Filmmaker Focuses on DC's Chinatown


February 3, 2013, Washington, DC: "Do you know who else you should meet?" I hear that a lot conducting interviews for Neighborhood Nomads, and I love it when people suggest others who have a story perfect for the blog. It's in that manner that one interview tends to lead to the next. It seems people who care deeply about their neighborhoods and have a positive outlook on their communities typically know other people who do too, whether they live next door or across the country.

That's precisely how I recently met Yi Chen, a filmmaker finishing her MFA at American University. Chen is completing a documentary focused on DC's Chinatown in time for next month's One City Film Festival, and she's spending the next few weeks raising money on Kickstarter to fund the remainder of the project. At Chinatown Coffee Co. on 5th and H St. NW, Chen told me more about how the film has bolstered her own sense of community and belonging as she pursues her passion thousands of miles away from her native Shanghai.

The Genesis of the Project: ""I grew up in Shanghai, but I've been living here since 2005. I started the project in the summer of 2011. I had an idea of doing a documentary about DC's Chinatown so I was doing some research and I came across an article in the Washington Post about the Wah Luck House. When I read it, I felt it was a perfect story and I wanted to get to know those residents more. The journalist put me in touch with the legal resource center that works with the Wah Luck House tenants' association."

"I was filming them for about a year and last fall I started editing. It took about six months. Now I'm working on post-production -- color processing, audio mixing and graphics -- to finish the film. That's what the Kickstarter effort is for, the post-production part."

The Setting: "DC Chinatown is definitely a unique Chinatown. It has less than 400 Chinese residents now. There's Verizon Center, Gallery Place, the Convention Center... if you come here on weekend nights, it feels like just a lot of young professionals in clubs and restaurants. It's definitely more commercialized than a lot of other Chinatowns. But there is still some authenticity left in the community, like the residents in the Wah Luck House, like the community center that offers martial arts classes. There are 18-20 Asian restaurants left in the neighborhood. It's small but there are people who care about community and are making efforts to preserve the authenticity here."

The Main Characters: "There are very few young people in Wah Luck House. It's an aging population; most are in their 70s. There are about 250 residents living in Wah Luck House. The reason they can afford to live here is that it's affordable housing. If it wasn't for that, it's hard to imagine that many Chinese residents could afford to live here. Most of them are first generation immigrants. Most of them don't speak English and they don't drive. For them, they like living in Chinatown. It provides an enclave after moving to another country. I feel like it's important to have a Chinatown for people like them. That's what motivated me to make this documentary. Before I started working on this documentary, I knew very little about the community. This is their neighborhood. They're really great people."

The Welcome Result: "The relationship I've developed with the community -- with the three characters, obviously, and the community as well -- I feel more connected to the Chinese American community, to the larger Asian American community in DC. That was something I didn't expect, but that came out of it. It's a sense of finding my own community in the city that I didn't have before, which is great. I've met so many people who care about the same things, who care about the community, and are supportive of the project."

The Conversation Starter: "It's playing at Our City Film Festival on March 10. I want to show it as many places as possible. Community screenings are really important to this documentary. I hope that the film could serve to engage people in conversations about this community and about issues like gentrification, affordable housing, not just in Chinatown, but city-wide. I'm working with some non-profit organizations to put together community screenings to show the film and engage more people in conversations that are relevant not just to this community, but to other communities in DC."

See Yi Chen's documentary next month at the Our City Film Festival at Atlas Performing Arts Center. 

Before that, watch the trailer and visit her Kickstarter page to pledge funds and help complete the project.

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Wah Luck House seniors, Photo Credit: Yi Chen

Credit: Yi Chen