Saturday, November 05, 2016

Interview with Curtis Choy

Dear Readers,

Eddie here. When I first met Curtis Choy he was making his documentary on Frank Chin. That documentary of course is What's Wrong With Frank Chin? (Buy your copy here.) I found Curtis to be a highly opinionated and feisty individual. And yet, a great companion to have lunch with. As one of the pioneer Asian American filmmakers, I wanted to interview him for this blog, especially about WWWFC?. The views expressed are Curtis Choy's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Frank Chin's.

My questions in bold:

(Curtis Choy)

How are you doing? Any new projects in the works?

For an old man who has lifted too many heavy things during a career chockablock with lying liars, I'm doing okay. I can still walk and dodge cars full of texting assholes. No new projects are projected. I had people re-do my website so there'd be a functioning shopping cart - all of the interesting (to me) historical stuff, art, soundclips, etc. got discarded. I want to put that stuff up on a blog, but lack enthusiasm. I could use some young person's help. My last movie was a commissioned piece for UCLA "You! Young People!" (See www.childrenoftheatomicbomb.com).

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, like where you’re from?

I'll work on my obituary to answer this. You can look me up on imdb.com for the resumé created by producers.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background at least?

In the 1920s my father was born in a SF Chinatown sewing factory (later to become a union shop run by my grandmother). I was born in San Francisco and grew up in a 3-story flat purchased by my dad and his brothers on the GI Bill after WW2. I attended high school in Oakland during the civil rights and Black Panther/Vietnam War era, but didn't learn about Chinatown and the I-Hotel until going to San Francisco State in the new Ethnic Studies department. I started Chonk Moonhunter Productions to create films about Asian Amerika. By the mid70s I was already priced out of San Francisco and moved to the East Bay. I freelanced as a news cameraman, camera assistant, and soundman to support my filmmaking habit. I made a living as a soundperson for 18 years before moving to LA in search of long-form work. Okay, this is pretty sloppy as obituaries go, but I'm trying to answer your question.

I think it’s interesting your father was born here in the United States during the 1920s. What generation does that make you?

I am third generation. My father's parents were the immigrants.

What did you learn about race issues growing up in the Civil Rights era in the Bay area?

I knew nothing of race before 1964. My childhood was in the lower reaches of Nob Hill, over the hill from Chinatown. My parents discouraged my friendship with a black/white kid in the neighborhood because he was part black; I didn't understand it, and didn't comply, but we naturally went in different directions, so I 'obeyed' without any effort. I didn't recognize myself as Asian until college.

The Civil Rights movement was in full swing as I grew up in Oakland. I had liberal teachers in junior high and high school, and race relations were discussed a lot. Much of what I learned about blacks came from being with them in gym (although I was college-tracked, which also separated me from working class whites), and reading the Black Panther paper. I had one Chinese friend nerdier and smarter than me, but I considered the other yellows lame sellouts and I didn't bother to know them. Race was a black (and Chicano) issue, and re-education about the phrase "colored people" was happening.

You worked with people like Wayne Wang, John Schlesinger, Terry Zwigoff and Justin Lin. I noticed you worked with Wang and Lin before they directed these big budget feature films. Has it been a conscious choice to work with independent Asian American filmmakers? Or was that just coincidence?

I was primarily interested in doing documentaries. My name was getting passed around, and after 5 years of freelancing I realized that I was a professional soundperson. Others that preferred the glory of being movie directors hired me. I was pleased to have been a part of forwarding AA art, but was disappointed when those who got a boost in their careers from the community (and people like me) abandoned us (i.e., did not hire us for proper white-man wages) when they got big. It was a conscious choice to work at cut-rate instead of heading straight for Selloutville; "coincidence" was just right time/ right place/right skill set/and a more cooperative mindset.

Can you talk about that abandonment? Describe when you felt abandoned by an Asian American filmmaker.

Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and Scorsese employ the same people all the time, a fair exchange of loyalty for quality of work. When Wayne W and Justin Lin became 'successful' and in the money, they forgot who helped put them on the map. Below-the-line workers depend on their 'patronage' for employment. Not kissing their asses at every opportunity was probably not politically smart, but I considered them as 'equals' not better than me.

During a review of Joy Luck Club film dailies (I was not invited) where they check for technical faults and actor performances, the producer complained that I was not enough of an "LA prick on set", and therefore questioned my competence. The editor who witnessed this (before he got fired for political reasons) said that Wayne did not stick up for me. The post-sound people later sent me compliments, as they had to replace very little dialog track except for the rewritten words that weren't recorded on location.

What do you think of that designation "Asian American Filmmaker" (or "Asian American Movie", etc.)? Do you find it offensive?

I don't find it offensive, but think that "Asian American" doesn't mean anything anymore. It's been repurposed by too many people to push whatever agenda they have. I call myself "post-Asian American", but I don't reject the real gains we made when "Asian American" was fresh and pointed the way forward. We did not anticipate digitally short attention spans, surveillance everywhere, and nineteen different genders. All Asian American film festivals look the same, present the same tired stuff, and promote frivolity. When I hear "Asian American film", I think "Yeah, another project where everybody got paid badly again."

If anything, I find the future offensive: Chump or Hil-liar-y?

(Photo by Nancy Wong)

What got you interested in doing documentaries?

I was never a Hollywood narrative feature guy. In junior high, my older cousin took me to Berkeley to see these weird independent films (real indie, not Hollywood bullshit no-studio-money indie) made in 16mm by artists. I learned about cinema verité (Fred Wiseman, DA Pennebaker, the Maysles Bros.) and was fascinated by the process of fly-on-the-wall non-interventionist recording of reality (real reality, not fake TV manufactured reality). You respectfully trailed people until they forgot you were there and became themselves, unconscious of the camera. As I pursued a BA in Film, I fell into the burgeoning AA/Ethnic Studies scene, discovered our oral history, and began media work in Chinatown. I had a paid gig at CMC/CAA (the Chinese Media Committee of Chinese for Affirmative Action) where I oversaw the distribution of an ESL (English as a Second Language) TV (television) show called Sut Yung Ying Yee (SYYY) and wanted to foment revolution via guerilla video. I tried to get to Wounded Knee and record 'The People's' side of things, but wasn't allowed to bring the gear. Sorry for the acronyms, all .gov$ come saddled with them.

I noticed many of your documentaries have an Asian American theme to them. What made you want to explore the Asian American community?

I started out interested in the process of filmmaking. I began college after the State Strike and benefited from new courses offered by the newly-minted AAS Dept. The lack of modern published materials and the "1500 movies [Frank Chin's number]" that fostered wrong impressions about Asians gave me a mission. Here, I met Al Robles (who was auditing classes) who organized poetry readings I participated in (I was a 'writer' before veering fulltime into filmmaking), and introduced me to the International Hotel and Manilatown.

I think it's ironic that you worked on Joy Luck Club, yet at the same time we have your documentary "What's Wrong With Frank Chin?". Chin, of course, has been critical of Amy Tan (going as far as calling Tan a "fake" and “kissing white ass”). Did Chin ever give you any condemnation for working on Joy Luck Club?

The irony was not lost on me from Day One. I disliked the book, but read it twice preparing for the job. It was fairly big and a union job, but I hate how it portrayed Asian men. It would be expected that Frank would give me shit for participating, but he never brought it up. I like to think he's not considered me to be a sellout, and he did later give me carteblanche to make the movie about him.

Yeah, I really, really, really hate The Joy Luck Club. But I really, really, really liked how Frank called Amy Tan out on it, especially about the opening parable in the book about a duck that wanted to be a swan. "Ducks in the barnyard are not the subject of Chinese fairy tales, except as food," says Frank. Or, this idea that the Chinese woman's worth is measured by the "loudness of her husband's belch". Why do you think some contemporary Asian American authors are motivated to either make up falsehoods on Asian culture and Asian men?

