In Chinatown: An Interview with Director Stephanie Chong

Continuing our partnership with STORYHIVE, a platform which supports BC and Alberta-based creators, we interviewed first-time director Stephanie Chong about her fantastic short documentary series, In Chinatown. The films present portraits of various Chinatown residents each offering a different perspective on a rapidly changing neighbourhood in Vancouver.

Jeff Hamada: What were you like as a kid? Tell me about young Stephanie Chong.

Stephanie Chong: If I could capture my childhood in a photo, this would be it. I was mostly head – always on the verge of tipping over and I didn’t shut up. I loved fried chicken, my hair was insane and I always asked ‘why?’ At least that’s what my older siblings tell me. I’m the youngest of 5, significantly younger — all my siblings are about 20-years older so I spent a lot of time with grown-ups. I feel like I was born an adult and have been slowly regressing ever since.

Director Stephanie Chong out front of Ai & Om, a knife shop in Chinatown

JH: What do you remember of Chinatown from back then?

SC: I remember catching the #7 bus with my grandparents down to Chinatown. I’d follow them store to store as they shopped for produce, and stopped by the fishmonger and butcher. We’d eat wonton mein at a place on Pender and occasionally stop by their association building. And word on the street was I was a pretty cute kid, so I’d get a lot of treats — little bags of cookies from cashiers, a piece of cha siu from the butcher. Those experiences stuck with me. To this day, I still believe nothing is better than free meat!

JH: I’m gonna make a huge assumption that since you’re a writer, you also enjoy reading. What were some of the books you read as a teenager that have stuck with you?

SC: I read a lot of trash when I was younger haha, most of which has not stuck with me. And it just dawned on me; those reading choices may have played a role in my current career ha! (I work in reality tv)

There is one book though that left a lasting impression. When I was about 12 I read Joy Luck Club. It was the first time I read a book that actually reflected experiences of my family. I think at the time I just thought it was cool and that was it, but now, decades later, I understand how important it was for me as a Chinese kid growing up North America to read that book — to be able to culturally identify with a story.

In Chinatown cinematographer Jeremy Cox snaps a mobile photo of Stephanie at the Chinese Community Library Services Association

JH: At what point did you get interested in journalism?

SC: Growing up, watching the 6 o’clock news with my family was part of our evening routine. Every night I’d see strong, intelligent Asian women either reporting or anchoring the news. Later in life I’d realize those strong Asian women were in my family all along, but as a child, I looked to the TV for guidance. I didn’t decide my career path at 5, but in hindsight, I recognize that as a kid, seeing faces that looked like mine on the TV meant something – it showed me possibilities. While my parents were working, and my older siblings were at school or work, my grandparents took care of me. They didn’t speak English so I had the television to entertain and educate me. I joke a lot that I was in part raised by a TV haha! So since childhood, I was all about TV and News. Journalism just made sense.

JH: You mentioned your day job is writing reality tv! I’m fascinated by this, can you elaborate on what that means exactly? And how did you get into it?

SC: During Journalism school I quickly realized I had no desire to work in news. But I did an internship with the BBC in London working on an arts and culture documentary series and was immediately hooked — forget cramming a story into 2-minutes, long form storytelling was for me.

Coming back to Vancouver was a reality check. We don’t have the BBC and its enormous budgets dedicated to documentary programming, and with it of course, the associated jobs. I think it’s safe to say it’s almost impossible to make a living being a documentary filmmaker here. I’m sure there are some unicorns in Canada that can make a living being documentarians, but they’re probably far more talented and hustle way harder than me!

One thing we do have in Vancouver is a relatively small but robust factual TV industry. That’s the polite way of describing reality TV — what I endearingly call the bastard cousin of documentary!

Following Journalism school, I cobbled together piecemeal work on a scripted film and some independent documentaries when a friend of a friend told me about a coordinator position on an HGTV show. I applied, got the job and have been working in reality TV ever since. I’m currently a reality TV writer — the most oxymoronic job title in existence. I guess the easiest way to describe what I do is I write with footage that’s been shot, essentially telling a story using someone else’s words. All joking aside though, I genuinely enjoy what I do. The thousands of hours working on someone else’s shows, telling other people’s stories, prepared me and gave me the skills I needed to make In Chinatown.

Director Stephanie Chong and cinematographer Jeremy Cox

JH: Did you write the episode of Untold Stories of the ER where the lady got stuck in her toilet for 18 hours!

SC: I wish haha! Unfortunately, I didn’t but I wrote an episode where a man arrives in the ER with a stiletto heel stuck in his chest after being stabbed by a woman he jilted, and one where a guy shows up at the hospital after having an erection for two days. I also wrote a few scripts for Sex Sent me to the ER. Me from 5-years ago thought that was pretty cool, but now I’m a mother so I’m not sure if I should be proud or mortified.

JH: I know In Chinatown was something you and your husband Bryce talked about for 10 years, what was the initial seed of the idea?

SC: It was about 10-years ago we started noticing the changes in Chinatown accelerating. There were a number of advertisements for new condo developments, the first of many new coffee shops started opening up. Don’t get me wrong, there are few things I enjoy more than overpriced coffee. But while we were sipping our $5 dollar coffees under a pair of moose antlers, we couldn’t help but feel weirdly guilty, which led to many conversations about how we felt about the neighbourhood changing. Which then led to talk on a more personal level about our own connections to the neighbourhood and our cultural identity and heritage. We were simultaneously lamenting the loss of a Chinatown we remembered but also enjoying some of the new changes. And therein lies the conflict — and the basis for what we thought was a good story and documentary idea.

