This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity on Demand presents Ruby Yang and Lambert Yam’s insightful documentary, “A Moment In Time,” a personal look at the history and legacy of movie-going in Chinatowns across the US. From the early days of cinema, Chinatown movie theaters were ubiquitous, from San Francisco to New York, and numbered in the scores. Presenting live opera and screening new hit films from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to urban Chinese American audiences, the theaters became gathering points and cornerstones of their communities. Through the decades, Chinatown movie-going began to attract much broader audiences as well, in particular as the cinema of Hong Kong became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, with changes in movie distribution and technology, almost all Chinatown movie theaters have closed down, but their impact and legacy remain.
Through a warm, intimate pastiche of multi-generational interviews and rare film clips (from both old Cantonese movies and early Chinese American works), Oscar-winning director Ruby Yang explores the evolving role of Chinatown movie theaters in San Francisco’s Chinese American community. This film is made available for free to Comcast subscribers for the month of September through a partnership with the Center for Asian American Media.
“A Moment In Time” is a film about the movies, but more so, it is a film about the experience of going to the movies. What drew you to telling this story, and in particular San Francisco Chinatown? What defined the experience of watching a film in Chinatown?
RY: Lambert Yam, my husband and producer of “A Moment in Time” used to program Chinese movies from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan from 1984 – 1995 for the World Theatre in San Francisco Chinatown after it re-opened.
For ten years, World Theatre ran morning shows of Cantonese Opera movies for the elderly who lived in the tenement buildings. Some of them have never left Chinatown. The majority of the morning shows audience were old ladies, who came everyday to watch the same movies over and over again. They sang along with the actresses; they were deeply involved with the tragic lives on screen.
On the weekends, parents brought their children for a brief immersion in Chinese culture, including snacks of dried mango, beef jerky and pickle clumps, even chicken drumsticks and barbecue pork buns.
The World Theater was a gathering place, a site of shared dreams, a haven from everyday life. Lambert and I witnessed the match between certain popular films and moments in Chinatown’s evolution as a community. We wanted to use movies to make Chinatown history vivid.
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As for watching a film in Chinatown; first of all the theaters were dirty because audiences loved to bring their own food. It was usually a family event, so there were kids running up and down the aisles. Audience loved to cry in the movies. Old ladies sang along during the Cantonese opera films. Young kids dressed up in kung fu costumes when they came to see an action films. It was always a very lively experience.
The history of Chinatown movie theatres is an essential part of American film history; so many people were raised seeing films in the theatres and the intersections of American and Chinese cinemas (that we see so many permutations of today) were seeded in them as well. When and where was the first Chinatown movie theater opened? Are there many still running today? What would you say is the legacy of Chinatown movie theaters?
RY: The Great Star Theater on Jackson Street and the Mandarin Theater in San Francisco were built around the same time in 1925. They were the oldest live Cantonese opera performance houses and movie theaters in San Francisco Chinatown.
People in Chinatown — overwhelmingly male until 1965 — have charged personal stories: a life in China, a dream of America, a set of actual experiences here, and an alternative life projected on their children. The dissonances among these narratives add up to high drama, as writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan have shown.
Lambert screened “The Purple Hairpin,” the story of a beautiful woman prevented by circumstances from marrying the man she loves, to the same collection of old women every morning for years. Some spoke to the screen. The popularity of Hong Kong “weepies” reflected the fact that Chinese marriages used to be arranged. And until wives were admitted in 1965, Chinatown bachelors had to marry during visits to China and leave their families there. Impossible loves, what director Ang Lee calls “the repressed emotional wish,” could not have been unusual.
Second generation Chinese American children, associated Chinese movies (and the Chinese language) with their parents’ alien, backward world. Chinese mothers loved Cantonese Opera films in which tyrannical parents wrench young lovers apart. For them, movies were a rare break in an endless workweek. Chinese movies also translated national disasters – World War II, for example – into personal dramas of separation and loss. For Chinese immigrants they were true to life, unlike the sunny family shows on American TV.
They eventually found their own reasons to appreciate Chinese film. Partly in self defense — because they were seen as Chinese — the children developed a pride in Chinese things. Wong Fei Hung, a Robin Hood character from Hong Kong, defended the weak with a smile and a bullwhip. Films from revolutionary mainland China sparked battles in Chinatown between long-haired youths and a conservative older generation. 1950s bobbysoxer films from Hong Kong proved that Chinese girls could be cool. 1960s martial arts films, notably those of Bruce Lee, sent Chinatown boys to kung fu school. Before long all American boys were going.
By 2000, movie theaters in Chinatowns across the US had closed down. Video technology, the mainstreaming of Chinese film and the linguistic diversity of new Chinese immigrants have killed off Chinatown theaters.
The World Theatre opened in 1947 and had accumulated the largest collection of Cantonese Opera films in Northern America. It had served the Chinatown community for 50 years before closing down in 1997.
The legacy of Chinese movie theaters were a dividing line between the generations, and also a school where American kids came to appreciate their Chinese roots. They provided the memories, the beliefs, the sorrows and aspirations of Chinese immigrant families. Chinese movies reduced an older generation to tears. They challenged the young to find out how they could be American and Chinese at the same time.
You alternate between making short and feature-length work; during the time you were making “A Moment In Time” you were also making the films “The Blood of Yingzhou District” for which you won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short, and “The Warriors of Qiugang” which was nominated in the same category. What distinguishes the process of making a short film versus a feature length one?
RY: Firstly, feature length films takes more resources to make. Secondly some stories are meant for shorts and some themes and narratives are meant for sixty minutes or more to develop stories and characters.
You are drawn to stories about contemporary China as well as Chinese America; what is it about this set of histories, dynamics and cultures that you find compelling and important?
RY: When I migrated to the US from Hong Kong in late 1970s, there was still the remnants of the bachelor society in San Francisco Chinatown. Old men without families sitting on the park benches with nowhere to go. On television, there were hardly any Chinese Americans being represented. Apartments that were not available to rent to Asians. I came to understand the feeling being “marginalized,” the need for stories of the under-presented groups in public media. It was the same way I understood the plight of the children impacted by HIV/AIDS and the Chinese farmers whose land had been polluted, their voices needed to be heard that I’ve explored in my more recent films.
What are you working on now?
RY: A documentary project featuring stories behind the making of “The Awakening”– a musical with four under-privileged Hong Kong high school students participating. The film will trace the transformation of the thirty musical participants, highlighting 5-6 youth who struggle with confidence and discipline issues, and record how they are driven by the drama and music training to strive for excellence.