To be fair, the movie made a ridiculous novel more coherent. It sucked majorly in its reinforcing of negative Asian male stereotypes and obvious feminist bullshit. I played my part as 'a professional', keeping my mouth shut and collecting my union overtime pay.

As to why they make this shit up, they know they have to cater to the fantasies of the moneybags to keep themselves in the green. They rationalize this as 'art' and 'creativity'; if they suffered fitting remorse and possessed any honor they'd have to commit suicide. Then who would carry their little dog in a purse?

You speak of masculinity. What, in your opinion, is masculinity in the Asian American context?

Oh, you ain't tricking me into that live animal trap! I will say that real manhood is non-misogynist, about being true to your word, not being a narcissistic metrosexual, observing the Golden Rule. Basically, old-school be-prepared Boy Scout stuff. I don't place masculinity in any Asian American context, as a real man should be fearless in the world without the shield and easy dismissal of any label.

From the time you started in the entertainment industry up until now, do you see things getting any better as far as racist images and stereotypes of Asian Americans go?

I predicted 'Glenn Rhee' on "The Walking Dead" was gonna get bumped off before getting laid (with a white girl, no less). I was wrong. So that's major progress. Before him, 'Khan' on "King of the Hill" was the only positive Asian male character on TV (and he wasn't real, just a literally cartoon character). For the most part, though, Asian males simply don't exist except as background. I expect this will change when anti-China BS ramps up after the onslaught of ISIS BS tapers off. Then Asian guys will get roles as Serious Bad Guys, as opposed to Comical Bad Guys.

So, let’s talk about your documentary “What’s Wrong With Frank Chin?” How did you come up with that title and what led you to make a film on Frank?

www.frankchin… when I started this project in 2000, the World Wide Web was taking off. I had to figure out what 'www' could be, and it didn't take long. It was a shame and travesty that a ditzy neo-sellout like Maxine would eclipse the Chinatown Cowboy in sales and popularity. I hoped that a documentary might help him sell more books. (My 1976 film "Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue" had the teachings of FC all through it.) I had no pre-conceived plan and began by shooting 20 hours of "Year of the Dragon" rehearsals in LA (ironically, at the David Henry Hwang theater), almost none of which made it into the final movie. My big discovery (and only publicly revealed through "WWWFC?") was his instigation of Days of Remembrance, which led to the Japanese American reparations movement.

Did you say 20 hours of footage?! How much footage did you leave out of the documentary?

Probably 70 hours. I shot a lot of play rehearsal over a week because I had just started and wasn't sure about what to do, and if the camera isn't running you're going to miss it. Rather than dabbing my toe in the water, I was jumping in. I didn't have particular and specific goals, but I did gain a better feel for what was 'real'. Hence the verité-style shot under existing light.

I think one of my favorite moments in WWWFC? was the salvo between Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston. I never knew they communicated with one another through letters. This is a gem for the Asian American community. How did you get those letters?

The original letters are in his files archived in Santa Barbara. I did the initial cataloging of umpteen crates and boxes of material and stumbled on them. I re-typed them ("Edited to fit your television") since they were in his usual format of carbon copy single-space/1/4" margins and I wanted the audience to be able to follow along with the text. Even his typos and x-outs are accurately reproduced. It was my subtle diss to not show any of her text, and showing obviously fake Chinese calligraphy with her voiceover.

WWWFC? begins with Frank causing quite a stir as a teacher in San Francisco State College, while staging various skits and plays for the Chinese American Resources Project. There was actually a clip of you in it. Was that where you first met Frank?

WWWFC? starts with him reading at a class in SoCal, I think UC Riverside, probably in the '90s. He was a guest lecturer in Jeff Chan's Culture & Lit class when I met him, probably Spring 1970. He started a guerilla theater group I was a part of, The CARP Players. We performed "Dear Lo Fahn Fan Gwai Whitey Honkey Honey Babe."

