Features

The Slow Rise of Asian Canadian Docs

From the back door to centre stage

Scenes from a Corner Store
Courtesy Sunny Yi


At a Toronto variety store, amid racks of candy, lottery tickets and cigarettes, a Korean couple battles their Canadian-born children. The father demands that his kids finish school, get married and start families. No exceptions. The children rail against his constant pressure, while outside the store they try to blend with their Canadian peers. They also feel burdened knowing that their folks are sacrificing so much to give them a better life. “There’s a distinct line between us and my dad,” laments a daughter.

This isn’t Kim’s Convenience, but Scenes from a Corner Store, Sun- Kyung (Sunny) Yi’s award-winning documentary from 1996 that pre-dates the CBC-TV series by 20 years. After being largely shut out of feature films and TV series, Asian-Canadian filmmakers have sneaked in through the back door of documentaries.

“Obviously, fiction/TV series demand a much bigger budget with a more complex financing structure,” explains Yi, who runs the Documentary Filmmaking Institute at Toronto’s Seneca College. Given the star system, adds Vancouver’s Julia Kwan, “there are still no Asian Canadian/American actors who are considered ‘bankable’ as dramatic/comedic leads in films. In contrast, I don’t feel we are saddled at all with needing a white star attached to get a documentary made. There’s less of that commercially viable aspect.”

Victims and heroes

“The immigrant experience screams non-fiction,” says Carolyn Wong. “It’s about truth, sharing what happened to us.”

Segregation and exploitation are shameful chapters in Canadian history, and Asians have borne the brunt of them. Arts councils and other government funders stress auteur-driven films which, along with official multiculturalism, have encouraged the creation of personal docs and opened the door to telling Asian-Canadian history on screen.


Yin Yin/Jade Love from Carolyn Wong Films on Vimeo.

Wong’s Yin Yin/Jade Love (2002) is a Dickensian tale about her Chinese grandmother on her father’s side. Yin yin escaped her impoverished village by being sold to a Chinese family in Victoria as a servant, but was then married to an older man to bear children.
His other wife back in China couldn’t. (Two wives were common.) The Depression, discrimination and her husband’s cruelty forced Yin yin to return to China with their children. However, living with the first wife was unbearable, and the Japanese threatened to invade, so Yin yin moved back to Victoria. But she could afford to take only two of her four children, making an agonising “Sophie’s choice.”

Yin yin juggled jobs and bore even more children. Things worsened in 1962, when her husband moved his first wife and Yin yin’s two missing children into their house. Harrowing as it is, Yin yin’s story represents the experiences of many Chinese-Canadian women of her era.

Obachan’s Garden
Courtesy of the NFB

Linda Ohama takes us on a similar journey in Obachan’s Garden (2001), which profiles her 103-year-old Japanese-born grandmother. In Hiroshima, Asayo Murakami bore two children before her husband spirited them to Tokyo. Being a woman in Japan, Asayo was powerless to stop him. Asayo then moved to Canada to marry a Japanese-Canadian man after they mailed each other photos. Sadly, there was no chemistry and, refusing to stay with a man she didn’t love, Asayo left him, which was highly unusual for the time.

Asayo would go on to marry a man to her liking—a widower with two kids—and have eight children with him before Pearl Harbor. Like many Japanese Canadians, Asayo’s family was interned, their assets seized, and forced onto a sugar beet farm in Manitoba. After the war, they settled as farmers in Alberta. Ohama’s film peels back layer upon layer of her grandmother’s life and, by the end, we learn what happened to the children whom her first husband took to Tokyo.

Only through documentary could Wong and Ohama tell their tales faithfully. “Perhaps we feel the need to tell our stories in a more truthful way than fictionalised,” says Wong. “Because of the distorted depictions of our community created by non-Asian Canadians in fictional narratives, we want to set the record straight.”

Unwanted Soldiers
Courtesy of the NFB

Jari Osborne also employed the personal doc to uncover her family’s skeletons, but in Unwanted Soldiers she also tells a wider history lesson. Her 1999 Gemini-winner pays tribute to her grandfather, Alex Louie, who fought in World War II so that Canada would grant Chinese Canadians the vote. Louie also could not work for the government, become a doctor or attend university.

