Asian American Spotlight - Crystal Kwok
February 28, 2021
• Posted in

Crystal is an award-winning filmmaker who established her career in Hong Kong as an actress, writer, director, and talk show host. She won the audience choice awards at the 2000 Deauville Asian Film Festival for her debut feature length film, “The Mistress.” She was commissioned by Canal Plus to document “A Day in the Life of Jackie Chan” as part of the centennial celebration of international directors and has created and produced a bilingual edutainment video series for young children. As a strong women’s advocate, her talk show on Cable TV and RTHK Radio3,“Kwoktalk” broke boundaries in Hong Kong with conversations about women and sexuality.

Having moved back to American soil after being overseas for a couple of decades, Kwok now embraces issues closer to home — that of her Asian-American heritage. Kwok is currently a PhD student at the University of Hawaii in Performance Studies and a recipient of the prestigious East West Center Scholar awards. She also hosts a radio talk show and podcast addressing racial and gender issues with a multicultural perspective.

What led to you creating your documentary, “Blurring the Color Line: Chinese in the Segregated South”?

I always had a strong relationship with my grandmother. I was always fascinated by her story of growing up in Georgia in the 1930s and running away from her family at the age of 18. I wondered what contributed to that bold and daring decision and how she had the means to break all the restrictions she had in her life. What proper Chinese girl runs away in the middle of the black neighborhood at the height of Jim Crow? This was a good story!

At first, I had the idea to do a feature narrative film, a story about my grandmother running away in the Deep South. I realized quickly that I needed more historical knowledge about America’s racial past and felt compelled to connect our Chinese American experience with this era’s intense history of segregation. So, I decided to go back to school and start my PhD program in Performance Studies where I could examine how race and gender perform in context to my grandmother’s story. I had to make sense for myself what kind of world my grandmother grew up in, so that I could really understand her story. This is how I decided to do a documentary first.

How much did you need to study about Asian American history as well?

Yes, there is so much I needed to learn. On one hand, I am weaving in Black history during the Jim Crow South; on the other, I needed to set up the backdrop of Chinese American history, of the immigration experience, the legal issues, and “paper sons” that affected my grandmother’s family. Discovering archives that include the actual boat ticket my relatives took from Hong Kong to SF makes it all so real and connected. I also dug into readings about Chinese women in the 1930s to give context to how Chinese families maintained the patriarchal, Confucian values within their family.

I am learning so much from this. There is a well-known Asian-American author who just passed away, Judy Yung, who wrote a book called Unbound Feet that was quite influential in my research about Chinese women coming to the US. The title says it all -- the sense of freedom Chinese women had when they arrived in this country -- but there were still the challenges and invisible restrictions due to the traditional Chinese patriarchal system that I wanted to address. I ask who had control over the women’s bodies.

I find “Asian American” Studies problematic because we need to look at it in connection to origins and back stories and larger intersectional elements. Asian American history by definition should not be limited by the American experience. It is connected to Asian history, transnational history, and we can’t separate the two, just like we must connect Asian American history to Black history. This is the point of my film, to blur these racial narratives.

Who are the main characters in your documentary?

Rather than reinforce the dominant narrative from the traditional Chinese male perspective, I chose instead to tell the intimate, private stories of my Chinese grandmother and her sisters to offer a different look into our past and enrich our understanding of the Asian American experience. Not to sound sexist, girls remember things differently. Women’s stories offer an alternative history that can deepen our perspective. Learning about how these young ladies snuck out is fun and relatable for all of those who have memories of defying strict controlling parents.

Access to these stories was limited by the fact that only a few of my relatives were still living when I conducted my research. Over the past year, three of my relatives, including my grandmother, have passed away. I was very fortunate to capture some of these precious archival interviews. But then there is the issue of memory. My grandma had pretty severe dementia and her siblings were all over 90 when I interviewed them. How does memory play into our preservation of the past? This is another layer of the “blur” that I like to explore in my film. We tend to take history for face value but don’t think about how it was framed.

A big intention was to bridge the two communities so some of the characters are those who patronized the Chinese grocery stores while others worked as errand boys. Their memories offered a unique lens in revealing how the Chinese situated themselves away from black people. This is where it gets tricky: Whose story do I tell?

What was life like for the Chinese in Augusta during that time?

Unlike Black people during segregation, the Chinese in Augusta were allowed to attend white schools and drink from the “whites only” water fountains. However, there were usually just a few token Chinese in each class, and hardly anyone had close white friends. My cousin remembers having a best buddy in junior high who was black. She was told to defriend her.

The Chinese were seen as hard-working and comparatively privileged. Some kids were chauffeured by parents to school every day and lived very sheltered lives. In general, they were not allowed by their parents to play outside with the black kids in the neighborhood. A couple of stories proved otherwise and that relationship became a determining factor during the playing out of the 1970 Augusta race riot that basically destroyed the livelihood of the Chinese community, consequently ending the grocery store era.

