This essay adopts and adapts memory work, as developed by Annette Kuhn, as a method to search for the author's grandmother in Chinese American feminist film history. Foregrounding a trans-feminist perspective that moves across and between nations and film cultures, it introduces readers to a relatively unknown “orphan” documentary film, Forever Chinatown (1960). For the author and her family, the film carries with it a history of trauma that shapes what is remembered about it. Drawing on work in feminist film studies, particularly the notion of an archive of feelings, the essay blends life writing, theory, and visual-textual analysis to both allow the author to write her way into the film and trace her grandmother's presence in and labor on the film.
“Forever Chinatown would never have happened without her.”—Daniel Y. T. Seid
First broadcast in 2017 on World Channel's series Local, USA, James Q. Chan's film Forever, Chinatown (2016) tenderly explores how one elderly Chinese American man, Frank Wong, meticulously and lovingly re-creates 1940s San Francisco Chinatown rooms in miniature three-dimensional form. Described by film scholar B. Ruby Rich as a “beautiful love letter to Chinatown,” the film underscores the current precarious status of historical Chinatowns in North America due to twenty-first-century urban gentrification.1 Aesthetically, the film achieves nostalgic effects through an imbrication of personal and collective memory, romantic imagination, and tender emotion, rendered in richly colored cinematography and a lush soundtrack. The very existence of Chan's highly lauded short film continues to intrigue and delight me, since for me it serves as a counterpoint to another filmic “love letter” to Chinatown also entitled Forever Chinatown (1960), made by my Chinese American grandparents. My initial reaction to seeing Chan's film title in a social media advertisement roughly a year ago was a surprise. How, I wondered, had a film come to be titled Forever, Chinatown some fifty years after my grandparents made a feature-length documentary with the same English-language title? And what might this newer film have in common with the Forever Chinatown that I grew up with, which has remained out of public view for decades?
Since my earliest memories, the phrase “forever Chinatown” has been spoken by family members related, whether by blood or marriage, to my grandparents, Daniel Y. T. Seid/Xue (薛丹尼, 1919–2005) and Mary R. Seid/Liang (梁愛珍, 1924–1962), credited respectively as director and assistant director of the film. An English translation, or more aptly a version, of the Chinese title (北美洲華僑風光), the phrase functioned within my family as a form of familial shorthand to remember, often in conflicting terms, my grandparents' marriage and their lives in the “movie business.” Like Chan's short film Forever, Chinatown, my grandparents' film lovingly documented Chinatown's culture at a time of significant cultural and social change impacting Chinese Americans. And although stark formal and tonal differences, in addition to social, political, and reception contexts, distinguish them, both reflect an earnest and passionate dedication to preserving Chinese American history and culture, and both challenge the objectifying, touristic gaze aimed at Chinatown perpetuated by Hollywood. While Chan's short film is in keeping with the historical framework Jun Okada developed to show how Asian American film and video have long been entwined with US public-interest media, my grandparents' film challenges this paradigm inasmuch as it was decidedly not made for an American audience, but rather for Chinese audiences in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and moreover predated the contemporary Asian American film “movement” by at least a decade.2 In the paragraphs that follow, I briefly introduce the film, highlighting in particular its transnational character and aspirations, before turning to the question—indeed, conundrum—of how to suss out my grandmother's influence and labor on the film, which underscores the broader issue of Chinese American women's presence/absence in feminist film history signaled by the title of this essay.
FOREVER CHINATOWN: A TRANSNATIONAL CHINESE BLOCKBUSTER?
Produced by a small film company that my grandparents formed in 1957 called United Chinese Cinema Enterprise, Forever Chinatown (1960) is a ninety-minute, nonnarrative documentary about postwar Chinese American communities (referred to in the film as “overseas Chinese”) and the history that determined the existence of Chinatowns in North America. Formally, it resists easy or neat categorization, though it clearly incorporates and cites a combination of media, including travel films, ethnographic films, educational films, home movies, and US television. It is loosely structured as a family road trip across the North American continent (with stops in Mexico, the United States, and Canada) that begins and ends in Southern California. As a document of Chinese American community life at a critical juncture for Chinese Americans in US national history, Forever Chinatown has historical and cultural significance that cannot be overstated. Scholars who have written about the historical dimensions of Asian American film often point to the 1970s, or even the early 1980s, as the starting point. That Forever Chinatown was created prior to 1965—a flashpoint for Asian American immigration as well as civil rights struggles and activism—certainly invites us to reconsider the usual narrative that positions the emergence of contemporary Asian American independent film at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the late 1960s. Moreover, the style of Forever Chinatown and its transnational production and circulation problematize its Asian Americanness.
