As a Bay Area filmmaker with roots in China, Vietnam, a refugee camp in Indonesia, and early years in the Midwest, my sensibilities are shaped by my lived experiences of these transitory ideas of home. Of Frank Wong’s seven Chinatown dioramas, the unrefined Single Room Occupancy transported me viscerally back to my first makeshift bedroom in San Francisco: the hall closet of our studio apartment in the working-class Tenderloin district of my formative years. The sum of my family’s belongings fit inside this miniature apartment, and my imagination contracted and expanded within the boundaries of my twin-mattress-sized room. Under a canopy of coats and sweaters, my imaginary portals would open to daydreams of Dukes of Hazzard, my mother halfway around the world, and puppies. My childhood appreciation for little worlds, as well as my curiosity of people and places, merged with the happenstance introduction to Frank Wong’s Chinatown dioramas. A friend who works at the Chinese Historical Society, a beautiful Julia Morgan designed building, gave me a personal tour of the museum and in the basement level behind a locked door, sat these dioramas in the dark. A house is a reflection of an occupant’s autobiography, and my obsession to find the owner of these miniature worlds consumed me.
My first meeting with Frank was over lunch, a meal that lasted over six hours. Trust was built through comfort food, laughter, and tears at the Pork Chop House, a local popular diner from the 1940s on Jackson Street. It was evident that Frank, a consummate showman, has been camera-ready for most of his life.
Frank becomes our guide as we journey back with him to his nostalgic visions of his youth vis a vis his artwork and present-day Chinatown. Exquisite as they are, Frank’s lavish stories and dioramas are composites of one person’s romanticized experience of places. Because he is human and human memories are fallible, his is just one entry into the world of Chinatown, and, in an effort to show the larger perspective of Chinatown, archival footage was carefully selected to mirror the world of Frank’s miniatures.
I wanted the cinematography of the miniatures to place viewers inside the dioramas. As we travel back in time with the artist and navigate melodically through each of the miniatures, we are transported much like Dorothy arriving into Oz. These tiny Technicolor dreamscape worlds are culturally distinct interiors. Buddhist shrines, mahjong tables, plates of Asian food, stocked cabinets of Spam and Jell-O and See’s Candies, are all refreshing departures from the conventional Victorian dollhouse. Juxtaposed against this miniature world is a more improvised, unpolished reality capturing Frank through handheld vérité coverage.
In the edit room, the approach was more narrative and less bio-pic documentary structure. We orbit around Frank’s alter ego, The God of Longevity, and his compromise with immortality by paralleling Frank’s wish to cremate his artwork with him when he dies so he may “live in them forever”.
Instead of explanations from talking heads, the story is revealed through cinematic visuals, period music, symphonic sounds of the neighborhood, and most importantly, quiet emotional pauses that permeate the film. Additionally, I chose to have the community be the voice of authority rather than bringing in the customary historian to speak on the value of the artwork and the history of Chinatown. They form our ‘Greek Chorus’ with their comments, and through them we move between individual and collective memories of place and time, between composites and historical facts.
The use of music to underscore each diorama as a distinct memory was influenced by Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie: “In memory everything seems to happen to music.” Peggy Lee’s sentimental ballad “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” captures the emotional essence. Pink Martini and Thomas Lauderdale’s original score was the perfect sound for Frank and the dioramas: energetic, melancholy, nostalgic.
The film needed to seamlessly weave together three equal parts: the contours of the artist’s life, the intimacy of his artwork, and the heart and soul of the film, Chinatown. It is important to highlight encroaching change to this historic neighborhood from the hyper-gentrification that is sweeping through San Francisco. Those displaced by rising housing costs, conversions, and upscale redevelopment are often invisible voices that go unheard, becoming only a statistical number in the harsh realities of Bay Area housing. We end on portraits of a few of Chinatown’s community members – Dorothy, in front of the Spofford Alley apartment she was born in 82 years ago; Joshua, a fifth-generation Chinatown resident who was recently evicted from his apartment on Clay Street; Julie and her infant son, in front of her family’s and Chinatown’s oldest beloved restaurant ‘Sam Wo’; Ms. Deng, 65-year-old Chinese banjo street musician, focusing on the strength of the threatened community, its human pillars.
Through the detailed world of Frank Wong’s dioramas, we explore the evolution of a Chinese-American community that is intimately interwoven with the history of its city. Forever, Chinatown is Frank’s state of mind, it is a commentary on the encroaching changes to the neighborhood, and it is a love letter to a beloved community and city.
James Q. Chan