Monday, May 3, 2021

film review: Chinatown Rising


Directed by Harry Chuck & Josh Chuck

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

Though it was completed before Covid struck, Chinatown Rising couldn't be more timely. Racist attacks against Asians, particularly those of Chinese descent, have erupted across the United States and Canada. Asians are being scapegoated for the pandemic, but Asians are now fighting back, and they can draw inspiration from the earlier generation, depicted in this riveting documentary.

Co-director Harry Chuck was a film student and community activist in the turbulent 1960s. He was part of that generation that grew up after the Chinese Exclusion Act and were no longer afraid of keeping quiet. This younger generation was inspired by the Black Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Their turning point came in 1965, when the U.S. liberalized immigration policies and many more Chinese were allowed into the country (the Exclusion Act had forbidden it). In 1969, the activists demanded a school at the San Francisco State College to teach the contribution of the Chinese community. Also, they wanted Chinese to be used in classrooms in order to teach younger immigrant kids. They clashed with the Six Companies, a group of Chinatown elders whom they felt were out of touch and ineffectual.

The activists demonstrated in the streets, sometimes battling the police, and they fought city hall. Victories came, but not easily. The activists also worked hands-on within the community, particularly to stem the rise of street gangs, fed by kids who didn't assimilate and turned to crime. Tragically, they likely killed the head of the Youth Services Center, Barry Fong-Torres (brother of celebrated Rolling Stone magazine writer Ben Fong-Torres). Also in the 1970s, activists demanded better housing for the elderly and young families. Thankfully, Chuck captured these squalid conditions on camera which were presented at a rancorous city hall debate.

Racism certainly played a part in these battles. For decades, the Chinese were confined to 24 square blocks of San Francisco where they lived in squalor while denied decent jobs and higher education. However, as the activists themselves admit, the Chinese first had to raise their voices to get the housing authority, the educational system and city hall to act. The young activists eventually seized the reins of power from the old guard. For instance, third-generation Fred Lau became the first San Francisco police officer and eventually its police chief.

All these battles are told by the foot soldiers in this film, including Harry Chuck whose son, Josh, interviews him to make this film a true father-son collaboration. The strength of Chinatown Rising lies in the stories the activists tell (luckily, many of them are still with us), brought to life by crisp film footage shot by the elder Chuck. For most viewers, this history will be a revelation. American civil rights are commonly thought to be fought by Black Americans, but any history book would be incomplete without chapters about Asian Americans. This documentary tells that history. 

For future screenings online and in cinemas, check the Chinatown Rising website for updates.

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