In the Shadow of Gold Mountain
Courtesy of the NFB

The same reason compelled Karen Cho’s grandfather to enlist, according to In the Shadow of Gold Mountain (1990). The military service of these Chinese Canadians led, in 1947, to Ottawa repealing the Chinese Exclusion Act, Canada’s apartheid policy. However, the issue of the Chinese Head Tax remained for decades. In 1923, Cho’s Chinese grandfather paid $500 [$7,100 today] just to enter Canada, while Europeans freely settled. A sixth-generation Canadian of mixed European/Chinese heritage, Cho travelled from Montreal to Vancouver to gather stories from the last survivors of the tax.

Similarly, Montreal’s William Ging Wee Dere with co-director Malcolm Guy explored his family roots in 1993’s Moving the Mountain. His doc goes as far back as the 1850s to the first Chinese who panned for gold in the Fraser River Valley then toiled for pennies to build the national railroad. Once the last spike was driven, Canada imposed the head tax in 1885. Both documentaries fuelled the campaign for redress that happened in 2006. Moreover, these films preserve the memories of the early Chinese immigrants for posterity.

Continuous Journey
Courtesy of the NFB

Sadly, the veterans onboard the Komagata Maru in 1914 received a bloodier fate. Ali Kazimi’s powerful Continuous Journey (2004) tells the story of a ship carrying 376 Indian immigrants to Vancouver Harbour. Many had served in the British Indian Army and they believed, as English subjects, they had the right to settle anywhere in the Empire. However, Indians faced an obscure policy dictating that no immigrant could enter Canada if they stopped anywhere during their travel from their origin country. The problem is that all commercial ships stopped either in Japan or Hawaii on their way to Canada from India.

Gurdit Singh, a Sikh entrepreneur, hired a private vessel to challenge this law. When the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, Canadian authorities forbade anyone from leaving the ship for two months, nearly starving the passengers. In the end, only 24 were allowed to disembark. The rest were forced to return to India where police tried to arrest Singh and other leaders for being radicals. A riot erupted and 19 died.

There were victims like the ones on the Komagata Maru, but also heroes, including the subjects of Jari Osborne’s Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story (2003). The Tigers were the champs of the Pacific Northwest until they lost everything and were herded into internment camps after Pearl Harbor. Within the barbed wire, though, the Tigers played with such exuberance that the white locals and even RCMP officials joined them, temporarily breaking down racial barriers. After the war, these Asians would once again be treated as Canadian citizens.

Everything Will Be
Courtesy of the NFB

The second wave

The first wave of Asian-Canadian docs, which started in the 1990s, told history through 1947, when anti-Asian segregation finally ended. Once that foundation was built, a second wave emerged. These filmmakers address contemporary issues including the generation gap, assimilation and the global diaspora.

Ironically, Canadian funders support these films, but elder Asian-Canadians do not. “Many immigrant parents encourage their children towards more traditional, stable career paths,” explains Sunny Yi. “While the Asian community has a long history in Canada, documentary filmmaking as a career choice is relatively new.”

Defying her community, Yi became a journalist and then a documentarian with Scenes from a Corner Store. Expecting his daughters to graduate university, make money, get married to a Korean man and have babies, Mr. Bak in Yi’s film represents the typical old-world Asian parent dictating his values to his new-world kids. Bak sees it as his paternal duty to sacrifice for his children and, in return, expects them to do what he says. Naturally, his girls resisted despite their underlying love for their father and mother. Yi’s film was important because it looked at Asians in Canada today. The only other Canadian film (or TV series) to feature a contemporary Asian family (and with precisely that dilemma) was Mina Shum’s fine 1994 feature, Double Happiness.

Assimilating into Canadian (read: white) society inevitably meant inter-marriage, especially for the Japanese. In 2005, Kelowna’s Jeff Chiba Stearns explored his confusion over his Japanese-Scottish ancestry with the short animated doc, What Are You Anyways? Five years later, Stearns widened his scope by observing how everyone in his extended family had married white people.

“I strongly believe that in order to progress through life we have to be constantly questioning who we are,” explains Stearns, “and how identity plays a huge role in that, especially if you’re mixed. I do kind of feel obligated to tell stories with a multi-ethnic subject because there’s so few of us doing it.”


"What Are You Anyways?" from Meditating Bunny Studio Inc. on Vimeo.

As Asian-Canadian families evolve, so do their physical communities. Julia Kwan’s Everything Will Be is a poignant observational doc showing how gentrification has transformed Vancouver’s once-homogenous, working-class Chinatown. “The more recent Chinese immigrants from mainland China rarely frequented Vancouver’s Chinatown and found the neighbourhood unsanitary and out of touch,” Kwan explains. Her 2014 film could easily be about Toronto, where the Chinese are moving up in Canadian society and moving away from their old communities. “The vitality of Vancouver’s Chinatown suffered from the satellite Chinatowns in the lower Mainland, mainly Richmond,” explains Kwan.

