CAAMFest 40 Review – Beyond Chron
Tina Takemoto’s experimental short “Ever Wanting (For Margaret Chung)” unearths a forgotten piece of Asian-American and LGBTQ+ history. Margaret Chung, for those unfamiliar with the name, was the first Chinese-American female doctor and founder of the first Western medical clinic in San Francisco Chinatown. Historical evidence also suggests that Chung was a lesbian.
The metaphor and allusion meld with elements of Chung’s life throughout the duration of the short. The birds flying in the sky appear to be metaphors for the big dreams Chung had for his life despite societal sexism and racism. Images of vintage surgical equipment refer to the fact that Chung trained as a surgeon (but never became chief of surgery at the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco). Footage of an airplane with a painted tiger nose and a group of women performing military drills captures Chung’s recruiting pilots for the famed Flying Tigers unit and his lobbying for the creation of the WAVES (the reserve corps of women in the US Navy).
But the emotions aroused by Kadet Kuhne and Edward J. Avila’s music for Takemoto’s film are far from celebratory. There is a sense of the growing social and psychological pressures of the World War II period. Chung’s subsequent drug addiction, alluded to in images of opium being heated on a spoon, therefore comes as no surprise.
In an interesting twist, footage of a nightclub singer’s performance merges with the film’s soundtrack to hint at the tension of the subject matter of Takemoto keeping his relationships very close and intimate with women private. While in some circles Chung’s lesbianism was an open secret, the doctor never publicly acknowledged her sexual feelings towards women for fear that she would be publicly labeled a deviant. That said, many of the notes and letters Chung exchanged with blues singer Sophie Tucker are written in language that suggests describing their relationship with the phrase “close friendship” is a serious understatement.
“Ever Wanting” is a short film that rewards viewing and a little post-movie research to find out the details of Chung’s life. It also couldn’t hurt to hope that Frameline will also include Takemoto’s short in its upcoming film festival.
There are certainly sympathetic elements in the documentary short “Elvis Of Laos”. Director Van Ditthavong delivers harrowing memories of his emotionally costly escape from Laos during the covert war waged against him by American forces. Little Kaila Ong is cuter than the proverbial pair of bug ears as she practices singing and teaches her grandpa some dance moves.
But the heart of the film turns out to be Voradeth Ditthavong, aka Kaila’s grandfather and the director’s father. He is the titular subject of the short documentary. The appellation comes from its groundbreaking Lao pop music with a mix of adult contemporary, edgy folk and Elvis Presley influence.
The last part is particularly noteworthy given that Voradeth didn’t understand English when he first heard an Elvis song. However, the rhythm and pace of Presley’s songs overcame the language barrier problem. Since Voradeth came from a musical family, he incorporated the beats and beats of Elvis into the songs he wrote. Lao high school and college students turned to Voradeth’s songs because they offered something new and different musically. This popularity eventually resulted in the main subject of the film becoming the godfather of Lao music.
Voradeth, as seen in the film, is unafraid of his musical fame remaining within the borders of Laos. In America, he is apparently content to be a 77-year-old working musician playing weddings and community halls. A little more public recognition wouldn’t hurt, though.
The problems with Van Ditthavong’s film begin at this point. The sequences between Kaila and Voradeth are sweet, but they lack a strong enough relationship to the older man’s story. It doesn’t even feel like passing the creative torch to the next generation.
The director’s own story of his escape from Laos to find his father involves heartbreaking personal tragedy. Yet the retelling of this story occurs too late in the film. Moreover, no effort is made to show how the events of this escape affected the director’s relationship with his father, even in the short term.
But the biggest mistake of “Elvis Of Laos” is to neglect Voradeth’s musical heritage. The viewer never gets an idea of how much of Voradeth’s music still exists and how much was lost due to the war. Nor does the viewer hear of contemporary Lao musicians who can explain why they still love Voradeth’s music enough to make remakes of his songs.
Van Ditthavong’s film may deserve props to introduce CAAM viewers to his father and his work. Still, it ends up feeling too half-baked to offer a truly satisfying cinematic portrayal.
CAAMFest Closing Night Film Alika Tengan’s “Every Day In Kaimuki” follows community radio DJ and skateboarder Naz preparing to leave the titular small Hawaiian town for the lights of New York…where is he?. Does Naz often procrastinate in skateboarding? Is artist girlfriend Sloane OK with the move? Will Naz’s cat steal in a trash bag because his human is a cheapskate? A languid musical soundtrack and images from Kaimuki’s life leave viewers spellbound. Discreet entertainment.