Shot and produced in the years before the passage of the US Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, Forever Chinatown fashioned a separate-but-linked Chinese public sphere in North America and beyond. The journey the Chinese American family—my grandparents, my mom, and her older brother and younger sister—embark on in the film indexed the possibility for Chinese Americans in the Cold War era to move outside the confines of the racial-ethnic ghettos of Chinatowns born from decades of racially motivated legal, social, and cultural exclusion. Meanwhile, the movie business that my grandparents were important members and founders of trafficked and forged connections between the United States, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. As “Hollywood Chinese,” tenuously within but not of the formal Hollywood film industry, Mary and Danny were Chinese filmmakers who by and large faced away from Hollywood and toward Asia, where Forever Chinatown traveled and screened to Chinese audiences in the early 1960s. Independent and strong-willed Chinese filmmakers, they carved out a professional life in “the movies” in the shadows and margins of Hollywood, strategically positioning United Chinese Cinema Enterprises in Hollywood, thus capitalizing on geographical and cultural proximity to “the industry” as a way to market Forever Chinatown to audiences in Asia. Described in grandiose terms in its promotional materials as a “blockbuster” and “glorious creation,” Forever Chinatown, shot in color like many popular Hollywood films of the time, spoke back to Hollywood, which in the late 1950s and early 1960s was producing such Orientalist spectacle-blockbusters as Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), The World of Suzie Wong (1960), and Flower Drum Song (1961). What Forever Chinatown offered, in contrast, was a more “realistic” view of Chinese life and history in North America that reached out to “fellow compatriots from the mother country so they could see the life and circumstances abroad for Overseas Chinese.”3
Forever Chinatown was filmed over a span of three years from 1957 to 1960, a liminal period in Chinese American history when many Chinese residing in the United States could finally begin to naturalize after decades of legal exclusion. The film cast its gaze on twelve North American Chinatowns: their inhabitants, industries, religious customs, and leisure activities. Along the way, the film and its paratextual materials somewhat inadvertently recorded and mythologized my family's migration story, which as a focalizing element in the film underscored a nascent and somewhat uneasy Chinese American identity in the Cold War United States. That said, the documentary does not explicitly adopt the “injury model” of so much Asian American film and media since the 1970s that centers racial discrimination. In fact, United Chinese Cinema Enterprises, as the public face of my grandparents' aspirations, envisioned Forever Chinatown as a “major contribution to Chinese film history” (emphasis mine). This filmic contribution, ironically, was expressed in a distinctly American vernacular, with its Chinese American “nuclear family” road tripping across the continent in a USA-made station wagon.4 In addition to 1950s car and leisure culture, closely tied to the rise of US television, the documentary (re)presents its approximation of an “American” family enjoying the fruits of US postwar prosperity. At the heart of Forever Chinatown, the Chinese film-family signifies social and class mobility tied to an emerging form of modernity in which transnational travel and communication were not just accessible, but quick and efficient.
The film begins by announcing its modernity with an aerial shot of a commercial airplane flying over San Francisco Bay—an image of mobility that contrasts with racially confined and insular Chinatown spaces, which for many decades existed effectively as bachelor communities, an outcome of anti-Asian exclusion policies. The idealized Chinese American family in Forever Chinatown obscures the harsh realities of migration—what was left behind, sacrificed, and endured, and specifically the gendered and racialized violence of that migration. From a contemporary vantage point, then, how does the film's intended contribution to “Chinese film history” vis-à-vis positive images of North American Chinatown communities actually contribute to Chinese American film historiography through images of the Chinese haunted by the violences of US racial exclusion and gendered racialization?
Under my grandparents' direction, Forever Chinatown took seriously the filmic preservation of Chinese and Chinatown history in North America, making it all the more significant that over time it became a film we might regard as “orphaned.” While arguably not an orphan film in the narrowest sense of the term, as in a motion picture abandoned by its owner or caretaker, Forever Chinatown, as I will discuss, instead expands the orphan metaphor in ways that address the specific and more generalized trauma circumscribing its production and afterlife. By framing the film as an orphan, an always already highly gendered term (as I will explain), I suggest multiple valences of the word that have implications for both Asian American film history and feminist film history.
TRAUMA, ORPHAN FILM, AND “EFFECTIVELY FORGOTTEN” WOMEN IN FEMINIST FILM HISTORY
The question of what constitutes an orphan film has primarily been theorized by film scholars and archivists associated with the US-based Orphan Film Symposium, which aims to preserve previously lost films and spur research on film preservation. Citing the Symposium, Canadian-based scholar Paul S. Moore posits orphan films as lost works “outside of the commercial mainstream,” including “independent documentaries,” “home movies,” “ethnographic films,” and “industrial and educational movies.”5 In recent years, the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) has launched its own home movie initiative called “Memories to Light: Asian American Home Movies,” which aims to “collect and digitize home movies and to share them—and the stories they tell—to a broad public.”6 The CAAM-produced documentary The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018) even serendipitously led to the reunion of home movie reel footage showing a birthday party for a Chinese American elder, thought lost, with its family of origin.7 The “feminine” genres and formats of “amateur” filmmaking that fall under the rubric of orphan films point to complexly intertwined histories of racial and gendered alienation and marginalization, which in turn open up questions about women's contributions to early filmmaking and the historical conditions that have led to films becoming lost.8
Forever Chinatown is an orphan film in multiple senses of the word. First, as a Chinese American independent film, it clearly falls outside of industrial commercial film history, despite being closely entwined with Cold War Hollywood films about Asian Americans like the musical-spectacle Flower Drum Song. Second, its subject is an “orphan population” of racialized Chinese minorities that had long existed as “problem children” to a white heteronormative nation that in essence legally orphaned them during the Chinese exclusion era. That said, within the context of Cold War discourse about Chinese Americans—whom the nation, as a result of shifting US-China relations, had warmed to during World War II and then simultaneously regarded with suspicion in the 1950s amid a tide of anti-communist fervor—the “overseas Chinese” the film depicts were poised to shed their “orphaned” status. This liminal national status and the question of national belonging, which I discuss later, greatly inflect the film's tone. Third, and perhaps most significant for Asian American film scholars, Forever Chinatown would appear to be an orphan to Asian American film historiography, which has generally overlooked Asian American independent films made before 1965. Since the resources needed to preserve early Asian American independent films largely were shouldered by individuals and not institutions, such films became and continue to become vulnerable to abandonment by their makers and caretakers.
