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Fading Memories of Chinatown in 1940s San Francisco, Preserved in Dioramas

“I want to capture my memories, and the only way for me to capture my memories is to make them in three dimensions,” says artist Frank Wong in the short film Forever, Chinatown.

Frank Wong with one of his dioramas in Forever, Chinatown (courtesy Good Medicine Picture Company)

“I want to capture my memories, and the only way for me to capture my memories is to make them in three dimensions,” says artist Frank Wong in Forever, Chinatown. The short documentary explores his dioramas of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1940s and ’50s. Yet like any recollection of childhood, he acknowledges that the miniature interiors are more nostalgic “composites” than recreations. “Memories get more fuzzy, and get more beautiful as the years go by,” he states.

The 2016 film, a co-production of Good Medicine Picture Company and Independent Television Service, is just over 30 minutes, and is part profile of Wong, part consideration of the Chinatown of the past in the face of today’s Bay Area gentrification. James Q. Chan, who produced the film with Corey Tong, explains in a director’s statement that he discovered Wong’s dioramas at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA). Wong donated his dioramas to CHSA in 2004, and they’re on view in their Yick Gallery.

As Linda Poon reported on CityLab, Forever, Chinatown, had its public television premiere this May. Through June 7, you can stream it for free on the PBS site. It opens with San Francisco’s Chinatown today, the camera cruising by busy shops, until it swings up to watch a construction crane working on one of the area’s new developments. Then we see Wong at work on a tiny wok, carefully painting it a mottled black so it looks well used.

The shots of the dioramas are dreamlike, with the camera entering at eye level. Black-and-white archival photographs of Chinatown are contrasted with footage of a small shoeshine stand, complete with a weathered awning and bottles of coke waiting to be opened. Another features a living room at Christmas, with Mahjong being played on a table, and packages from See’s Candies near the decorated tree. A crowded single room occupancy apartment has a carton of milk on the windowsill, boots dusted with snow by the door, and a book on a rumpled, narrow bed. In what Wong calls his grandmother’s kitchen, baking is underway on the counter, the refrigerator cracked open, and Coit Tower illuminated on Telegraph Hill out the window.

After growing up in San Francisco, Wong later moved to Los Angeles and worked as a prop master. “I had to kiss a lot of ass, work twice as hard as the next guy, and you know why,” he says of his experience as an Asian American in Hollywood. Now older, he remembers what it was like to be a kid through his godson Jeremy, with whom he is building an elaborate fabric shop. As he recounts the difficulty of explaining a funeral they witnessed together, he expresses his last wish for the dioramas: “When I die, I want my miniatures to be burnt with me, so I can live in them forever.”

One of Frank Wong’s dioramas in Forever, Chinatown (courtesy Good Medicine Picture Company)

Find upcoming screenings, broadcasts, and other ways to watch Forever, Chinatown on its website

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