Posted in Downtown, Film
11/5 2010

Unlocking Chinatown’s Secrets

Contributed by Christopher Jones

ReelAsian Artistic Director Heather KeungOne of the special screenings at this year’s Reel Asian International Film Festival (November 9 – 15) is Suite Suite Chinatown, a program of short films by local filmmakers examining the rich and layered significance of Chinatown(s). To discuss the program and the festival generally, I invited Reel Asian Artistic Director Heather Keung, left, to walk me through the Chinatown she knows best, the one centred around Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West.

A second-generation Chinese Canadian, Keung studied at nearby OCAD beginning in 2000 and she’s worked in the 401 Richmond arts hub since 2003, so this stretch of Spadina is truly her ‘hood. Walking north, as we cross Grange Avenue the tenor of the streetscape changes immediately, the sidewalk suddenly swells with shoppers, buggies, men loading and unloading trucks – at one point we’re nearly bowled over by a man with a whole pig slung over his shoulder.

The genesis of Suite Suite Chinatown came from Toronto-based filmmaker Aram Siu Wai Collier who was born in San Francisco, site of an even more famous Chinatown. “Aram has a really interesting perspective on the constructed idea of Chinatown as a ghettoized neighbourhood,” observes Keung. “I think second-generation Chinese in particular have a very different experience of Chinatown, a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. It’s nostalgic and it’s our heritage but it’s not our heritage.”

Suite Suite Chinatown
Although the Suite Suite Chinatown program isn’t exactly narrative, there are story lines and themes running through the seven shorts: surprisingly, one of the connecting threads is the practice of hoarding.

“Second generation Chinese like me often grew up with parents and grandparents who thought nothing of it, hoarding was just part of their daily lives,” says Keung. “Our parents collect things you could go to the store tomorrow and buy but they hold onto them and stockpile them for the future ‘because you never know when you’ll need them.’ ”

Keung says her second-generation Chinese friends find the practice embarrassing but also endearing and both these impressions come through in Suite Suite Chinatown: “I think overall it’s a very loving piece,” says the Artistic Director.

This is Keung’s fifth year as a programmer with Reel Asian and although she purposely does not program her own work, she did agree to contribute a piece to Suite Suite Chinatown. Her segment is “meditative and reflective,” a re-scan of a home movie made by one of her uncles more than 20 years ago, below.

Still from Heather Keung's portion of Suite Suite Chinatown
“I re-shot the work through my television so it’s part of the visual distancing and the experience of being separate from that moment,” explains the filmmaker. “The images are somewhat corrupted but the re-scan is actually quite beautiful, you get these sort of artifacts that are very rich and saturated.”

coverSMFrom Keung’s perspective there are two main themes pervading this year’s Reel Asian selections and both ideas are neatly summed up in the image used on the festival’s poster and program cover, left.

“The image epitomizes the idea of self-reflection,” she says. “Taking your own picture is really about defining your own history. The theme of the entire festival is this inter-generational reflection on our past heritage as individuals but also within cinema.”

Asia is the world’s largest and most populous continent and Reel Asian’s programming team knows they’ll never fully capture the breadth of the contemporary Asian experience from Korea to Kamchatka. But they do attempt to provide a healthy cross-section: “One of our core mandates is to give voice to and represent the diversity of the Asian community and expand a greater awareness of, and appreciation for that multiplicity,” explains Keung. “It’s not necessarily about breaking stereotypes, it’s more about offering a more complex understanding.”

Japanese filmmaker Naoko Ogigami's Toilet was filmed in Toronto with a mostly Canadian cast. The movie epitomizes ReelAsian's cross-generational themes.

Japanese filmmaker Naoko Ogigami's "Toilet" was filmed in Toronto with a mostly Canadian cast. The movie epitomizes Reel Asian's cross-generational themes.

WHERE/WHEN: ReelAsian International Film Festival runs November 9 – 15 at various theatres, see website for details.

Photo of Heather Keung by Christopher Jones

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