Memoirs of a Superfan, Volume 14.6: “Chinatown Rising”
May 15, 2019
How many times do you have to fight for your life? CHINATOWN RISING, CAAMFest37’s groundbreaking Opening Night Film, provided a compelling, inspiring, and urgent raison d’être, not only for octogenarian, first-time filmmaker Harry Chuck’s lookback on his life and times as told to his son and fellow first-time filmmaker Josh Chuck, but also for viewers in 2019 as we contemplate the urgency of now. Mayor London Breed was the first sitting San Francisco mayor to grace the stage of CAAMFest Opening Night last night, and for good reason. Chinatown and her struggles are at the heart of San Francisco history, and the issues of the 1960s-70s, the time period covered most extensively by the film, are still at the forefront of community consciousness now. Harry and Josh Chuck were greeted with a hero’s welcome by a sold-out Castro Theater crowd; their heroic efforts to amplify our shared history will be rightly seen as seminal work for academics, community members, and anyone interested in making a difference for marginalized and distressed communities here in the U.S. and worldwide.
The film opens with a quote by Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin to end the day we begin to be silent about things that matter.” According to Snopes, though, this is a paraphrase of his actual quote, which I think is much more powerful, and goes to the heart of why Reverend Harry Chuck, Presbyterian pastor and community organizer, called history “existential.” MLK said this, the day after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama: “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” So similar to the quote that inspired me and so many others since I first heard it in my freshman year of college: “If a man hasn’t found something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
The same can be said of communities, cities, and nations. What do we stake our lives on? What values do we proclaim and raise? What will we live and die for? Reverend Chuck might quote that sage who said “man does not live by bread alone.” I might add a quote from another sage: “hate is not conquered by hate. By love alone is hate conquered. That is the eternal law.” Love of community and economic and social justice were the visceral heart-soul-and-gut forces on full display throughout CHINATOWN RISING, in the lives of many who struggled and even died for their values, in our fair city.
Harry Chuck grew up in Chinatown, but even so, he didn’t know its history. He discovered as a young man that Chinatown was created by racism, poverty, lynchings, Exclusion Acts, and the denial of property and other rights. As a student at San Francisco State, he began exploring that history, and his first short film juxtaposed historical images from the 1800s with their modern-day counterparts, the broad panorama of history coming into focus through the lens of his young mind. As he said in the Q and A, connecting the dots of history brings you to yourself. I had a glimmer of this myself, during the film’s opening sequence montage of 1960s Chinatown scenes. The shoeshine boys on the sidewalks of Grant Avenue reminded me of the shoeshine boys I’d met and befriended on the streets of India just a few years ago, or the children in China making grass sculptures for passing tourists, or the girls playing in the dirt and dust in Nepal, the children I’d felt at once so close to and yet so heartbreakingly distant. What does life have to offer a poor child? Providing for the basic needs of these children – for shelter, food, education, health care and safety – provide good answers for that existential historical question both Dr. King and Harry Chuck asked: “what would you live and die for?” On a more subtle note, I saw myself also in Chuck’s makeshift light table for his 35 mm slides, evidence of the bricolage immigrant and child-of-immigrants sensibility that undergirds our lives. He cobbles together the past, using old, borrowed and found equipment, to create something new.
CHINATOWN RISING went on to juxtapose interviews with Chuck and his fellow community activists and organizers (including Laureen Chew, Christopher Chow, the late Philip Choy, Rev. Norman Fong, Lucinda Lee-Katz, Phil Chu, and Fred Lau), chronicling formative Chinatown and San Francisco history. The key chapters involve the frustrations of Chinatown youth including those newly arrived after LBJ’s 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act; the San Francisco State Student Strike of 1968-69, which were painfully opposed by S.I. Hayakawa, then president of the college and later U.S. Senator from California, but which led to the establishment of Ethnic Studies; the horrifying assassination of 29-year-old community worker Barry Fong-Torres and the gangland massacre at the Golden Dragon, illustrating communal tension and violence; the unsuccessful fight for the I-Hotel which was the pitch point for the tenants’ rights movement in the U.S.; and the decade-plus-long fight for affordable housing in Chinatown. Chuck’s leadership in the latter struggle pulled together his filmmaking and community organizing. His camera lens brought scenes of dilapidated housing, 15 families sharing a makeshift kitchen, rusty taps running cold water, and six people sleeping in a small room to a shocked meeting of supervisors, who were not-so-surprisingly unaware of conditions just a few blocks from City Hall, and literally under the noses of the Federal HUD offices. The community’s efforts paid off, as we see then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein happily breaking ground for Mei Lun Yuen in 1978, providing housing relief for nearly 200 individuals and families. Many of us hope Mayor Breed will provide similar scenes during her term. The needs are painfully still with us, aggravated by the desperation of our boom-time economy.
It’s especially powerful and timely to be reminded of the shared origins and struggles of the African American and Asian American movements. The Chucks do not flinch at also highlighting the idealization of Mao by the more strident factions of both movements. It was a extraordinarily difficult and divisive time. I think I would have struggled, then as now, with staying connected to my ideals while also navigating the powerful opinions that arise from deep wounds. We have our own progressive/radical/moderate debates now, and will soon have to decide how to play our cards.
The history traced in CHINATOWN RISING will likely be familiar to many in our community, because it is foundational. Still, it is affecting, projected, enlarged and encapsulated on the big screen. And as San Francisco changes and morphs into a new shape, we are in danger of losing our sense of place and rootedness. This film gives us an “institutional memory,” if you will, of our city’s life, struggles and aspirations. Norman Fong pointed out that we’ve lost many battles along the way, and need to keep fighting. Chinatown is not just a tourist destination, it is not just foodie inspiration, it is not just cultural celebration, it is perspiration and gestation. It is the proud elder hipster in Chinatown Pretty. It is the voices of activists, slogging each day to ensure the rights of the poor, the immigrant, the young. It has touched even me, an Indian American. Indeed, it is all of us. And as Harry Chuck and Laureen Chew both said, its story is not a story of “me,” but “we.” “We the People…” – words that are on all of our minds, these days.
A heartfelt thank you to Harry and Josh Chuck, and the whole crew of CHINATOWN RISING. You’ve given us all a gift to cherish.
We have a history we can be proud of. And we still have the possibility to rise. We are still young.
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about him at www.RaviChandraMD.com, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, and sign up for an occasional newsletter. Read more MOSF blogposts here.