In the case of Forever Chinatown, a singular traumatic event overdetermined the film's survival: my grandmother's untimely death during postproduction due to heart disease and exhaustion. Her death had the immediate effect of severely destabilizing the family, leading to my mother and her siblings ending up in foster care homes in the United States—a picture far from that of the close, happy family in the film. Years later, the women in my family became the “caretakers” of Forever Chinatown and the archive surrounding its making. Though it has never been completely lost or willfully abandoned, the film's future remains unclear, prompting the question: Even when an orphan film is “found not lost,” what histories of the film and its makers remain out of reach? Challenging the primacy of the orphan-film-as-object in orphan film research, Moore asks, “Can't the spirit and approach of orphan film research be expanded to include histories of lost films, forgotten filmmakers, and ephemeral film practices? Could we not all begin with the curiosity of the researcher-archivist-artist, rather than with the material object of the film itself?”9 My curiosity leads me to ask in what ways Mary's contributions to the film matched or even exceeded my grandfather's, and to speculate about how her vision and talent inspired the film community to which she belonged.
As a film scholar, I further wonder whether my grandmother's legacy has been “orphaned” and might deserve a place among such pioneering Chinese American filmmakers as Esther Eng and Marion Wong, two directors recently recovered from the dusty archives of women's film history. Writing about Golden Gate Girls, her research process and documentary film on Eng's legacy, Louisa S. Wei details how her “ultimate goal was to place Esther Eng back into both Chinese and U.S. film histories, as she had been effectively forgotten by both.”10 In my grandmother's case, I have yet to encounter any traces that might lead to other film work by her, particularly as a director, and what I know of her life before her marriage to my grandfather is minimal at best. Crucially, because her work on Forever Chinatown, and any other work of hers I might encounter, was of the “amateur,” independently produced variety, I suspect a fuller “herstory” will remain out of reach.11 More compellingly for me, while some textual evidence surrounding her life can be captured, so much more will never be fully recoverable, as is undoubtedly the case for many Asian women whose “assistance” in film production can never be adequately remembered. How, then, can we engage with the “effectively forgotten” Asian diasporic women who worked in and dedicated their lives to film and media but will never achieve the status of directors like Eng and Wong? Can we translate their lives and contributions outside of the unspoken mandate to “not forget”?
These questions are directly related to the ongoing discussion of how to narrate—or not—feminist film history. To some degree, all involvement with what Jane Gaines describes as “the ongoing work of ‘doing women's film history’” centers on absence and loss. In “On Not Narrating the History of Feminism and Film” (2016), Gaines outlines the trajectory of academic feminism in film studies that operates from the dominant assumption that women were either “not there” or otherwise lacking in early film industries, which at a certain point in time in Euro-American feminist scholarship congealed into a “theory of absence.” Moreover, Gaines contends that academic feminism largely espouses an “implicit prohibition against empirical work in favor of theory.”12 At the material level, because the history of Forever Chinatown and those who worked on its production falls well outside of the borders of Hollywood and national film industries in Taiwan and Hong Kong, scant empirical evidence exists surrounding its production, distribution, or exhibition. For me, however, the challenge of “doing women's film history” with little empirical evidence is an alluring proposition. Starting with whatever existing evidence is at hand, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is to embark on translating and transcribing lives and contributions that would very likely otherwise remain unknown.
The scholar doing work in Chinese American feminist film historiography might turn to the category of orphan films to demonstrate that women unquestionably were there and—using interdisciplinary methods ranging from archival research, textual analysis, and, as I discuss below, memory work—expand our understanding and appreciation of how early Chinese American women both made films and fashioned lives and livelihoods in film.
TRANS-FEMINIST MEMORY WORK
Adopting a singular or narrow approach to Forever Chinatown, along with its context and my grandmother's role in its production, would ultimately prove inadequate. That said, the method of working with visual media that Annette Kuhn terms memory work is especially suited to expanding possibilities for deeper understanding of my grandmother's influence and labor on the film. Kuhn describes memory work as an “active practice of remembering that takes an inquiring attitude towards the past and the activity of its (re)construction through memory.”13 As a method for accessing historical experience, memory work is by nature an intimate practice, one that “begins with the practitioner's own material—her memories, her photographs” and “offers a route to a critical consciousness that embraces the heart as well as the intellect.”14 Applying informed speculation to memories, photographs, and filmic evidence breathes life into Forever Chinatown's archive and my grandmother's presence in it. Given that I lack my own direct memories of my grandmother, and that she is primarily mediated and translated to me through the film and others' memories and feelings, mostly my mother's, the act of speculation functions vitally to help fill in and trace the story of her role in the film's production. Such a method rejects a “pure” or “absolute” truth; instead, memory work, as Kuhn writes, “undercuts assumptions about the transparency or the authenticity of what is remembered, taking it not as ‘truth’ but as evidence of a particular sort: material for interpretation, to be interrogated, mined, for its meanings and its possibilities.”15
In the margins of Western culture, where Chinese reside, manifold untold stories exist within families and communities in ways that parallel and intersect with the historical experiences of communities marginalized by gender and sexuality. Memory work necessitates selective disclosure, whereby “unearthing and making public untold stories” gives much-needed attention to “stories of lives lived out on the borderlands, lives for which the central interpretive devices of the culture don't quite work.”16 “Trans-feminist” memory work prompts me to consider how other unfixed “trans” vectors, like transgender, factor into my personal engagement with and viewing experience of the film.17 While “trans” has largely come to serve as an umbrella term for people who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, as well as related issues and phenomena, I use it here in an expansive and descriptive manner that refers not only to gender crossings but also to feminine travels within the nonlinear cartography of memory and history, and of nations and film cultures. As the granddaughter of Chinese immigrant filmmakers, and as a trans femme woman, I am interested in vocabularies of both trauma and survival that verge on unrepresentability, and that I find operating in the restless, on-the-move history of Forever Chinatown. Queer and trans film and media makers often forge such vocabularies by (re)mixing found film objects and images with personal memories and experiences of alienation, displacement, pleasure, and more. How, though, might film scholars apply similar methods to the production of film scholarship? My answer here is to take up trans-feminist memory work, appropriating Forever Chinatown's archive to theorize and narrate, in prose, my relationship to gender, ethnic, and family identity.