When you met Frank what was your impression of him?

He was tall, and showed up with a ponytail and cowboy boots. He was highly entertaining, and went straight to dissecting our nascent Asian American identity, boldly attacking the stereotypes. I had never heard anything that plausibly analytical about us. Everything in every media was all smiley kissass sellout - I sided with the scary Black Panthers and counted few Asians as friends before going to SFSC.

WWWFC? documented Frank’s falling out with the Asian American Theater Workshop due to his dominant and overbearing character (so it’s claimed). Have you had moments where Frank frustrated or angered you? Can you name an example?

He didn't fall out "due to his dominant and overbearing character". It was a power struggle and coup. He was 'fired' from his own theater. Leaderless, it would never again live up to its revolutionary nature. Frank has his way and rarely gets swayed. And maybe never considers that someone else may be more right about anything. Most geniuses are not nice people. I'm enough of an anarchist that I let others do what they will. What frustrates me is he will righteously paint himself into a corner and do nothing but irritate his supporters. We believe in his ideas but don't rely on him as a friend. He's always said that he doesn't want disciples and will not cultivate friendships. He has been true to his word.

(Photo by Nancy Wong)

Frank had a radical and brave vision for the Asian American Theater Workshop and for Asian American theater in general. What do you think may have happened had Frank stayed with AATW?

To be honest, I've never speculated on this. I know what happened and accept it as history. I wonder shit like "If Asian men were widely regarded as manly sex symbols and not to be trifled with, how would my life be different?" "How would it be if I was 4" taller?" (In Asia, I don't have to ask these questions.)

If Frank had continued with AATW, would he have run it into the ground? Would any of his actors wind up on Saturday Night Live? Would DHHwang have been eclipsed? Would Kingston not be getting awards for falsifying Chinese legends? Would Asian women be clocking white bitches for looking at Asian men? I can't really help you with this question.

You had a lot of snippets of Frank Chin’s life and literary and social views. You could have easily made each of these moments an hour-long or two-hour long documentary in of itself. Was it difficult editing this video down to about 97 minutes? Can you describe your editing process?

You have to choose what's important: what do people not know outside of his reputation? One could easily make a whole piece about Chin v. Kingston, real v. fake, etc. but that's already been argued about ad nauseum. I don't know him to be a sexist or misogynist or homophobe, but women commonly cite these bad traits as fact. I don't address this directly, but show you that he's had a long-term marriage, and hangs out with Russell Leong. What's difficult is the knowledge that you're reducing a man's life and work down to a short viewing span, and that every image and sound must be curated to show his essence and make up for the exclusion of everything else. I like to think that the style of the piece is a true reflection of him, the jazz and humor and free association, the 'chapter' structure.

There's no magic process. It's a daily workslog. Frank gets up and writes. I get up, have coffee, and edit. There were a few favorite scenes that I had to finagle in: the hippie wedding, the graveside visit with his son - these are moments that are unknown generally that say something about his character. At one point I tried Walter Murch's stand-up editing style; I found that this made some sense in a feature narrative film where you were trying to find the beats, but what I was doing required mental juggling, and sometimes a blank mind while seated in a chair. I gained weight over a couple of years of editing and good eating. A huge advantage I possessed was a smart girlfriend who would critique my day's work. When you spend the whole day screwing around with cut points you can lose sight of why you needed that scene in the story and whether it works to advance the story or is boring.

Literary scholar Calvin McMillin said “The unfortunate thing is that some people only know Frank by reputation or not at all.” I find this to be true over and over again. Were you hoping to dispel any rumors or lies about Frank in WWWFC?

It IS true. I didn't feel it was my job to refute anything, but to present what I know to be true. One can weigh evidence against conjecture and rumor and come to one's own opinion. The humor can be Frank's own hyperbole or me poking a little filmic fun, but it all works against the myth of him as an ogre.

