The sights, sounds, and (almost) smells of Vancouver’s Chinatown are captured beautifully in Julia Kwan’s Everything Will Be, which screens three times at the Vancouver International Film Festival (September 29 and October 1 and 3). Throughout North America, the notion of Chinatown has a physical distinction that sets it apart from the various Little Italys and Portuguese Towns, even when these ethnic enclaves overlap each other.
“One thing that seems to connect all these places,” Kwan says of various Chinatowns by phone from her East Vancouver home, “is that they’re built on a human scale, reflecting the styles of China—even down to specific villages in China.”
Kwan, born in B.C. to parents who moved here from the Toisan region, studied film and psychology at Toronto’s Ryerson University before committing to her peripatetic lifestyle. She became known on the festival circuit for such exquisite shorts as “Three Sisters on Moon Lake”, made during her residency at the Canadian Film Centre, and “Blossom”, a more recent venture into animation.
Her first feature, 2005’s Eve and the Fire Horse, was a lyrically comic evocation of growing up Chinese in Vancouver; over the next two years, it won major kudos abroad, including a grand jury prize at Sundance, and the coveted Jutra Award at home, for best new Canadian filmmaker.
Kwan continued to develop feature projects but was distracted by an invitation from the National Film Board to make a documentary about Vancouver’s Chinatown. Remarkably, she had never done nonfiction, and that, apparently, was what sold NFB producer David Christensen on Kwan directing the doc. What her films all have in common is a strongly autobiographical centre and a palpable connection to Chinese heritage.
“When I was 13 or 14,” she recalls, “I had to take the bus to Chinatown on weekends, and I remember dodging drunks on the way to meet my parents at work. But it was a matter-of-fact thing. I also remember enjoying the vibrancy of that subculture. Everything my mom needed was right there, one reason she never really learned to speak English. All the resources they needed were there, and it was a real experience, from the bright colours and music to the steam buns, of course.”
Kwan’s older sister temporarily pushed a dim sum cart at the original Ho Ho restaurant on Pender Street (not to be confused with the Ho Inn across the road), where their dad was the head waiter for many years. The filmmaker hoped to capture that insider perspective.
“It’s an observational, immersive documentary, inspired by [U.S. documentarian] Frederick Wiseman, so I spent long stretches down there with my DOP [cinematographer], Patrick McLaughlin, just walking around. I’m used to working in fiction, where writing is the discovery. In documentary, all discovery is in the moment. So it meant letting go of the control I’m used to. For me, it became a time capsule of a particular place on the cusp of significant change. But it doesn’t really comment on that change, because you see it through the eyes of the people who live and work there—like sitting on a stoop in Chinatown and watching the world pass by.”
That effect wasn’t easy to achieve.
“At first, people weren’t really that open to be part of it,” she says. “They work six days a week and don’t want that interrupted. Plus, my Cantonese is highly suspect,” she adds with a laugh. “So I had a researcher and translator with me most of the time. Overall, I found I gravitated to the elderly, who reminded me of my parents—who are ailing now—and people I grew up with.”
The locals include the ancient Keefer Street newspaper seller known to her only as Granny Kwan, no relation. The turning point was finding Daniel Lee, who’s been a security guard in the area for 20 years. Kwan says that Lee acted as “glue” among people leery of film crews.
“Some wanted us to pay, thinking we were from Hollywood. Others were wary because back in the 1980s, movies like Year of the Dragon turned upstanding society members into Mafiosi.” (There’s also that whole Jack Nicholson–Roman Polanski thing.)
Another challenge was getting into the ancient May Wah Hotel, where seniors play mahjong and sing songs from long ago “like they’re out of a Wong Kar-wai movie”, as the director puts it. Her personal nostalgia was provoked, more harshly, when the project began.
“Within the first two blocks, it was clear that all these places from my childhood were gone. Chinatown is in danger of being turned into a museum, and all these memories are going fast. I realized, during the process, that I was part of the problem—that I had started to think that Chinese food is better in Richmond!”
Certainly, her movie raises valuable questions about who will be the custodians of history—and of continued vitality—for these fading, red-and-gold remnants of the 20th century.
“The film makes you do some work, and the issues are very nuanced,” she insists. “There are no villains. It’s about advocating for these people, especially the elderly Chinese, who we normally don’t hear from.”
The movie’s somewhat cryptic title, she says, is a play on a neon installation by British conceptual artist Martin Creed, which reads: “Everything Is Going To Be Alright.” The sign overlooks the neighbourhood from the top of condo marketer and art collector Bob Rennie’s museum.
“Using Everything Will Be Alright as the title would seem overly optimistic, or could come across as ironic. For me, Everything Will Be is more apt, because it conveys a Zen simplicity and acceptance that reflects the views of some elders in the community.”
Currently, the writer-director is widening her narrative net to work on a feature about a Japanese couple who travel to northern B.C. on mysterious family business. So her taste for fiction is still flaring. When the Georgia Straight spoke to Kwan eight years ago, about the commercial release of her first feature, she talked about her journal-keeping childhood and the fact that she buried her notebooks in the yard—for the sake of secrecy or posterity, she’s not sure.
Today, she says, “I never found even one scrapbook later on. Maybe somebody else dug those up. It’s interesting, because years ago my parents found a history of the Kwans, and our founder—30 generations ago—was a right-hand man of an emperor of the Sung Dynasty and the chief keeper of its history. I guess I’m carrying on the tradition as a storyteller. But apparently, he was the lone historian among the Kwans. All the rest were farmers.”
Everything Will Be screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 29 (9 p.m.) and October 1 (11 a.m.) at SFU Woodward’s, and on October 3 (10:30 a.m.) at International Village.