Trans-feminist memory work has the potential to invigorate feminist film history and research on marginalized film cultures. For the feminist film scholar, questions of absence and loss extend beyond investigations solely structured on the category of woman, which is furthermore always already gendered and racialized. Forever Chinatown serves as a virtual repository of visual representations of Chinese women and girls living in 1950s North America, and in this way makes a significant contribution to Chinese American feminist film history. Amplifying the trans-gender dimensions of a trans-feminist approach to the film, however, calls attention to the seeming absence of gender-nonconforming and transgender bodies in the film's archive. By writing myself into the film, I demonstrate how “amateur” films like Forever Chinatown can not only help reclaim marginalized identities, whether racial, gender, or sexual, but also provide fertile territory as found objects for narrating trans experiences, desires, and identifications. This “writer-activated” feminist practice foregrounds “the lives of those whose ways of knowing and ways of seeing the world are rarely acknowledged, let alone celebrated, in the expressions of a hegemonic culture,” which reproduces the conditions that often generate trauma for those living in the margins.18
In its production and afterlife, Forever Chinatown, a fragmented and unresolved text, weaves memories, traces, and traumatic experiences into an “archive of feelings,” which Ann Cvetkovich conceptualizes as an “exploration of cultural texts as repositories of feelings and emotions … encoded not only in the content of the texts themselves but in the practices that surround their production and reception.”19 Perhaps because I am now nearly the same age my grandmother was when she died, I find myself fixated on the radical vulnerability and fragility that shapes memory and the past. This predicament is common enough for Asian Americans—it is even a prevailing feature of Asian American culture, which, as Lisa Lowe writes, “‘re-members’ the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.” How, though, do we remember with and within feelings born from such fragmentation and loss? Bringing feeling and personal subjectivity to an always already precarious visual and historical record, I wish to argue, helps to sustain and animate that past, which “grasped as memory” is not a “naturalized, factual past” but a “past … always broken by war, occupation, and displacement.”20 My relationship to the past represented by and in Forever Chinatown is intensely personal and private, especially since the film contains images of my grandmother that allow me a glimpse of her final years of life. Cvetkovich writes, “The memory of traumas is embedded … in material artifacts, which can range from photographs to objects whose relation to trauma might seem arbitrary but for the fact that they are invested with emotional, and even sentimental, value.”21 Indeed, memories of intergenerational family trauma are written into Forever Chinatown. By diving into the film's archive of feelings to search for and intimately connect with my grandmother, I hope to model a method that not only situates (as much as this is possible) Chinese American women in feminist film and US women's history, but also confronts the trauma and difficult feelings that arise from and subtend their exclusion from and absence in such histories.
The rest of this essay searches for Mary within the film's images and archive of feelings. The trans-feminist memory work that unfolds combines life writing, auto-ethnography, theory, testimony, and visual-textual analysis, broadening what a recovery of “orphaned” feminist film history can look like. Simultaneously, such a method attempts to grapple with and perhaps even partially heal from, or at least mitigate the effects of, traumas—including everyday lived versions, like immigrant experience, racial alienation, and trans embodiment.
SEARCHING FOR MARY IN AN ARCHIVE OF FEELINGS
Throughout my childhood, a framed black-and-white photograph of my maternal grandmother hung on the living-room wall of our rented house in Southern California. In the photo, my grandmother, wearing an immaculate Chinese-style silk blouse, her arms folded and resting on a table before her, radiates the confident glamour of a classical Hollywood movie star. She has a hint of a smile and a steely yet feminine posture (fig. 1). A photo of my grandfather, which hung on the wall nearby, showed him striking a balance between jovial and debonair in a suit and bow tie, a movie camera perched on a tripod behind him. In this diptych, my grandfather's image, at least on the surface, tells a more obvious story of a “man with a movie camera,” while my grandmother's image poses a multitude of seemingly unanswerable questions. As a child, long before I learned that the only Chinese American film star to emerge from the early Hollywood era was Anna May Wong, I wondered whether my grandmother had been a Hollywood star; when I asked my mother this question, she told me simply that she had worked in “the movie business.” Even as I got older and understood that my grandparents had been independent filmmakers in the 1950s, I still questioned the terms in which my Chinese immigrant family was involved in a “movie business” that fell outside the national and commercial media industries.
I view my grandmother's “Hollywood portrait” as a portal into forgotten, marginalized film history. In 1958, Hollywood celebrity photographer Ted Allan—who, in the 1940s, worked for MGM studios and famously photographed film luminaries like Jean Harlow, James Stewart, and Carole Lombard—produced a series of photographic portraits of my grandparents. Allan utilized the low-key lighting popularized in 1940s celebrity portraiture to achieve an aura of refinement in his subjects, transforming “mere men and women into objects of fantasy.”22 I often gazed upon my grandmother's photo, an object of familial fantasy, with pride; she represented an elegance decidedly absent from my emotionally turbulent, working-class family life. To me, moreover, she was the epitome of Asian femininity and grace, perpetually confined to that “high point” in my family's mythology when Forever Chinatown was in production.
