Vancouver's Chinatown at a crossroads

A conversation with filmmaker Julia Kwan
Photo: Michael David Hawley

Earlier this month Melissa Fong sat down with director Julia Kwan to talk about her film Everything Will Be, which is featured at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival.

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What was the inspiration for your film?

When this film was originally conceived, I wanted to do a comparison of this Chinatown with the satellite Chinatown of Richmond. The original idea was to contrast and compare. But then I was drawn to Vancouver’s Chinatown because I had such a strong emotional connection to it. I really gravitated towards this community because there is such a sense of history and community. I wanted to explore that.

The people I was drawn to really reminded me of my mom, my dad, aunts and uncles. Growing up here, I felt a bit of nostalgia. I was walking through Chinatown one day and I noticed all these shops that were shuttered. It was very different from when I was growing up. I really want to document the changes. For me, the film is like a time capsule at a particular moment in time. You look at the film five years from now and you know the community is going to be remarkably different. I wanted to document that. I’m showing a lot of the sunset industries, like Ho Sun Hing, the printing press that just closed down. You almost feel like this community is a sunset community; ethnic enclaves as we know it are dying. And the replacement is an evolution and will represent an amalgamation of old and new.

I interviewed people in their twilight years. I think it’s really important to document that sense of history and that community.

Sometimes nostalgia does the work of placing a community in the past. The poet in your film, Marc Brockington, stated, “People start to consider this area a museum, not a real place where real people live.” As Chinatown becomes more and more a historic and tourist destination, nostalgia can sometimes obscure the fact that this is a real living and working community.

Chinatown is a crossroads, a historical area that has almost been tokenized.

That’s a really interesting point. So, for example, someone like Bob Rennie, a condominium marketer, preserved the Wing Sang building, the historic Chinatown passageway, the oldest classroom [where Chinese immigrants learned English and where Chinese was later taught]. He’s also grown poppies [on the rooftop of the Wing Sang building] to recognize the opium trade, and I think my parents would be quite mortified if they knew that. But Chinatown is a crossroads, a historical area that has almost been tokenized, right? It’s sort of a museum, like you are not engaged and not interacting, you are just looking. And it’s different than Toronto’s Chinatown, which is very functional and self-sustainable. I think there definitely needs to be a balance of both [heritage and function].

I think they have always promoted Chinatown as a tourist destination. It’s funny because when we took the Chinatown tour bus [as research for the film], they took us along Pender, stopped in front of Sun Yat Sen Gardens and then veered off two blocks before Main Street, and it was like you were missing the heart of Chinatown where there is the working community. So I think in that sense there has to be a recognition of both [tourist space and working community].

How did you decide on your subjects? Most of your interviews were with small merchants or local residents. It is notable that Bob Rennie seems to be an exception.

It was a lot of walking the pavement. My researcher, Theresa Ho, and I spent about a year getting to know the community. It’s a very close community, and a lot of people didn’t understand what documentary filmmaking is, so even when they did agree to come on board, every time we came back to see them again they were surprised that it wasn’t done. They thought it was more like a news story.

A turning point was when we met with Daniel Lee, a security guard who has been patrolling the streets for around 20 years, and he took us on his routes and introduced us to everyone. This is not your typical documentary. It is a process documentary. I can’t just meet participants for half an hour. I was invested in it, and that’s why it took such a long time before we actually started to shoot. I wanted to establish a relationship and trust. We talked to more than twice as many people but some just didn’t fit the structure.

Who fit the structure?

People whose stories resonated with me emotionally and people whom you don’t normally see. People who don’t normally have a voice. When I asked all of them to take part, many felt like they had nothing special to say. They didn’t think they were anything special. They felt like they weren’t worthy. That’s why I was really drawn to the elderly.

You were on the streets for a year, building relationships, and you have a deep emotional connection to the neighbourhood. Moreover, you handpicked particular stories. Yet you didn’t actually appear in the film. You were not shown as an interviewer, and there was no narrative voiceover either. What was the decision to not be shown in the film?

Ironically this is probably the most personal film I’ve done, but I knew from the very beginning I didn’t want to be in it. I’ve always admired the old fashioned NFB documentaries like Frederick Wiseman’s. I wanted you to feel like you were sitting on a stoop and you were observing the community. I wanted it to be an immersive experience. I didn’t want to put myself in there because then you’d have to see it through my eyes. In some ways you are [seeing it through my eyes], but I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted the “fly on the wall” feeling, and not something that had been filtered through somebody else’s eyes or voice.

The style of the documentary definitely has that feel.

The film is not prescriptive. It’s not your typical documentary.

The film is not prescriptive. It’s not your typical documentary. I wasn’t presenting any solutions. I was just presenting this community. I draw people in emotionally and intellectually to start dialogue through this film. That’s my goal.