I noticed WWWFC? didn’t have an angry or bitter tone. It didn’t judge the viewers as dumb, blind, ignorant fools. How did you approach this film, (1) knowing some people may be unaware of Asian American issues and Frank Chin’s role in it, and (2) knowing "Frank Chin haters” may be watching WWWFC?

I'm glad you noticed. I wanted to capture his energy and angst, and not editorialize beyond actual editing. Maybe I got all my anger out in Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue. I hated TV news and TV docs for leading people by the nose to wrong conclusions (why does the news feature only the mayor and police chief? what happened to "2 sides to every story"? shouldn't you give the I-Hotel Tenants Association equal time?) and wanted to present the facts as I know them and let the viewer make up their own mind about him.

I think the stuff is inherently interesting. There's fun stuff like the wedding, and I always enjoy a good rant. I imagine I'm not the only one. With no foreknowledge of A-A and Chin, anyone should, (at least) find some entertainment value and get educated. If the haters have a slightly open mind, they might learn something about their prejudices. Otherwise, I just hope the piece pisses them off. Maxine doesn't need or get equal time. This is equal time for Frank.

(Photo by Zand Gee?)

There was a part in WWWFC? where UCLA professor King-Kok Cheung admitted when she first read Woman Warrior she thought it was a bunch of “baloney”, yet later she embraced Maxine Hong Kingston’s autobiographical interpretation of Mulan and Chinese culture. That’s very telling about some of these Chinese American feminists – that they would embrace something knowing it to be false anyway! Thoughts?

KKC was pretty clear that MHK's fakery was MHK's own search as she didn't know what was real, so I don't lump KKC in with man-hating feminists. (To destroy male hegemony, no falsehood can go far enough!) All religion is based on tunnelvision, including feminism. I'm a truer feminist than a lot of loudmouths who simply haven't found their venue for selling out.

KKC did accuse Frank of being too “dogmatic” in his defense of the Heroic Tradition (the culture and history that Mulan, Guan Gong, Monkey King, Yue Fei, etc. come from). Do you think Frank may have been too hard on his critics in defending Chinese history?

KKC is a supporter, not a critic. That she takes his name-calling and insults with good humor says a lot about her. Most of his so-called 'critics' disagree with his style and personality, but don't have equally valid arguments for the 'progressive adaptation' of tradition. He is hard on these people for being ignorant and bending stuff to fit their personal agendas. His contempt for them is both fitting and righteous.

I’m not a fan of these “progressive adaptations” either. I think the original and traditional tales are more interesting. Regarding these adaptations, Frank was famous for saying, “[Maxine Hong] Kingston , [David Henry] Hwang, and [Amy] Tan are the first writers of any race, and certainly the first writers of Asian ancestry, to so boldly fake the best-known works from the most universally known body of Asian lore in history." Would you agree?

I agree, but I do so because I believe what Frank says. I'm lazy and insufficiently motivated to do any research on my own. Chin won't come straight out and declare them "sell-outs", but what else do you call it when people do what they do for the fame and money?

Well, your documentary does quote the Ballad of Mulan. So, I wouldn’t say you’re THAT lazy. But I think having that ballad was important, because Frank always argued from history and tradition. During my Asian American studies, Frank suggested I learn Cantonese and study Chinese Opera! Did Frank ever have these kinds of expectations of you?

Frank pointed me towards several Ballads of Mulan. If Kingston falsified the story, then what is the REAL story? The ballad is succinct enough that I could show you the whole thing, and you can make up your own mind about the fake and the real - much stronger than if I had a bunch of experts tell you what to think. I like that KKC read it aloud in Cantonese, and ended it Western-style with "The End." Now that's real. Even if I directed her to end it that way.