Time, reflection, and talk-story have helped to clarify for me what the photograph actually captured—misfortune. My mother rarely talked about my grandmother when I was growing up, relaying the totality of her life in a sentence: “She died from a weak heart at age thirty-eight.” What is missing from this account is that my grandmother died at the crucial moment when the documentary film she had been working on for more than three years, on two continents, was undergoing its final editing before screening to audiences in Taiwan and the United States. The fact of her death at such a young age has long occupied a huge space in my family life and the story of my mother's immigration to the United States from Hong Kong. Upon her death, my grandmother left three children (my mother and her two siblings) and an inconsolable widower, who abruptly ended his filmmaking career. Her life was transient, unsettled, and adventurous. Extending this transience, her portrait has moved many times over the years, and yet, in her apparitional form, she remains resolutely poised and ready to take on anything. In my experience of the portrait, I locate its punctum, its point of rupture, in the drapes and folds of her silk blouse, which bring to mind both her hospital bedsheets in Taiwan during her final moments of life and the celluloid film stock upon which Forever Chinatown was recorded. In a sense, the making of the film Forever Chinatown was also the making, and unmaking, of my grandmother's life.
Madame Liang Aizheng, whose native ancestry was in Taishan, Guangdong province, was born and raised in America. She was the wife of the company's [United Chinese Cinema Enterprise's] founder and president, Mr. Danny Xue. She was happily married [to Mr. Xue] for about ten years and helped his career tremendously. As for this film, her active participation, engineering plans, and assisting film shoots provided enormous contributions to both the film's production and Mr. Xue.
The final part of this short biography, reproduced in the press book for Forever Chinatown, details her illness and emphasizes her importance to a transnational Asian film community:
While accompanying her husband to Taiwan to promote the film, and unaccustomed to the climate, she had a simultaneous outbreak of both a past heart disease and a new illness, which she contracted due to the accumulated toils of filming across the North American continent. Though she convalesced at a Taiwanese care facility where a world-renowned doctor did his utmost to treat her, in the end her illness couldn't be cured, and she passed away, leaving behind a boy and two girls, her inconsolable husband, Mr. Xue, and countless friends and colleagues in the film industry across both hemispheres who will forever mourn the loss of Madam Liang. She was a tireless professional in the arts whose death brought waves of grief to us all, and the film world has suffered a truly devastating loss. Our humble company hereby presents this brief profile to express our profound sadness at her passing.
Reading the tribute to my grandmother in its English translation elicited profound feelings of sadness in me, too, forcing me to confront her death and the scope and scale of the effect she had on her film collaborators, family, and others in the film world in which she worked. Meanwhile, evidence of Mary's role in the film, her “active participation,” remains vague, though “engineering plans” and “assisting film shoots” more richly described and allowed me to imagine her labor. Such imagining, perhaps naturally, led me to question whether my grandmother had other experiences working in film before she was married.
I possess tender memories of my grandfather, who, after his wife's death, went from a passionate dedication to making film to a community-engaged commitment to exhibiting Chinese films in the United States. When I was around eight years old, I spent many weekend nights in the projectionist's booth at a small theater in San Diego where he showed newly released gongfu (kung-fu) and romance films imported directly from Hong Kong. At the end of the night, as the moviegoers filed out, he would stand near the concession counter, chatting with and personally thanking, in Cantonese, each person in attendance. Even in that gesture and act of community, Mary's “not-thereness” continued to shape and give texture to his life and those of others in my family and across the Chinese film community in Southern California, unquestionably impoverished by her absence.
The fleeting, almost ethereal images of my grandmother in Forever Chinatown operate as what we might call figural traces, mere outlines of a person that verge on the spectral. Increasingly, Forever Chinatown and its collection of apparitions haunt me, exacerbated perhaps by the disappearance of Chinatowns across the United States from the 1990s to the present due to urban gentrification. It is not only that the vast majority of the people who appear in the film are now dead, but also that the film makes evident how by the late 1950s and early 1960s, generations of Chinese emigrants, both living and deceased, already existed side by side in North America. Among the various ways that I might articulate the subject of Forever Chinatown, a history of haunting comes to mind. Within this history, Chinese American women, frequently invisible in historical records, emerge in strange and unpredictable ways. For instance, in spite of the overall peppy tone of Forever Chinatown's promotional press book, one still image in particular, shot in the “ghost town” of Nanaimo, British Columbia, strikes a haunting note. It is accompanied by the following text:
Overseas Chinese always stayed together. Established as a Chinatown in the early mining days, Nanaimo, unfortunately, burned down on October 7, 1960, after we filmed there. A child was responsible for starting the fire that consumed the historical Chinatown, which no longer exists. Our film was able to preserve its history, through live-action shots, for future generations. This is quite valuable.
In the film, a single line of narration accompanies a shot of Nanaimo and identifies a small, slow-moving figure as an “old woman crossing the street.” This nameless person is alone in an abandoned town—her life, in all likelihood, forgotten. Because of historical circumstances, she was almost certainly precariously situated in relation to white society as a “China Mary,” a generic and concealing signifier used by and for Chinese women who lived in rural Western towns in the nineteenth century.23 Like my grandmother who flickers on-screen, she is a ghost. In Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (1997), Avery Gordon writes, “The ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to a dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.” Making social life is yet another way to describe the subject of the film, while what is more difficult to describe is the feeling of being haunted, which, as Gordon argues, “draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience.”24 Preserved on film, my grandmother's figural traces in Forever Chinatown lead me directly into an encounter with historical trauma and possibility. What, I wonder, is the feeling I experience when I watch the film, if not a transgenerational haunting?