Socially, the Chinese worked hard and kept to themselves with very little mixing with whites or Blacks. Their entire social world consisted of the families that owned and worked in the 40+Chinese grocery stores. They centered their social life around the Chinese Benevolent Association in Augusta and Sunday school. As my grand aunt said, “We would just eat, sleep and work.” Their whole world and lifestyle revolved around Chinese culture, eating only Chinese food and using only chopsticks. They lived in this bubble of Chinese culture and only spoke Chinese. After regular American school, they went to Chinese school. That’s what I did too, growing up in SF!

My grandmother's family was very strict with strong adherence to familial duty, obedience and traditions. When a girl reached the appropriate age to be married, her parents would arrange a suitable Chinese husband, whether she liked it or not. “Happiness has nothing to do with it,” according to my aunt. Marriage was a duty, and daughters were expected to respect and obey. You didn’t question anything. When I asked my aunt if she ever loved her husband, she answered “No!” even before I finished asking the question.

How did the different racial groups interact within the community at that time?

The Chinese knew that they were treated better than the Blacks, but not quite equal to the whites. There was a clear social hierarchy that existed in Augusta in the 1920s and 1930s where the Chinese were in the blurry middle. Despite not being fully accepted, Chinese were allowed to participate selectively in schools and other parts of American society that were restricted for Black people.

The Chinese interacted with the Black communities for commercial reasons but remained quite isolated socially. Chinese storekeepers were very pleasant and kept a professional, transactional relationship with their primarily Black customers. The shopkeepers created a credit system (common in the South) where customers could pick up groceries as needed, and pay at the end of the month after they received their paychecks. The informal system was based on trust, and it worked. Nobody really took unfair advantage of it. I think the Black community was very grateful for this service but also recognized the power of the Chinese shop owners.

It’s hard to generalize what the relationships were like because my research informed me of some cases where inter-racial romances existed but the Chinese preferred not to talk about it. These shameful attitudes reveal the troubling and discriminating belief systems the Chinese had that was based on a white central power.

What are racial relations like now in Augusta for the Chinese community?

The primary interactions between the Chinese and white communities are through the churches. When I asked a white preacher’s wife in Augusta on how she felt about the Chinese in their congregation, she told me enthusiastically, “We just love them and embrace them!” The whites treated the Chinese as a group rather than as individuals, as objects of affection. To be accepted by the white community and maintain their position in the racial hierarchy, the Chinese felt pressure to not “rock the boat.” I’m not sure it’s so different today even though we don’t care to admit it.

One of the most interesting discoveries from my research was to learn that I had a Black cousin, whom I had never even heard about. My grandmother’s sister’s daughter married a Black man from Mississippi. My daughter and I drove from Georgia to Mississippi to meet my cousin and her children. They had troubling things to say about how they were treated by their “racist” grandparents.

As a part of the Chinese community, I admit we still have a long way to go in understanding Black history and culture. When asked about how he felt towards Black people in his community, one of my relatives answered matter of factly that he would not be very comfortable inviting a Black person into his own home. A significant purpose of this film is to have these uncomfortable conversations, where African American and Asian American communities can openly discuss these topics together, so that we can reach towards racial harmony and dismantle any discriminating sentiments.

How did Black Lives Matter change the course or direction of your documentary?

When the Black Lives Matters movement erupted last year, it had a dramatic impact on society overall, forcing us to reckon with black oppression. It deeply affected my project. I had to rethink my responsibility as a Chinese American in addressing very sensitive issues related to the Black experience. I needed to learn the right way to discuss these topics in a way that is conscientious to the movement while not taking away from my original story. I sourced a creative consultant to help me craft my narrative so that I could address race relations in a way that was not just more socially responsible but more critically thought out.

What has been the reaction thus far to the initial showings for your documentary?

When I first presented to the Asian community in Augusta, there was silence in the audience. One older Chinese community member blurted, “Your approach is all wrong.” He was referring to the success and contribution stories of the Asian American community I should be high lighting, the doctors, the soldiers, etc. But that’s not my story! I like to dig where I am not supposed to be looking to find the more interesting untold stories. I like my woman’s angle andI like knowing that I am disrupting the dominant narrative.

As for the response from the Black community, they were so excited to share the many fond memories about the Chinese run stores that connected them to their childhood. Sometimes I questioned whether they were just saying nice things because I am Chinese. The very process of making this film has been a race-relation story in itself. I love sharing this project because it triggers much discussion on so many issues. It raises many important questions we need to address. One time a group got into a heated debate over the racial implications of the term, “Hak Gwai” (黑鬼). So much to unpack!

Where are you with the documentary now?

We have a strong rough cut and are close to finishing as long as we can source enough funding. We are working on developing original music and animation. Our animation blends archival photos with beautiful, brushwork style that fuses Eastern and Western concepts. We have a really cool team of girls who are putting together an original soundscape with influences of taiko drumming and historical Chinese music. “Blurring the Color Line” will be a feature length documentary. We are fortunate to be supported by CAAM (Center for Asian American Media).In addition to releasing on a public media platform, the vision is to do an extensive film festival circuit, launch an incredible impact campaign, and reach classrooms and communities so that we can all collectively be a part of a transformative justice that is long overdue.

The film is also supported by the non-profit, WMM (Women Make Movies).

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