He never really exhorted me to do anything. I think he understood (correctly) that I don't follow orders and needed to find my own way. He presented a lot of what he'd learned, much of which passed over my dense head. On my own I've taken Cantonese language classes, and flunked it three different times in my life. I searched by feel for what he was going after, without understanding it enough to interpret it for anyone. And, honestly, Chinese opera doesn't entertain me - it's work. And makes my eyes glaze over.

I did notice that KKC also supports Chin’s writings. I meet professors who taught Kingston’s and Chin's works in their classrooms. They support both people, yet their (Kingston’s and Chin’s) views on Asian America are so different (Frank would argue that there really isn’t anything “Asian” about Kingston’s works anyway). How do you think these Asian American intellegentsias resolve these two Asian American figures in their classes? Indeed, do you think there can be a middle-ground between Kingston and Chin?

The only middle ground is your own ability to accept their differing views. You can teach both, and everyone can choose which side they prefer. Or choose not to choose. Fundamentally, Kingston and Chin can never agree.

What I find interesting about KKC is her reverence towards Frank despite some of her criticisms of him. In fact, many of Frank’s critics still give him respect, even though they may disagree with him (or find him disagreeable). Why this gratitude you think?

He is deliberately disagreeable because he doesn't want to be revered. He wants people to think about the issues. They respect him because he brings up shit we've politely hidden.

There are many interesting moments you captured in Frank’s life. Name some things you found most interesting about Frank while filming WWWFC?

I have footage of FC making googly eyes and saying affectionate nonsense to a stranger's baby when we took that trip to the Sierras to revisit his childhood stomping grounds. (I'm no fan of babies in any context; I don't like the noise they make, and I don't like how they suck all the energy out of a room). Curiously, he showed complete indifference to his own dog (perhaps it was Dana's) which was kept out in the yard and looked in with sadly begging eyes.

Frank is fascinated by theatrical processes, and had suggestions for angles I could shoot. I went along with it, and overshot the Year of the Dragon rehearsals. I was still ungrounded as to the doc's direction, and felt the need to prove my own unobtrusiveness with more hang-out time. That he gave me free reign to record him in a medium he both loves and distrusts says a lot about his ability to relinquish control; we know how unyielding he can be on some things.

If something happened, he would never deny it or try to spin it.

He is a "big picture" guy. Without any context, he looks jealous for railing at MHK's Humanities Award. But faking and remaking someone else's culture to toady to imperialist expectations affects us hyphenated-Americans, and human history. It took me the better part of a year to grok what he was doing with the Resisters story, and I'm already predisposed to being on his side. He doggedly continues this uphill battle with the ignorami and the ungrateful Japanese Americans.

I think the most powerful moment in WWWFC? is the "Henry’s Day of Remembrance" chapter. We’re talking the No-No Boys, the Redress, the traitors in Japanese America, etc. Although Frank is a Chinaman, how important was he in exposing the events on the internments of Japanese Americans?

Without the growing snowball of the Days of Remembrance, redress and reparations would not have happened. He was not just important, but instrumental as the primary instigator. That he would be seen as a meddling Chinaman by the JAs was why he took the manly and contra-egotistical position of remaining in the background. (Note that it was the relatively unknown Resisters story he brought out openly, although he earlier helped republish John Okada’s "No-No Boy". The two types of dissenters are not the same.)

Finally, finish this sentence, “In the movie about me _____________”

In the movie about me, everyone thinks I look like Russell Wong. You can hear necks crack as every woman swivels their head to gawk at my magnificence, then they abandon their white boyfriends. There are no traffic jams, smartphones, or kardashians anywhere. Politically-correct speech is resolved by re-education. Religion is exclusive to Trekkies and restricted to their conventions. Having children is a privilege, and is licensed and regulated. Everyone is armed, and nobody ever gets attacked. I never think about money because it never runs out. My biggest problem is deciding which animal to eat next. All of my girlfriends are great cooks, companions, and conversationalists, and wouldn't think of becoming ex-GFs. And it's in black&white, with a 1.33 aspect frame. Like a Charlie Chan movie.