Memories are themselves apparitions that haunt us. Because of aggregate immigrant traumas, overdetermined by an absence of a maternal figure, my mother cautiously guards her own memories of my grandmother. It's fair to say that how she imagined and negotiated motherhood, as an identity and relational experience, was shaped by the early loss of her mother. My mother's memories, which I transcribe and internalize, also reveal the contradictions of midcentury American life for Chinese Americans. Devastated by his wife's death in Taiwan, my grandfather, perhaps to escape his grief and to spare the children theirs, gave my mother and her siblings the choice of where in the United States the family should settle. Having toured much of the country in the making of the film, they chose San Diego. My mother frequently sentimentalizes the innocent and “wholesome” 1950s, mediated to her by popular television shows like Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955–75) and Leave It to Beaver (CBS, 1957–58; ABC, 1958–63). And yet she also occasionally lets slip her unhealed scars from childhood poverty, neglect, and abuse while living in foster care homes and government-subsidized housing that followed the family's fracturing in the United States owing to the pressures placed upon my grandfather to raise three children alone. She recalls cockroaches crawling on her face while she slept in temporary housing—when I close my eyes I can feel their little feet on my skin—but also glistening cans of food, perfectly aligned, in the large, impeccably clean American supermarket she first visited once the family, following the production of Forever Chinatown and my grandmother's death, immigrated and settled in San Diego.
The trauma of maternal loss that haunts the film, manifest in my mother's reluctance—sometimes inability—to speak or narrate certain memories of her early immigrant life, makes it all the more significant that Forever Chinatown is about the relationship between the overseas Chinese and the “motherland” (Taiwan). In its first few minutes, the narrator stresses that overseas Chinese hold the motherland close to their hearts, and that they care deeply for her. Meanwhile, the film's press book enumerates the documentary's significance in terms of its role as an “intermediary between the motherland and its compatriots who meet on the silver screen, allowing important new friendships to occur across great distances.” Such an anxious insistence that overseas Chinese hadn't forgotten and betrayed the motherland strongly suggested they feared becoming cultural and national orphans. The film also projected the close Cold War relationship between Taiwan and the United States as one of geopolitical allies—Chinese residents in North America had been cautiously welcomed as friendly foreigners as long as they expressed no sympathy at all for communist ideology. And yet, although the promise of citizenship through naturalization had become increasingly possible and the Immigration Act of 1965 was on the horizon, overseas Chinese were nevertheless marked by their alien status and uncertain citizenship. Responding to these political realities, Forever Chinatown represented the overseas Chinese as semipermanent guests in North America, and as children who had not forsaken their memories of and love for their mother(land).
In what follows, I pivot away from the film's archive of feelings to consider more closely the film as object, in particular how and where my grandmother appears at the edge of and beyond the frame. Approaching my grandmother's “herstory” and her labor on the film vis-à-vis her on-screen image widens the frame of Chinese American feminist film history. In turn, a wider frame—I use “frame” here to refer both to actual film frames and to the breadth of feminist film history—helps to elucidate the limitations and possibilities surrounding Chinese women's representation on American film screens and within feminist histories. In the context of midcentury modernity and assimilation, which forms the backdrop to the film, tracing my grandmother's appearance at the margins of and outside the frame calls attention to the relative invisibility of Chinese American women's labor during a critical transitional period for Chinese Americans.
CHINESE AMERICAN WOMEN AT THE EDGE OF AND BEYOND THE FRAME
Chinese women who have appeared at the edge of the frame on US screens call our attention to the broader status of invisibilized and missing Chinese women in US women's history. They also overshadow the Chinese women and men working behind the scenes and out of frame in “feminized” film production roles. In my grandmother's case, she, along with my grandfather, moved from being behind the camera to being in front of it, and back again. My mother recalls, “She often took over filming of the movie.” What, then, might the look of and the act of looking in Forever Chinatown suggest about my grandmother's work behind the scenes? When she appears on-screen, what labor is she performing for the film, given its wider aim of representing Chinese America? And how does the history of “reel” Chinese women used by Hollywood to titillate and pleasure white audiences overdetermine filmic representations of “real” Chinese women like my grandmother?
In Forever Chinatown, the camera frequently lingers on Chinese women and girls performing femininity for a public gaze. An early scene shot in San Francisco records a sexy burlesque performance in one of the famous Chinese-owned Chinatown nightclubs, which served as a key setting in Flower Drum Song (fig. 2).25 Moments later, the film cuts to a Miss Chinatown beauty contest, which brings together Chinese “beauties” from across the United States to compete for the crown and title. Also peppered throughout the documentary are a traditional folk-dance performance with young girls wearing Chinese silk costumes, and a majorette routine with dozens of exuberant young Chinese women in sequined costumes marching and shimmying in a street parade. After traveling across the United States, Canada, and Baja California, the film and its family end up in Los Angeles. The final scene, shot in Long Beach, observes a parade of beauty queens from around the world as they move down the street on decorated floats. The float parade is the prelude to the Miss World competition, which the final edit of the film excludes. It is a curious scene to end on, highly reminiscent as it is of the nightclub scene in Flower Drum Song, wherein a dozen or so “Chinese” women mimic an international beauty pageant. That beauty contests had become a significant part of American Cold War popular culture certainly explains, on the surface, their manifestation in both films. These pageants, moreover, were tied to the gendered racialization of Chinese in the United States at a time when feminine beauty functioned in the national imaginary as the “admission price” for Chinese American citizenship.26
Spectacular images of Chinese women at the center of American popular film frames exist at a great distance from the prosaic images of my grandmother in Forever Chinatown. Mary first appears on-screen about five minutes in, during a sequence that takes place at Knott's Berry Farm in Los Angeles. The first few shots in the sequence show white tourists and actors employed by Knott's Berry Farm simulating gold mining in the amusement park's makeshift mining town. My mother and her sister wear skirts and bobby socks, and my uncle, the oldest of the three, wears a cowboy costume. They stand in front of a frontier-era saloon. At the edge of the frame, my grandmother watches over them, holding her daughters' hands. This scene quietly announces her role as a helpful mom in the film's production, which involved extensive transcontinental travel across seven thousand miles.27 As an adult, my mother recalled how Chinese families provided food and lodging in the various cities where the filming took place. In this way, Mary's placement at the edge of the frame early on in the film stands in for the numerous Chinese women in the film's Chinatowns whose labor as mothers and wives was vital to Forever Chinatown's independent filmmaking process. Shortly after my grandmother and the children appear on-screen, the film formally introduces my grandfather. The narrator says, “Here is our filmmaker, Danny,” and my smiling grandfather stands in front of the camera greeting an elderly white “frontiersman” with a long gray beard. To capture this moment, another crew member on the film, perhaps Mary, assumed responsibility for principal photography. This image projects a fantasy of racial harmony, reimagining the masculine violence that characterized early frontier life in the Western United States as a pacific encounter between men.
