Betwixt and Between
One of the world's most vulnerable communities of Chinese immigrants is hidden is plain sight in San Francisco's Chinatown. In partnership with VSCO Voices, I aim to produce a timely film that offers an intimate look at a community under siege.
I am a Chinese American San Francisco native with deep roots in the Chinatown community.
My father was born in the Chinese Hospital in Chinatown and my grandmother worked as a garment factory worker, using her hands to sew until her eyesight went.
She was known for her traditional Cantonese cooking. Food was synonymous with love and comfort, and she when was homesick, she both distracted and consoled herself by making steam trays of dim sum for her children.
Chinatown was my Grandma's refuge. This tiny 1.34 square mile district was the only place where she could socialize and feel a kindred sense of home and community.
Chinatown today still holds this significance for many new immigrants who have no option but to crowd in to residential hotels, commonly called single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs.
Conditions are poor because landlords have no economic incentive to maintain it. Hundreds of tenant families, sometimes with 3 children, squeeze into 8x10 ft. rooms. Many are located above street-level shops frequented by tourists who have no clue that just upstairs lurk a miasma of health hazards.
Residents' inability to speak English and the high cost of living make it difficult to find work and affordable housing. In this invisible world of struggle that comprises one of San Francisco's densest and poorest neighborhoods, many find themselves with no upward mobility.
My film, Betwixt and Between, seeks to examine this community through the context of food; specifically how they, like my grandmother did, recreate home through dishes and flavors that evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort. This piece also amplifies the voices of those who will be most affected by neighborhood gentrification and the rise of a China that anoints Mandarin over Cantonese as the new lingua franca.
Miss Chinatown USA
In 2010, I won Miss Chinatown USA, a pageant competition founded just for Chinese American women in 1957. It was a time when it was unthinkable that a Chinese contestant could ever compete in the Miss America pageant so the Chinese made their own contest. The Chinese Exclusion Act had formally ended only 14 years earlier in 1943 so it was a welcome event to raise the spirits and pride of Chinese Americans.
Today the Chinese American community is still very tight-knit. Being Miss Chinatown has given me access to a wide network of Chinese elders whom I all call my "Uncles" and "Aunties", especially in the Lee Family Association. Over the years they've given me red envelopes, watched my sister and I grow up, and hosted me at quarterly banquets where they'd beam with pride whenever I greeted them in their native tongue of Cantonese.
My "Uncles and Aunties" will help me secure the interviews and locations I need for this film. I will also be able use my sister's and my reputation as known figures to get exclusive access to the Chinatown residents whose lives, tastes, and dreams will determine this film's arc.
This film aims to accomplish a number wins:
- Respectfully and accurately represent the living conditions and lives of SRO residents who rarely speak to Western media.
- Urge housing authorities and policymakers to recognize, assist, and prioritize the communities who rely on SROs.
- Enable tenants' rights organizations such as the CCDC to accrue visibility and more resources to continue their advocacy.
- Bring awareness to tourists and locals alike about the past, present, and future of Chinatown.
- Educate the public about how Chinatown itself is changing, losing it's language, and sadly, shrinking.
- Use Chinese food, in all it's forms (home-style cooking, American-style dishes, Chinese-only menu items), as a bridge for understanding, empathy, and connection.
Food and Human Connection
Food is an immigrant’s gift to her new country.
The larger story of the Chinese in America is inextricably tied to food. Distinct dishes such as chop suey and fortune cookies were invented in San Francisco Chinatown. These distinctly American-style Chinese foods possess unique origin stories associated with recurring themes of resilience and resourcefulness.
Using food as an anchor for this film makes it appealing to a general audience and also creates a more comfortable environment that eases a natural conversation.
AN Authentic Voice
I have a high-level shot list and strategy for how to weave in pre-planned themes. But just like I do for This is SF (portfolio below), I will let the subjects and their voice to drive this film.
My role is to facilitate capturing these SRO residents' authentic lives and beliefs. What they bring to the film is key, and it can only come out if they feel I'm offering a safe space for them to open up.
I'm familiar with taking an investigative angle and I know how important it is that subjects feel comfortable that they're going to be respectfully represented through this work.
For this project, I'm extra mindful of the vulnerability of this community and will be taking extra steps to have meetings and meals to establish a trusted relationship before the camera crew arrives. Cameras, lights, and microphones can be intimidating!
I've conducted over 75 filmed, unscripted interviews and I pride myself on my efforts to make people of all ages, interests, and socio-economic backgrounds feel comfortable on camera.
Below you can watch samples of my prior work for This is SF as an interviewer and on-camera host.