In Chan is Missing, a 1982 film set in Chinatown, San Francisco, two taxi drivers Jo and Steve were searching all over town for their disappeared business partner Chan. Wayne Wong’s first feature film reflects on the Chinese American identity. They speak to many people who have seen Chan. Everybody has a different impression on him. He was said to be a recent immigrant yet to learn the American way; an honest and trustworthy father to his daughter; a failure to his wife. He is an eccentric who likes Mariachi. Yet he is also considered just too Chinese. The Chinese American, after several generations in this country, remain an outside group with an incoherent image in this movie.
After this independent production, Wayne Wong continues to make more well known films, including his landmark film the Joy Luck Club, and my personal favorite, Chinese Box. Forty years after its initial release, I have finally had a chance to see his debut work.
The film gives me a vintage feel. The cars, the hairdo, the fashion trend, a lot has changed in 40 years. But even more remarkable, the society itself has changed.
I moved to the US from Asia in the late 90s as a software engineer. Had I seen Chan is Missing before, I would not have found their world myself. Perhaps the culture has really changed swiftly. Perhaps I simply have the luxury to immerse myself in a professional environment. I hardly have to mull over being Chinese in America. In my world, we have deliberated far more on the dot-com revolution than being in an outside group.
Jo, an native born citizen who speaks English perfectly, was unsure about Chinese’s place in the mainstream (i.e. white) society. Me, a true outsider who only manages English as a second language, has found this an exciting cosmopolitan. This is a remarkably accepting place that welcomes people arriving from all over the world, a rather different place than the Chinatown depicted not so long ago.
If I am to find another movie to reflect today’s zeitgeist, I will choose the 2021 comedy drama Together Together. Matt, a middle aged white single, decides to become a father on his own. He contracts Anna, an Asian woman, to be the surrogate to bear his baby. True, Anna was only a surrogate, not his lover. But they were together the entire film and have gotten quite close to each other. When asked why they did not consider dating, the dealbreaker was said to be their 20 years age difference. Not once has the question that they are of different races come up. Not once.
Two films, two eras, two ideas and a thought provoking contrast.