Having introduced the family and Forever Chinatown's male director on “Gold Mountain,” the film then moves inside a dark, cramped space where Chinese immigrants performed the (feminized) labor of cooking and cleaning for white miners.28 The film's narrator strongly implies that Chinese male immigrants, represented by a wax replica of a Chinese coolie laborer, willingly performed such work. In attempting to grapple with the violent policing of Chinese women's immigration to the United States by centering the lonely Chinese male immigrant laborer, Chinese women effectively disappear from the historical frame, making apparent the haunted figure of the Chinese female immigrant on the nineteenth-century Western frontier. As such, my grandmother's labor as a mother and wife, at the edge of the film frame, can be seen as recuperative, as she stands in for Chinese women who were targeted as undesirable and impure by US exclusion laws. Between the film and its promotional materials, my grandmother signified the devoted mother and wife. Halfway through the film, on the way to Toronto, the family visits Niagara Falls, the happy site where my grandparents were married. These representations contrast with Esther Eng's representations of Chinese women who, according to Louisa Wei, were not granted happiness with their “domestic roles as good mothers and virtuous wives.”29 And yet these images of my grandmother as primarily a helping mother and wife must also be viewed in the context of her work on the film's production—her engineering plans and on-location shooting. A photographic trace printed in the press book shows her standing tall and assertively next to a camera on a tripod (fig. 3). She wears pants and a button-up shirt, not unlike the clothing my grandfather wore while filming.
Thirty minutes or so into the film, Mary shows up on-screen again when the family travels to Reno. After roughly twenty minutes of footage of San Francisco's Chinatown, identified in the film as the oldest Chinatown in North America, the narrator announces, “We're on our way to Reno, the divorce capital of the world.” A shot of an airplane bringing passengers to Reno is followed by a series of interior shots of casino gaming, including blackjack, slot machines, and the “Chinese favorite,” pai gow. Divorce haunts this sequence; my on-screen Chinese American family obscures a large part of my family history, spoken of only in hushed voices, involving broken marriages and embittered partners left behind.30 The Reno gambling sequence includes multiple shots of a craps table where players of various races—the narrator mentions that Black, Asian, and “Westerners” all enjoy gambling—stand around and mug for the camera. Mary appears at the edge of the frame watching the action, wearing a sleeveless yellow cotton blouse. The film cuts abruptly to the casino floor, and then back to the craps table, only this time Mary is center frame enjoying the gaming action (fig. 4). It is a continuous, longer take that lasts for nearly ten seconds, and the only image in the film that shows my grandmother smiling. This momentary placement of her at the center of the frame transforms her into a visual object, connecting her to hyper-visible Chinese American women on US screens. In this frame, I recognize a mundane Asian femininity that feels intimately familiar to me and yet is largely absent from representations of Chinese women in popular US film.
From 1960 to 1961, one Chinese woman in particular occupied center frame in US films and the popular imagination: Nancy Kwan. The blockbusters The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961) catapulted Kwan, a Hong Kong native, to stardom in the United States. Because of the deeply intimate relationship between Forever Chinatown and Flower Drum Song—which involved a shared subject and to some degree a production history—for me, Kwan's hypervisibility is deeply entwined with my grandmother's appearance at the edge of and beyond the frame in Forever Chinatown.31 My grandmother's death in Taiwan in 1961 during postproduction resulted in a painful absence of feminine energy within my family and, subsequently, a strongly felt influence of filmic representations of Chinese American femininity on the women in my family.32
I ENJOY BEING A GIRL IN CHINESE AMERICA!
I call my mother to chat and somehow we end up talking about Nancy Kwan. “Isn't she part French?” my mother asks. She tells me how much she wanted to be like Nancy Kwan. Or did she rather want to be her? In 1961, at the Hollywood premiere of Flower Drum Song, Kwan greets a bustling crowd of fans and press, their cameras flashing loudly, wearing her signature qipao and a fur stole draped over her shoulders. Her long, dark wavy hair frames her face beautifully. She's a total vixen. Oscar winner Miyoshi Umeki stands behind her. She's demure, bowing slightly, as her character Mei Li does constantly throughout the film. Have Kwan and Umeki internalized their “Asian” film characters? Did my mother, arriving in the United States at the same time Kwan did in the late 1950s, want to be (or be like) Nancy Kwan because Kwan's assertive sexuality and glamorous appearance signified the fantasy of American success and the supposed triumph over racial marginalization?