It was basically 10 years of talk until I told my friend and co-worker (and eventual series producer), Jean Parsons, about the idea. She really believed in the project (believed in me enough), had experience doing her own documentaries and was instrumental in making this 10-year old coffee talk into In Chinatown. She lit the fire under my butt — none of this would have been possible without her.

In Chinatown – Ep1 – Fook – Luck, Health & Happiness

JH: In what ways did it shift and change from what you originally wanted to make?

SC: I think the nature of the creative process itself is continually shifting and changing, especially in documentary filmmaking. Of course I had an initial vision for what I thought it would and could be, but when you’re filming something that’s unscripted there are so many unknown variables at play. Of course we could prepare and set up shots but we wanted to capture life in the neighbourhood happening and you can’t always plan for that.

For me, the perfect documentary film is a delicate balance of actuality, insightful interview and a distinct visual style. Achieving that balance is difficult, I now have first hand experience! You want to be prepared, but over planning stifles spontaneity and what gives a doc narrative life and heart is the unexpected and unplanned moments showing authentic interaction and reaction. We tried our best to strike that balance.

We wanted In Chinatown to be a conversation about culture and community in the midst of change, and more specifically, as that all relates to the concept of home — as a feeling, and a physical place, and all from the point of view of our contributors. It was a lot to tackle, but I think we accomplished what we set out to do.

Walking past Bamboo Village Trading Company


JH: There are several points of view represented in the series, residents, an old shopkeeper, a younger entrepreneur — which did you identify with the most?

SC: It’s a cop out but I can identify with all the characters on some level. I see my teenage self in the young resident. The older resident reminds me a lot of my own Poh Poh (grandmother) and I can only hope I end up half as awesome as she is at 90-years old. When I met the old shopkeeper I couldn’t stop thinking about the grocery/corner store my parents ran. And if I decided to open a business, I can see myself as the young entrepreneur. When we were casting it made sense I would be drawn to people that I could identify with. Telling their stories was a way of telling my own without actually being in it.

Stephanie's daughter, Logan
Bamboo Village Trading Company owner, Keller, and Stephanie

JH: Were there other stories that you shot and cut out?

SC: The stories center on each individual character so there weren’t any stories we left out so much as a lot of great moments we couldn’t include. It’s crazy how 12-minutes can seem both long and short at the same time!

Also the themes we wanted to explore — culture and community in the midst of change — these are really broad topics that encompass more specific ideas we would have loved to discuss in greater detail but weren’t able to. Maybe we save all that good stuff for a feature length cut!

JH: Can you talk a bit about the vision that you and cinematographer Jeremy Cox had for the series?

SC: I knew I wanted to make something that looked and felt completely different from the shows I usually work on. But while Jeremy comes from scripted and shoots stuff that’s mind-blowingly beautiful and framed impeccably — I come from reality TV. So as you can imagine there is a bit of a disconnect haha. I didn’t go to film school or read a lot of trade pieces so I’m not fluent in the film viz language. I just needed to find a way to communicate to Jeremy what I envisioned in a way we both understood.

So aside from saying I wanted it rich and subdued but lively and vibrant, like a combination of a Wong Kar Wai film and Atlanta. It was a lot of me describing to Jeremy how I wanted to feel and see a space with the characters, and then allowing him to interpret that. He would show me examples of work he thought reflected what I wanted. And that seemed to work for us.

I wanted to show Chinatown in a way I haven’t seen before. We talked a lot about highlighting textures and patterns that aren’t necessarily the focus when you think of Chinatown, using portraits as a snapshot in time for our contributors and the neighbourhood — extreme close-ups on action to create a sense of intimacy with our subjects and the spaces they occupy. But at the same time balancing the action and movement with locked wide shots where we’re allowed to sit and watch at a distance, fully taking in the size and detail of the frame.

It was such a privilege to film with our contributors. They opened up their lives, shared their stories and their intimate spaces with us. Jeremy did such an incredible job capturing it all and I can only hope we showed our contributors something new about their lives too.

JH: I loved the art direction — simple things like the titles and subtitles. What sort of direction did you give to Natalina, the graphic designer?

SC: We wanted the graphic design to be inspired by the richness and vibrancy of Chinatown but at the same time, not cross the line into caricature. How do you create something that is both familiar and new? I think that’s the hardest thing to do, and Natalina did an amazing job — respectful homage to the past, but also original and current.

"I just want everyone who’s seen In Chinatown to feel they’ve witnessed something honest."

JH: What do you want people to take away from In Chinatown?

SC: Chinatown is undergoing the same changes affecting the city of Vancouver at large. When you’re caught up in this whirlwind of rapid development, you often hear most from the people that talk the loudest and have the most to gain — not the unassuming 90-year old grandmother living in subsidized housing. The goal was to show different perspectives on Chinatown from the people that actually live and work there — voices you don’t hear enough from.

I’d be happy if it encourages more thoughtful conversations over $5 dollar coffees about culture, community and change. If you have a connection to the neighbourhood, I hope watching it feels like a hug from an old friend — different but familiar. And I just want everyone who’s seen In Chinatown to feel they’ve witnessed something honest.

JH: I usually end interviews with these two questions — what’s one thing you’d like to accomplish this next year? And one thing you’d like to accomplish in your lifetime?

SC: Such loaded questions! My husband and I had our first child this past year so I would like to continue keeping her alive while also getting another one of our doc ideas off the ground! A very tall order!

In my lifetime? Raise my daughter to be a good person, but a bit of an asshole. Do a feature length doc about my mom. Write a scripted coming of age feature where the main cast is Asian. And eventually retire — though unlikely. Oh and maybe read questions more carefully too. Bryce pointed out these are not “one thing.”

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