I doubt that a non-Chinese filmmaker could have made Everything Will Be with the same intimacy or understanding. During research, Kwan discovered that a Chinese society was offended by Michael Cimino filming the framed portraits of its founders and implying that they were New York mafia heads in his trashy gangster film, Year of the Dragon (1985).

Everything Will Be, Julia Kwan, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

“We bring unique perspectives to our stories,” says Toronto’s Lalita Krishna. “It’s an insider view, not the stereotypical one, communicated in a language that all Canadians can understand.” That inside access helped Krishna make her recent Listen to Me, which tackles domestic violence and forced marriage in Canada’s South Asian community. Though discussed in mainstream Canada, these remain taboo subjects to South Asians. The film’s subject, Farrah Khan, is an unrelenting advocate for young women battling domestic violence, empowering them through rap, photography and cartooning.

An altogether different hero is Tiger Jeet Singh of Krishna’s Tiger! (2005). Singh was a wrestling star for decades in, of all places, Japan, while becoming a wealthy grandfather in small-town Ontario. The film documents a match he fought when he was nearly 60, almost twice the age of his opponent. “Tiger breaks many stereotypes,” says Krishna. “There aren’t many South Asian pro wrestlers…who were Canadian icons in the wrestling world.”

Nor many acrobats and magicians. That’s precisely what Ann Marie Fleming captured in 2003’s The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. Infused with dazzling animation, her documentary tells the colourful life of her great-grandfather who grew up in northeast China, a hotbed of acrobats, and became a star in early-20th-century America, once opening for the Marx Brothers. Long Tack Sam’s life takes the viewer on a wild ride through the first half of that century and memorialises an artist who succeeded against systemic odds.

Sam’s and Singh’s lives are rags-to-riches stories like Jim Kook’s. Using a dead man’s I.D., Kook outwitted the Chinese Exclusion Act to open a cafe in the Prairie town of Outlook, Saskatchewan. A gregarious fellow, he thrived for four decades and became the town’s most beloved citizen. Kook’s story is part of Cheuk Kwan’s self-financed 15-part series Chinese Restaurants. Kwan visited Chinese restaurants around the world and, in doing so, told the history of the Chinese diaspora, from Saskatchewan to South Africa.

The Defector
Courtesy Ann Shin


Like Chinese Restaurants, Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her (2012), about beauty pageants and terrorists in India; Ann Shin’s The Defector: Escape from North Korea (2012), about people escaping Kim Jong-un through China; Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (2009) about migrant workers in China returning home for the New Year; and Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2007) about China’s Three Gorges Dam, look outside Canada but bring Canadian values to their films. So does Tiffany Hsiung’s The Apology (2016), which tackles a taboo subject in Asia: comfort women. These were the approximately 200,000 sex slaves whom Japanese soldiers kidnapped and tortured from Korea, China and across Asia during World War II. Hsiung’s film profiles three aging survivors seeking official redress from Japan before they die.

These films scored international acclaim and strengthened Canada’s reputation for documentary, ironically by examining subjects beyond our borders. In two decades, Asian-Canadian docs have come full circle. These filmmakers began by telling historical stories of immigrating to Canada, but have literally returned to their ancestral homes.

The Apology
Courtesy of the NFB

The next frontier

What is an Asian-Canadian documentarian now?

Many Asian Canadians have also made docs outside their culture. Toronto’s Min-Sook Lee has directed films about Austrians fighting Nazis (The Real Inglorious Bastards, 2012) and exploited farm workers (Migrant Dreams, 2016). In addition to her fictional features, Vancouver’s Mina Shum helmed 2015’s Ninth Floor, about a 1969 student occupation to protest racism against blacks at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University. From Toronto, Rama Rau’s League of Exotique Dancers explores the world of vintage burlesque dancers.

Today, Asian-Canadian documentarians are simply Canadian doc makers, who make films that excite them regardless of where the creative lightning strikes. “I don’t feel obligated to tell the stories of ‘my community,’ ‘my people,’” says Sunny Yi. “I feel obligated to tell stories that I think are worth exploring—and that starts with a question, a personal question, that I want to find answers to. Simple and complicated as that.”