Yang film captures Chinatown 'Moment'

Films and cinemas bridged gap in divided country

UPDATED: May 26, 2009, 8:15 a.m.

BEIJING -- Academy Award-winner Ruby Yang has unveiled her latest documentary, about the growth, evolution and eventual demise of five ethnic cinemas in San Francisco's Chinatown and their role in bridging the gap between China and the United States.

The informal world premiere of "A Moment in Time," which Yang screened for friends in an old Beijing courtyard on Saturday, showed it to be a 57-minute celebration of Chinese cinema mining the history of "Gold Mountain" -- as San Francisco was dubbed by the Chinese bachelor-prospectors of in the Gold Rush of 1848.

Yang took six years to make the film with her husband and producer Lambert Yam, a longtime cinema owner himself. Together, they honed in on the golden era of Shanghai cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, when San Francisco became home to Chinese families whose matrons took the kids to the movies for a nickel on a Saturday and stayed all day, covering the floors with melon seeds.

The film largely is about the evolution of America's perception of China and the changing views of first-generation Chinese-Americans as they grew to understand their parents' often heart-rending immigrant experiences in the dark of the movie theater.

"This film speaks to moviegoers, the Chinese community worldwide and specifically, to San Francisco Chinatown," Yang said. "The films and the theaters we tried to capture made a difference in the lives of Chinese living in America for generations. Movies were the only way they could connect to China."

Carrying the viewer through to the modern cinema of the 1980s Hong Kong of Yang's youth, her film weaves together interviews with Chinatown residents and arts leaders such as director John Woo, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and punk publisher V. Vale, a Japanese-American San Franciscan who was not unaffected by the empowering 1970s films of the martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

In one section, Yang tells the story of actor Kwan Tak Hing, who in 1932 began a career that spanned 77 films and kept America's Chinatowns riveted waiting for his next Chinese opera on film. A man of his place and time, one of these was done in full traditional Mexican dress. What cemented his fame, though, was Kwan's series of films as the character "Wong Fei Hong," which delivered messages of anti-corruption to the common man in the 1950s.

It was around this time that, Yang's film explains, American Chinatown cinemas such as the Grandview and the Verdi in San Francisco became de facto ethnic news services where actors read out the latest from the newly divided home country.

Yang, who was reared in Hong Kong, spent years in the U.S. and now lives in Beijing, won an Oscar in 2007 for her short subject documentary about China's AIDS villages, "The Blood of Yingzhou District."

At the screening of "A Moment of Time," Yang said she was pleased to have worked this time on a film less likely to draw ire from the establishment in Beijing, where she and her "Yingzhou" partner Thomas Lennon have produced AIDS awareness public service announcements. "I'm happy this one is not controversial," she said.

Yet Yang and Yam both said the new film will not likely see air time in China because communist party censors might not like the bit about American Chinatowns being "Kuomintang bastions" -- a reference to the party of the Chinese nationalists who fled China for Taiwan in 1949.

"A Moment in Time" will air in the United States during Asian Pacific Heritage Month, in May 2010, on the Public Broadcasting System, at least in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, Yang said.

More than half of the film's budget of $200,000 came from the Center for Asian American Media, the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Council for the Humanities, the Creative Work Fund and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Much of it, Yang said, was spent on licensing rights to archival film clips from outfits such as Celestial Pictures in Hong Kong, which charged up to $8,000 per minute.