Dressed up in Chinese silk pajamas, my mother (age seven) and her brother and sister (ages nine and six, respectively) passed out almond cookies to moviegoers for the screening of Forever Chinatown at an independent theater in San Diego called Ken Cinemas. This was 1963, a year after my family traveled to Taiwan and Hong Kong for the film's postproduction and initial screenings. My grandmother was dead, and the children were soon to end up in foster care. Circling back around on the transnational circuit it followed during its long production, Forever Chinatown had landed in Southern California, where filming began years before, and where my family settled because the children liked the sunshine and the beach. My mother remembers white and Chinese theatergoers at the San Diego premiere. How many of them, I wonder, had watched Flower Drum Song the year before? How many of them sang the femme anthem “I Enjoy Being a Girl” on the car ride home from the movie theater?
In North America, Asian femininity bears the weight of more than a century of exoticization and subjugation. Asian American women negotiate gender and race within a discursive terrain marked by painful political and cultural traumas. As Celine Parreñas Shimizu, building upon critical scholarship on race, gender, and sexual representation, puts it, “Asian American women are born into a world where a representational tradition of hypersexuality forms and shapes general consciousness. … Indeed, Asian American women encounter their imagined others as figures central to their self-formations in limiting terms.”33 We may learn race and gender from film and media, but rarely passively. We latch on to gender and racial images, and yet we also simultaneously dis-identify with, dissect, appropriate, bend, reject, and recoil from those images. In American film cultures, racial images, along with their missing queer and trans counterparts, haunt and hound us.
My own experiences as a Chinese American trans woman emerge from such images and hauntings, which continue to form and give shape to my gender desire and identity. Andrea Long Chu, challenging a strain of dominant discourse about trans women and identity, writes, “It must be underscored how unpopular it is on the left today to countenance the notion that transition expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire. This would require understanding transness as a matter not of who one is, but of what one wants.”34 To Chu's points, I would add that it is equally unpopular to think transness in relation to biological family members, who are often portrayed as unwelcoming, closed-minded figures who dole out rejection and inflict emotional pain. For me, however, transness always returns to representations of my own family, which, along with mediated representations, provide the raw material for scripting and assembling gender. Moreover, I regard my transness as always already trans- in the larger sense of being in flux, in between, and crossing borders—between cultures, languages, nations, and generations. Constitutive of this trans- process, I find myself entwined, trans-generationally, and through often difficult and unrepresentable feelings, with Chinese women in film.
There is a sequence in the second half of Forever Chinatown that takes place on a famous boardwalk amusement park in Mission Beach, San Diego. It is edited to highlight childish innocence and fun: my mother and her younger sister are all smiles and giggles, riding in rocket ships on a child's carnival ride, sharing pink cotton candy, playing in front of a fun-house mirror (fig. 5). Shots of the park's famous wooden roller coaster are intercut with close-ups of beachgoers. My grandmother is conspicuously missing from the footage, but of course she must be there nearby. More than any other moment in the film, this one seizes me. It captures my mother before she lost her mother, at a site where three generations of women in my family have stood. As such, this filmic trace manages to anticipate and transcend the trauma of my grandmother's untimely death, collapsing past, present, and future. When the image of my mother and her younger sister on the boardwalk flickers on-screen, transporting me across time and space, something distinctly gendered happens: I feel the force of trans desire activated. In my mind, I am on that boardwalk with my mother and grandmother, holding hands, bathed in warm sunlight and maternal love, the sounds of the wooden roller coaster cranking overhead. For a moment, I am a little girl; almost instantaneously, though, I'm reminded of a profound reality triggered by such longing—that I was never allowed to be a little girl.
Where do Chinese girls appear when we imagine “women” in North American history? I'm hard pressed to recall images of Chinese girls in popular representations of Chinese America when I was growing up.35 Nancy Kwan performing “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is the closest I can conjure, and that performance is actually of womanhood, though couched in a kind of extended adolescence. Like my mother, I want to be Nancy Kwan enjoying being a girl with total irreverence and abandon. Kwan's irresistible femininity feels like resistance to the sexual regime that casts “woman” in a subordinate and strictly reproductive role, a liberated expression of gender that offers a form of release from traumas shared transgenerationally within my family. Forever Chinatown reflects these traumas of misfortune and circumstance, as well as their more obviously political counterparts: racial and gendered traumas related to migration and social alienation. Between the maternal hauntings and mundane traumas in Forever Chinatown and the feminine spectacle of Nancy Kwan, whom I regard as a Chinese American filmic foremother, I confront a reality, namely that my transness and femme gender desires have always been motivated by a desire for maternal love and femme intimacy.36
CONCLUSION: M IS FOR MARY
Forever Chinatown continues to speak to lives lived between cultures, nations, languages, and genders. Through an archive of feeling surrounding the film, my grandmother moves more fully into my lived experience as the daughter of a Chinese emigrant and granddaughter of fierce Chinese American filmmakers. Even in her absence, my grandmother, I feel, was always around me. From the Hollywood portrait of her that hung on the wall in my childhood home, she even watched over my gender “migration.” The first time I “cross-dressed” at age fifteen, wearing clothes deemed unsuitable for my body by social gender norms, both my mother (in body and person) and my grandmother (in spirit and image) were present. Later, at a critical juncture in my life, I renamed myself, as many Chinese emigrants have done upon their arrival in North America. Named after my grandfather, I feminized the name, took my mother's maiden name as a way of symbolically divorcing my absent father, and adopted Mary's initial as a middle name. Instead of spelling out the name Mary, I intentionally left the initial M as a floating signifier—which for me presented, just as Forever Chinatown continues to, open-ended possibilities for discovery and transformation.