'dai fau,' which means "big city." As a child, I remember, it was big, exciting, and yes, it was inscrutable. Historically everything about being Chinese in America had boundaries around it, a kind of fence that you couldn't go beyond. So Chinatown became the fortress, its own world -- the people re-created their own American within those crowded blocks where there was no choice but to survive on their own. As a filmmaker, I wanted to open eyes to the Chinatown that I lived in spite of it all.
Chinese were not only denied entry into the country, but a series of repressive laws forbade Chinese people who were already here from to testifying in court, owning property, voting, marrying non-Chinese and working in government and other institutional agencies. And yet your history is actually inspiring. How did you manage that?
I began asking people to tell their stories. All the time I had this profound sense of having to tell the stories to a world that never heard them before. It boggles my mind to think that these people lived an American life in an America that basically said 'we don't want you.' These are not people to whom the story of the Mayflower and pilgrims has a lot of emotional impact. If I just recited the Exclusion Act provisions, people's eyes would glaze over.
Chinatown is one of the highest-drawing tourist attractions in San Francisco -- a required stop on the cable car line, a photo opportunity for the folks back home -- why is that other Chinatowns don't have that notoriety?
San Francisco's Chinatown was the first foothold of Chinese in the United States and still a cultural touchstone. The tourist Chinatown was, simply, an invention. Tourism was absolutely the basis for the way it looks, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that. But it made it different from any other Chinatown.
Using various devices such as photographs, vintage film and video, readings from diaries and letters, Charlie Chin's voice-over narration and Genny Lim's poetry, as well as interviews with present and former residents, you re-create the "parallel world" of segregated Chinatown. How difficult was that to do?
As a culture, we were taught to have a low profile, to become invisible. Something was lost to us because of that. But it's the kind of things you learn when you are subjected to the kind of racial attacks we were. Young Chinese Americans hardly have an idea of what it means for an older resident of Chinatown to be asked to speak publicly about life there -- it's ingrained that you don't go beyond the boundaries. The assistance and confidence from the community allowed for the telling and sharing of many incredible tales of the early settlers. This was important to have done this now. In fact, two of the on-screen interviews that appear in the program, Tom Lym, the band leader, and Ling Gee Tom, one of the original China 5 have died since we filmed interviews with them.
Most of your documentary evokes the lively and distinctive culture of Chinatown, but in the later stages of the program, 1960s activists recall challenging their elders over long-festering problems: poverty, shamefully isolated old people, filth and crime. Have younger generations become critical of the neighborhood?
For all its rich history, Chinatown was, and is, a poor, overcrowded place. People leave it when they can. But at the same time, the older generations gave us something invaluable. I climbed on the shoulders of my elders to get where I am today. They created opportunities for their children and made things better for the next generation. I think in a land of immigrants, that's something we can all relate to.