Forever, Chinatown

Year Released
Film Length(s)
32 mins
Closed captioning available Audio description available
Remote video URL


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.

Featured review

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”)


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.

Directed by James Q. Chan

Produced by James Q. Chan, Corey Tong


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 most enchanting and salutary documentary film I have ever viewed…explores the remarkable psychological and physical embodiment of 'sense of place'…
Rick J. Scheidt
PhD (The Gerontologist Journal)
Masterfully directed...beautifully shot
Cindy Maram (Dig In Magazine)
Cindy Maram (Dig In Magazine)
Wong's craft is...fascinating...meticulous...bringing 1940s Chinatown back to life in miniature
Linda Poon (The Atlantic
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)
...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”)
... 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)
(Brenda Wong Aoki
Award-winning Playwright, Performer, Storyteller, founding faculty member; Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University)
...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) of the most beautiful and touching documentaries that I have ever seen
Dana Summers (Shuffle Online)
Dana Summers (Shuffle Online)
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")
...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)
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)
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
...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)
Marcelle C. (Viewer - U. of Colorado graduate student)
An absolutely lovely documentary. Beautiful, mild and implicit.
Lanzhou (Viewer - La Trobe University)
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)

Awards and Screenings

Emmy Award Nominee (Regional, Documentary- Cultural/Historical), 2018
Gold Telly Award - Directing, 2018
Jury Award, Best Documentary Short, Seattle Asian American Film Festival, 2018
Audience Award, Best Documentary Short, Seattle Asian American Film Festival, 2018
Jury Award Doc Short, Best Cinematography, Los Angeles Asian American Pacific Film Festival , 2017
Audience Award, Best Documentary Short, Boston Asian American Film Festival, 2016
Audience Award, Best Documentary Short, Austin Asian American Film Festival, 2016
Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography *Nominee Best Short Documentary*, 2016
San Francisco Film Society Doc Stories, 2016
Hawaii International Film Festival , 2016
Hanoi Cinematheque, Vietnam, 2016
Rhode Island International Film Festival, 2016
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival , 2106
Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, 2016
Boston Asian American Film Festival, 2016
Austin Asian Film Festival, 2016
Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, 2016
Documentary Edge Film Festival, New Zealand *Nominee Best Short Documentary*, 2016
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, World Premiere, 2016
CAAMfest, Work-in-progress Screening , 2016

Director 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")

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Audio Description
  • Closed Captioning
  • Subtitles
  • Transcript

Subtitle/Caption Languages

  • English

Promotional Material

Promotional Stills

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