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Reuniting Lost Home Movies Through the Making of “The Chinese Exclusion Act” Documentary

  • May 31, 2017
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In November 2014, CAAM published a blog post asking for help identifying a “mystery film” that had come to CAAM’s Memories to Light: Asian American Home Movies initiative. The footage shows a birthday party for a family elder in either the 1940s or 1950s. It is entirely in black and white and shows many family members in attendance. The family is made up of people of all ages, with the women wearing cheongsams (qipaos) and the men wearing Western suits. The family elder wears a dark suit and is frequently shown holding a framed golden peach, a symbol of longevity. The blog post was shared by Angry Asian Man and other outlets, but nobody stepped forward to claim the footage. It seemed to remain an eternal mystery, just another unclaimed home movie languishing in an archive. Now, in the PBS and CAAM co-produced documentary The Chinese Exclusion Act, that footage has been used and incorporated into a larger history — and as a result of it, the footage has been reunited with its family.

In The Chinese Exclusion Act, the footage is intercut with images that directors Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu shot of other related archival materials. The home movie footage animates the historical documents shown on screen and speaks to the larger historical role that home movies and archives play in the creation of documentaries. “Early on we realized that the archival material, photographs, footage, documents and illustrations were in a way the star of the show,” Yu said. “They were there when this history took place, they bore witness to this story, warts and all.”

The story of how the footage made its way to CAAM, into The Chinese Exclusion Act, and back to its family is a fascinating one. Most of the home movies that come to CAAM and Memories to Light are donated by families that find old Super 8 and 16 millimeter films and don’t know how to preserve them, or have no way of showing or viewing the footage. This footage, showing the SooHoo family, passed through many hands before it arrived at CAAM and was incorporated into the Memories to Light archive. The original footage was bought from an estate sale. From there, it fell into the lap of Kathleen Maguire at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Kathleen passed it on to Natalia Fidelholtz of Futuro Media Group, who was then at StoryCorps. From there, the footage was brought to CAAM to be preserved as a part of the Memories to Light archive.

“I immediately put the film in a safe place so we wouldn’t scratch it any more, and asked Kathleen if I could take it to the Home Movie Day event that was taking place at the Oakland Home Movie Day event hosted at the Asian Cultural Center,” Fidelholtz said in a previous interview. “The film was badly shrunk, so we were only able to see a less than a minute of the content, but we could tell it was from before the 1940s, and a birthday celebration of someone important from a Chinese family. It was very exciting!” Only about 10 percent of the films in the Memories to Light archive have unknown origins. Many of the mystery films in the Memories to Light archive came to CAAM in the same way as the now-identified SooHoo family footage. It takes a lot of guesswork, digging online, as well as publicizing this footage to reunite the images and stories with their loved ones. Until the moment that the footage can be identified, it sits in the archive as fair use.  

Fast-forward to 2016, when production of The Chinese Exclusion Act began. As they began to produce the film, Burns and Yu knew that they wanted to use home movies. Executive Director Stephen Gong directed them to the Chinese American home movies, and there was a shared excitement to use the footage and weave it into a larger historical narrative. Beyond its usual role in documentaries as a tool to underscore the film’s veracity, the footage also grounded the historical and political milieu of this Act in once-living, breathing figures on a screen. However, neither the filmmakers nor CAAM predicted that the inclusion of this home movie would lead to identifying this footage.

Then in March, at CAAMFest 2017’s closing night program, The Chinese Exclusion Act screened to thousands of audience members. Kent Shew was sitting in the audience when, in the last minutes of the film, he found himself gazing up at what appeared to be his maternal grandfather, his father and then himself. He found himself looking up at aunts, uncles, and cousins projected on a huge screen. After describing feelings of pleasant surprise, Shew went up during the Q&A, and mentioned that the footage was possibly of his family – specifically, his father. The very next day, CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong sent the clip to Shew for confirmation. “With the help of my cousin, Roger SooHoo, we circulated the clip to the other family members and relatives. That’s when Jeffrey wrote Stephen and began the dialogue that resulted in agreeing to release the rights to the footage for use in the documentary,” Shew said. After that, nearly everyone in the footage was identified – Shew’s mother, who is 99 years old, is present in the footage, and still alive.

The importance of this footage, and its journey from estate sale to CAAM to a feature-length documentary to its family again, is humbling. As Yu says, “When you work with period footage over the long stretch of editing, it is inevitable that you wonder who the people are in the footage, what life was like for them back then, and what trials and difficulties as well as joy they had in their daily lives.” It is even more rare that answers to those questions are found. Footage of something as simple as a birthday party can remind us of the importance of tracing our histories.

“These home movies refute the very tenets of the Exclusion Acts – that Chinese Americans would never be capable of becoming American citizens,” Gong said. “Watching the ways in which we celebrate holidays, enjoy vacations, and observe typical American rites of passage, it’s clear that we’re as American as any other community in the nation.” This footage, and its story, is a reminder of the power of inclusion within a history.

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If you or your family would like to digitize and archive your home movies, please fill out an application form here. If you have unidentified footage in your possession, let us know and we’d be happy to work with you to digitize and identify it. We’re always looking for more films to add to the archive.

For more information about The Chinese Exclusion Act documentary and for upcoming screenings, please visit the website.

Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt is a writer and teacher living in Oakland, California.