AAAFF 2016: “Forever, Chinatown” review

“Forever, Chinatown,” directed by James Q. Chan, is one of the most beautiful and touching documentaries that I have ever seen. This film follows 81-year-old artist Frank Wong, who has spent the last four decades bringing his childhood memories of San Francisco’s Chinatown to life in the form of immaculate and incredibly detailed miniature models. This film’s exploration of Chinatown through Wong’s memories creates a romantic and picturesque view of the golden age of a neighborhood that is quickly fading due to increasing development and gentrification.

Review by Dana Summers

This film explores Wong’s childhood in the vibrant and bustling 1940s and 1950s Chinatown as a young kid who believed that the whole world was like that community. After working as a child extra in Hollywood films, he started his career as a prop master during the racist and xenophobic era of McCarthy Hollywood. This led him to travel to Hawaii to work on “Hawaii Five-O” and live in what he describes as an “enchanted cottage” for over 20 years. Despite living in paradise, the yearning to return to his childhood home lead him to a Chinatown that was much different than what he left.

Photo courtesy of Austin Asian American Film Festival

Photo courtesy of Austin Asian American Film Festival

Finding that his memories of his home were fading, Wong created miniatures portraying his life in Chinatown between 1945-1993 out of memories, photographs, and according to him “wishes.” These incredibly realistic miniatures have taken Wong over two decades to complete and each explores a different romanticized memory, whether it be from his grandmother’s kitchen to his living room during Christmas. These miniatures each serve as beautiful love letters to the Chinatown he once knew.

This documentary brought me to tears. While I’ve never set foot in San Francisco, let alone Chinatown, Wong’s devotion to his home is something that we can all relate to. Towards the end of the film when his work is looked at by other elderly residents of Chinatown, you can see their faces light up as they are able to live out their memories again in his art. While he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that there were issues in Chinatown, he embodied the spirit of a people who were only allowed to live in a certain area in town due to their race and still managed to carve out a home for themselves to thrive in.

My only criticism of this documentary is that I wish that it was a feature length film. There were aspects of Wong’s life, such as his time as a prop master in a xenophobic Hollywood, that I wanted to hear more about. I wanted to learn more about his time in Hawaii and what made him leave paradise to return to Chinatown. Even having time to explore how Wong’s godson Jeremy sees today’s Chinatown in comparison to the stories his godfather tells him would have been really insightful. Wong’s life is so intriguing that 30 minutes just wasn’t enough to tell his whole story.

“Forever, Chinatown” is a sweet documentary that adds a whole new life and dimension to a place that is often viewed stereotypically by outsiders. This film, at its essence, is a love story between one man and his home despite that fact that they’ve both grown and changed immensely since his childhood.

Check out the trailer!

About Dana

Full-time bodacious strategist with an insatiable need to know everything about everything. Part-time scrappy freelance journalist and photographer. Follow me on Twitter @isitdanaordonna and check out hellodanasummers.co😉

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