Artist Frank Wong’s exquisitely detailed dioramas of the Chinatown of his childhood serve as portals to the past in a rapidly changing San Francisco.

"A beautiful love letter to Chinatown... heartbreaking, tender, evocative."

B. Ruby Rich (Professor, Film & Digital Media, UC Santa Cruz; Editor, Film Quarterly; Author, “New Queer Cinema”, “Chick Flicks”)
Synopsis: 

Forever, Chinatown is a story of unknown, self-taught 81-year-old artist Frank Wong who has spent the past four decades recreating his fading memories by building romantic, extraordinarily detailed miniature models of the San Francisco Chinatown rooms of his youth.

This film takes the journey of one individual and maps it to a rapidly changing urban neighborhood from 1940s to present day. A meditation on memory, community, and preserving one’s own legacy, Frank‘s three-dimensional miniature dioramas become rare portals into a historic neighborhood and a window to the artist’s filtered and romanticized memories and emotional struggles. In his bargain with immortality, Frank announces plans to cremate his exquisite works with him upon his death in order to ‘live inside them forever’ in his afterlife.

 

Reviews

"In more than 10 years of teaching documentary classes in continuing education programs, I can't recall filmmakers or a film generating so much energy and enthusiasm among my students."

Michael Fox (Critic; Journalist; Instructor, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute)

"... the film explores broader themes within the human experience... memory, legacy and socio-cultural shifts...highly effective"

Candace Huey (Curator; Faculty, Art History, Academy of Art University)

"...lovely, rich...full of such detail and unspoken gaps...a complex portrait of a man and his memory."

Sandip Roy (Journalist, KALW, NPR, Huffington Post, New American Media; Author, “Don’t Let Him Know”)

"exquisite...heart-warming"

(Brenda Wong Aoki, Award-winning Playwright, Performer, Storyteller, founding faculty member; Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University)

"Wong's craft is...fascinating...meticulous...bringing 1940s Chinatown back to life in miniature"

Linda Poon (The Atlantic, CityLab)

"Masterfully directed...beautifully shot"

Cindy Maram (Dig In Magazine)

"...far more than just a sequence of “talking head” shots- the director uses perfectly executed dissolves, an evocative and moving score, and footage of Mr. Wong at work to create a tender, bittersweet and moving picture of the importance of memory."

Debbie Carton (Art & Music Librarian, Berkeley Public Library)

"Can the past ever be retrieved? All mortals fail, but often in the artist's valiant effort something else is achieved. In the case of Frank Wong's dioramas of his childhood memories, as captured by James Q. Chan, it is the murmurs of the heart expressed through the smallest of things."

Andrew Lam (Journalist, Editor, New American Media; Author "Birds of Paradise Lost", "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres")

"...one of the most beautiful and touching documentaries that I have ever seen"

Dana Summers (Shuffle Online)

"Excellent documentary movie illustrating the simple and complex dynamics growing up in an ethnic minority community, working in mainstream settings, coping and managing oppression and discrimination through creative expressive art."

Paul Hoang (Founder/CEO, Moving Forward Psychological Institute)

"...brought tears to my eyes...remarkable. I enjoyed the relationship he has with his Godson - illustrating the importance of relationships between the generations...immigration and education to the U.S. "  

Susie Calhoun (Elementary School Teacher)

"This is SO GOOD. I caught it by accident on TV yesterday morning. I was so moved and amazed, enchanted and emotional watching. Thank you for capturing such a great artist and this rare place. Beautiful nostalgic skilled vision all around. Congratulations."

Lisa M. (Viewer comments)

"...this has helped me critically re-examine the beauty of a community I call my home. Although I may be miles apart from San Francisco...I deeply connect with the documentary."

Julie M. (Viewer, Toronto, Canada)

"...fascinating... the SRO really reminded me of my grandfather's room when he was alive. I was just a little girl and adored him because he actually cared for me the most as both my parents were always working as most immigrants do"  

Katherine H., (Parent, Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) Volunteer)

"...makes me think of every object I use and not to be wasteful"

Justina L. (Viewer Comments- Chicago, IL)

"...helped to renew my faith that, even during these challenging times, there are friendly people in the world who are genuinely interested in learning about others and proudly sharing their own culture."  

Marcelle C. (Viewer - U. of Colorado graduate student)

"An absolutely lovely documentary. Beautiful, mild and implicit."

Lanzhou (Viewer - La Trobe University)

"A beautifully-crafted short film preserving the legacy of San Francisco's Chinatown. Breathtaking cinematography and nostalgic music intertwined with the intricate storytelling of artist Frank Wong transports you through an experience you will never forget. A must watch on Kanopy!"

Anna (Staff, Kanopy Streaming)
Director's Commentary: 

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 (Producer, Director "Forever, Chinatown")