It is apparent the film is about gentrification, but the word gentrification is never used in the film.

That’s what me and my producers said actually. We are going to make a film entirely about gentrification but we’re not going to say the word. All my participants spoke from their own personal experience. Their experience reflected what was happening right now. I wanted to make a really subtle film. But this particular time when the “coming soon” condo signs are up — I’m not making this film six months after the 17-story condo is up, you know? I wanted to show the subtle shifts at this particular moment in time.

It’s interesting to have a film about gentrification and have Bob Rennie engaged in a conversation about protecting Chinatown. Rennie says on several occasions in the film, “The Chinatown that your parents remember is gone forever.” But is it? The working community, the elderly Chinese residents, the folks playing mahjong and ping pong in the benevolent association buildings — they are very much alive and present. Is Rennie reproducing a narrative of a dead or dying museum community?

I wonder if he means that the second generation is coming back and most of those kids don’t want to carry on the businesses. The Chinese youth are coming back but they aren’t investing in the same things their parents are invested in. I can’t speak for him, but I think that’s what he means.

Regarding the “Everything will be alright” signage that seems to have inspired the title of the film, Rennie says, “80 per cent like it, 20 per cent don’t.” Moreover, Rennie describes the sign as “public art,” yet it is debatable what contribution this makes to Chinatown or the Chinese. The Wing Sang building is the oldest building in Chinatown, constructed for Yip Sang, someone instrumental in bringing over Chinese labourers and families during a time of racism and discrimination. How is this honoured by Bob Rennie?

Yes, some people found it [the public art piece] patronizing. These are philosophical questions. What’s the value of having a museum? Do you find the value in that? It’s a philosophical question. Like he collected pieces from Ho Sun Hing, but at that point it’s making it almost… ornamental. But that’s sometimes what museums do.

In Toronto [at Hot Docs], most of the people didn’t know Bob, and it was a polarizing response during the question and answer period after the screening. Some people thought he was trying to save Chinatown, and others were very suspicious of him. People’s opinions of him are very diverse, but I have to say, personally, he comes from East Vancouver, from a working-class immigrant family. I felt an East Van sort of connection.

Initially, I didn’t approach Bob Rennie. I approached the gallery, and I wanted someone to give me a tour of the gallery. Bob generously offered to give me the tour for the film. The film has been criticized with, “Why does he get a voice in the community?” Especially since he has a voice already [as a prominent developer]. I think he should have legitimately been shown in the film because he bought the oldest building in Chinatown and so I think he should have a voice. He’s committed to staying here until his retirement.

Some of the reviews described this film as bittersweet.

Yes, I think because many of the participants are in their twilight years. A friend of mine said, “It makes me ache for the Chinatown of my childhood.” That ache is what, in part, inspired me. I felt it too.

I remember taking the Hastings bus when I was 12 and I was dodging drugs. It was matter of fact but other people find it strange to be taking the number 14 bus that young.

It’s that outsider gaze that doesn’t understand the neighbourhood and the community in the Downtown Eastside. I grew up in part in Chinatown too and never encountered any problems, but people in sanitized neighbourhoods that don’t know poverty think the poor are dangerous.

People don’t realize that there is a sense of community here.

Yes, if you go on Tripadvisor and look up “Chinatown,” people wonder why it’s a tourist destination. There are some terrible things said about Chinatown there. People don’t realize that there is a sense of community here. You remember when Spike Lee criticized the gentrification of Brooklyn? He said that suddenly, when the white people move in, the garbage is being picked up regularly…. This community is so often overlooked. There’s a perception problem.

Demonstrating the human side of things is important. People like to objectify Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Chinatown.

Yes, I stayed in the confines of Chinatown because I really wanted to highlight it.
It was a conscious decision. I wanted to give Chinatown one film that was just about Chinatown. For once, I wanted to give Chinatown focus.

I hope this film starts a dialogue. It’s not a political film per se. I wanted to engage people and start a conversation.

How is the community receiving this film?

I get so many requests to do tours of Chinatown! People are very interested and excited.

I’m doing mostly Chinese press right now. It’s really hard to get the Chinese community to come out so we are making a concerted effort. Especially the fact that it will be at SFU and Tinseltown — I love that you’re right there [in Chinatown] and you can explore that landscape as you walk out of the theatre. I want people to come out of the film with fresh eyes, a new perspective, and wanting to engage in a conversation with the neighbourhood that they might not have considered.

Is there anything you want to tell Ricochet readers?

The steamed buns! Get the chicken steamed buns at New Town, the one without the yolk! They have the best steamed buns.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Everything Will Be will be screening at VIFF 2014.

Ricochet will be giving away a pair of tickets for the October 1 screening.

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