Crystal Kwok’s personal documentary “Blurring The Color Line” is the best kind of film on history. It starts with an intriguing question. In the journey to answer this question, intriguing but forgotten historical facts and details are revealed. Unexpected places are visited. Finally, viewers see for themselves the parallels between what has been revealed of past and recent historical phenomena.
The aforementioned question is “In the Jim Crow era south, which part of the bus did the Chinese people sit on: the black section or the white section?”
Kwok’s question is already blowing viewers’ minds because the usual mental image of this racially segregated region populates the stage with only blacks and whites. But history (both general and personal) shows that there were indeed Chinese in the Jim Crow South. The first came in 1870 to build the canals in Augusta, Georgia. But by the 1920s, enough Chinese families came to the area to achieve the critical mass needed to establish a merchant class. In 1927, Augusta, Georgia would have the largest concentration of these merchants in the region with 46 different stores. The running joke in Augusta’s black community was that there was a Chinese grocery store on every block.
The manager knows all this because her grandmother Pearl and the rest of her family eventually ran two such stores after moving to Augusta in 1927. Like other Chinese merchant families, they may have lived and worked close to the black community, but they were granted some of the fruits of white privilege. Thus, the answer to the question that begins Kwok’s investigations is “the white section”. This answer would also apply to getting to school, visiting department stores, and even which public water fountain to use.
Rather than a useful social perk, these “privileges” have proven to be emotionally toxic in the long run. They dissuaded the Chinese from making common cause with the blacks against the whites. Accepting these “privileges” meant accepting the existence of the social glass ceiling that said the Chinese could advance as far in Southern society but no further. More damningly, accepting the so-called honorary role of whites also meant instilling negative social attitudes towards blacks.
Kwok damningly shows that Chinese acceptance of racist Jim Crow attitudes was certainly not a case of a racially condescending image of innocent Chinese being corrupted by evil white racism. Colorism was unfortunately part of Chinese (and Asian) societies. For those unfamiliar with the term, the belief can be summarized as follows: “if you have pale skin, you are elite; having darker skin means you’re a peasant and probably not very smart. Jim Crow’s social segregation proved suited to colorist attitudes. Grandma Pearl’s family followed this system. The family moved from San Francisco to Augusta to improve their lives, not to join people at the bottom of the social ladder.
The relationship between Augusta’s Chinese merchants and their black clientele is shown by Kwok to be primarily one of economic exploitation. These merchants saw a better opportunity to make money by filling the economic void left by the end of the slave-era Commissars. Socially equal, non-economic relations between the Chinese and the surrounding black community were rare. Ironically, the ultimate reaping of the fruits of such a trading relationship would end the Augusta Chinese trading period.
And then there is accepted sexism. Women were to be married and have as many children as possible. The fact of marriage to someone from a good family mattered; whether that husband was decent or an abusive bully not so much. Kwok’s great-grandmother, Chan Woon, had ten other children besides Pearl. The pressure put on Chan’s body was worth it as it eventually produced a male heir.
In an environment where women had very little hope, what would have been considered social transgressions now appear as a welcome act of defiance. Grandma Pearl was able to escape her family by quietly saving a share of the store’s gross receipts for herself to fund her theft plans. Chinese women used to date white men just to get a taste of sexual exoticism before their arranged marriages with real Chinese husbands.
The genius of Kwok’s film is that it presents all of this forgotten history in the spirit of curiosity. The director is not interested in settling old social scores dating back decades. When she asks her great aunts and uncles as well as Black Augusta residents who lived through this period “How did it happen and why”, her ultimate goal is to encourage viewers to avoid repeating these mistakes and to do better in the future.
What happened to several Korean store owners operating in the black community during the Los Angeles Rebellion in 1992 could have been predicted by the eventual fate of Augusta’s Chinese grocery store owners. Kwok would certainly appreciate if this “easier to be wiser later” loop could be broken by future generations.
(“Ever Wanting (For Margeret Chung) screens as part of the Boundless shorts program. “Elvis Of Laos” screens as part of the New Journeys shorts program. Both shorts programs are streaming online via CAAMFest on demand until May 22, 2022.
“Every Day In Kaimuki” screens at 6:30 p.m. on May 22, 2022 at New Parkway TheaterOakland.
For more information on these films and to order tickets, go to here.)
Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment