China: Land of My Father •
The Way to My Father's Village • Made in China

Decentering the Middle Kingdom

by Peter X Feng

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 122-134
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

"Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?" — Maxine Hong Kingston[1][open notes in new window]

"Whatever the camera reproduces is beautiful. The disappointment of the prospect that one might he the typist who wins the world trip is matched by the disappointing appearance of the accurately photographed areas which the voyage might include. Not Italy is offered, but proof that it exists." — Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno


Growing up in a tract home in a Seattle suburb, surrounded by white, lower-middle-class neighbors, I felt my parents had the freedom to define China however they wanted.[2] They seemed to be making up Chinese traditions as they went along. When we visited my grandfather's gravesite (in the Chinese American section of Seattle's Volunteer Park cemetery), the ritual of bowing and lighting incense and burning fake money was always changing. When I was told to finish my dinner, I was warned that every grain of rice left in my bowl would produce a freckle on my face; as I grew older the threatened freckle was promoted to a pimple, and eventually a pockmark. Years later, I found out that girls were told that the marks would appear on their husband's faces, not theirs: that seemed more likely, but not as fair.

I never believed that Chinese traditions prescribed my parents' actions, only mine; so-called Chinese tradition was clearly a form of social control, and my parents had the power to define it. After all, Chinese was the language they spoke when they wanted to talk privately while I was still in the room. Chinese tradition was a parent's disciplinary tool powerful enough that my parents never had to resort to, "Because I said so," for I never felt that my will was strong enough to challenge the natural order of things Chinese.

Of course, the authority that accrued to things Chinese was not purely a function of my parents' power but was due in great part to the images of China in the mass media and surrounding culture. For suburban boys no less than for city boys, China was the land of martial arts. A touring exhibition called "The Orient Expressed" portrayed China as a land of meticulous craftsmen producing effete objets d'art. Grammar school social studies books noted that the Chinese had invented gunpowder. China was a mysterious, rich culture, whose accomplishments were all in the past. This image reinforced my parents' authority even as it did nothing to establish China's contemporary relevance.

I was not Chinese-American, caught between two cultures. Instead, Chinese culture was a part of me that I was powerless to define, like a mark on my forehead that I couldn't see. My parents could see it, and they told me what it meant; and the white boys I played with could see it, and they told me what it meant. But I couldn't see it in me, and I couldn't see it in my parents. In short, China was someone else's discursive construction. How can we as Chinese Americans go about creating our own meaningful discourses about China and (by extension) definitions of our own subjectivities?

This essay examines three movies (two films and one video) that document the journey of an American-born Chinese (ABC) to the land of her/his parent's birth.[3] At the very least these movies add a subjective dimension to ethnographic depictions of China; Felicia Lowe has stated that she consciously conceived of her film as a counter-travelogue (Lowe). However, counter-travelogues are not inherently self-critical; their subjectivity can reveal itself in an awestruck fascination with Chinese difference and a romantic desire to deny that difference. Each of these three documentaries evinces ethnographic tendencies, whether deliberately, in disguised fashion, or unknowingly. The very inspiration for these projects — the parent — is the key, for each movie is at its clearest when the maker is distinguishing between China and the Chinese parent, and at its muddiest when China and parent arc collapsed. These movies face the very problem of cultural context to which Maxine Hong Kingston alludes.

Kingston's dilemma — that of separating what is Chinese from what is peculiarly familial — arises from not knowing where a text (like a parent) ends and a context (like China) begins. The journey to China might be thought of as an attempt to construct a filter through which one can regard one's parents and childhood. The things that are filtered out are Chinese, the things that can still be seen must be familial.[4] Growing up in Seattle suburbs, I knew that my friends' definition of China was a useless filter (since my parents didn't know kung fu); in other words, I knew that the prevailing "Chinese" filter was itself a discourse. Was it possible to build a filter free of those misleading discourses?

How are we to use China to evaluate our parents if our parents have already created our impressions of China? How can we see China without also seeing the stories that have been told about China? To journey to China in an attempt to contextualize and possibly discredit the stories we have heard is to put our own identity at risk. It is hardly surprising then that we find it easier to see a China which has already been narrativized than a China which contradicts those narratives.

These travel movies made by immigrants' children do not simply document the child's journey to China but evaluate the parent's migration from China. China implicitly indicates the culture left behind. Therefore, these films posit that Chinese American identity is not hyphenate, made up of equal parts China and America, but hierarchical, with Chinese identity suppressed by American subjectivity. The narrative of "return" to China is thus one of recovery, implying that a Chinese cultural identity has been buried or left behind. But to posit the Asian American experience as one in which "original" cultures are exchanged for "American" culture would mean to posit ethnicity as innate and a priori rather than fluid and constructed out of the intersection of permeable (as opposed to discrete) cultures. To draw a strict boundary between cultures helps preserve a stable notion of American-ness and insures that immigrants will never be fully assimilated. Rather, the possibility of assimilation is the carrot dangled before their children, but the imaginary boundary further insures that they will not be active shapers of an American identity but rather the beneficiaries of a prefabricated identity.

The pervasiveness of these assumptions is revealed by the plethora of Asian American literary and cinematic narratives about generational conflict, a theme so common that Lisa Lowe refers to it as a trope.[5] In "Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences," Lowe critiques this trope of generational conflict in Asian American literary texts, arguing that

"interpreting Asian American culture exclusively in terms of the master narratives of generational conflict and filial relation essentializes Asian American culture, obscuring the particularities and incommensurabilities of class, gender, and national diversities among Asians" (26).

Lowe calls for sensitivity to diversity among Asian Americans. She notes that diversity is sufficient to preclude the possibility of a singular Asian culture inherited by Asian Americans and therefore precludes the possibility of an a priori Asian American culture. Instead, Lowe says we should

"define ethnicity in a manner that accounts not only for cultural inheritance, but for active cultural construction, as well" (27).

This does not mean that "active," resistant cultural strategies necessarily evade the master narratives of generational conflict to be found in narratives of assimilation. In Lowe's view, the Asian American cultural-nationalist position conforms to the binary logic that insists that Asia and America are discrete entities. Thus when "Asian American feminists who challenge Asian American sexism are cast as 'assimilationist,' as betraying Asian American 'nationalism,'" "assimilation" and "nationalism" are deployed as a "false opposition" (31). Both positions rely on essentialism, upon the reduction of generational conflict to cultural difference, upon a binary logic that attributes old cultural values to the older generation, and new values to the younger. Furthermore, that essentialist position begs the question: Are cultures that distinct to begin with?

Lowe cites the feature film A GREAT WALL (Peter Wang, 1985), avowedly a narrative about culture clash between Chinese and Chinese Americans, and she argues that the film depicts a China which has already absorbed Coca-Cola and the Gettysburg Address. The Great Wall itself becomes "a monument to the historical condition that not even ancient China was 'pure,'" representing China's perceived need — and its failure — to police its borders (37-38). By failing to allow for the permeability of cultural spaces, the trope of generational conflict fails to account for the complexities of cultural mixing and hybrid identities. Thus it begs the question: If one's parents were essentially Chinese, then why travel to China at all since Chinese culture is available in one's parents' home?

The essentialist trope of generational conflict only works if migration flows in just one direction, from China to the U.S., from Chinese culture to American culture. By journeying to China, filmmakers collect on their parents' return tickets, giving the lie to one-way cultural flow. Thomas Wolfe's dictum, "You can't go home again," is thus not a lament but rather our saving grace. It provides for a multiplicity of Chinas and a multiplicity of Chinese and Chinese American identities.[6] While journeys to China may be inspired by romantic visions of reunification with one's inner self, that destination can never be reached because that China no longer exists. That is why these filmmakers do not simply tell their own stories about going to China and back but must incorporate their parents' narratives. The China of the past cannot he accessed through a geographical journey but only through a temporal one. It is only by examining a parent's narrative of migration that one can account for temporal changes so as to realign the China one sees with the China that one's parents saw.

The disparity between China as seen and China as previously narrativized can be recouped within narrative logic — as transformation. Narrativizing the journey to China incorporates many Chinas, rejecting, as Lisa Lowe does, the notion that China exists as a discrete space. Thus the visit to China does not serve as an attempt to see what is there now but to find traces of what was there before. The visit attempts to substitute spatial for temporal migration.

Therefore, these movies are forensic. They examine what has been left behind in an attempt to reconstruct what has happened. They search the tangible present to access the intangible past. In so doing, the filmmakers reveal that they are not seeking China but rather its transformation. Thus, they are not simply interested in what in them is Chinese but in what in them is not Chinese.

They are not just interested in their parent's identity with China but in what compelled their parents to disidentify with China. In other words, by reconstructing the narrative of a parent's departure from China, the child hopes to understand how the parent's needs were not met by China. As the child does this, the journey itself comes into its own, completely eclipsing the destination.


The two films and one video that I examine in this essay each seek connection with the China of their ancestors and/or of their living relatives. The movies range from a 1979 PBS documentary to a 1987 video documentary that draws on experimental video traditions. Explicitly or implicitly, each of these movies is a travelogue, and it is no accident that they each emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Before then, travel to and from China was restricted by international politics, most notably the Communist Revolution, which not only spurred migration from China, but made re-entry difficult. In the mid-1960s, when immigration reform opened the door for the migration of Chinese relatives of Chinese Americans, travel to China was still difficult. It was only with the end of the Cultural Revolution that China became accessible again. (Note that it is specifically mainland China that has inspired cinematic investigation, not Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.)[7] Films about personal journeys to China were thus not possible before the late 70s, and concern to know the fate of relatives in China became an important motivation for such journeys.[8] Similarities of timing aside, the particular family histories that motivated each of these movies, as well as the details of production, vary widely.

Felicia Lowe's CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER (1979) was produced on 16mm for KQED in San Francisco. Lowe had worked at KQED for several years, and when the opportunity arose for her to join a group of mostly print journalists traveling to China, she immediately asked KQED for funds. (Around this time, Lowe won an Emmy for a series on financial planning for women and received a nomination for a series on breast cancer.) KQED turned her down, so she sought funding from all the stations in the San Francisco Bay area with no luck. By chance, Lowe discovered that a friend of hers knew PBS' Barry Chase ("probably the only time the old boys' network worked for me"); Chase was familiar with her work for the series "Turnabout." Meanwhile, Lowe made plans with a reporter for Good Morning America. The two of them agreed to travel together, split the cost to hire a camera operator, and engineer sound for each other's projects. Three days before Lowe boarded the plane, CPB and KQED came through with funding and a December 25 airdate, leaving Lowe with only eight weeks turnaround time. The next year, the program aired nationally on PBS (Lowe).

Lowe's film is a very conventionally shot and edited documentary that relies heavily on voice-over narration. No doubt this is due in part to Lowe's time and budgetary constraints (the project had an extremely low shooting ratio), but it can also he attributed to PBS' preference for traditional documentary structures. Despite Lowe's stated intention to counter traditional travelogue documentaries, CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER replicates many of the traditional features of such documentaries, e.g., reciting statistics about contemporary China and making obligatory visits to established sites like the Great Wall. The film's subjective dimension emerges in Lowe's perspective as an immigrant's daughter and in the rendezvous with her father's family that closes the film.

CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER begins with scenic views of the Chinese countryside at sunset and narrates the story of Lowe Wing-Sun, the filmmaker's father. The images of China give way to footage of Lowe's family going through picture albums, as Lowe's narration shifts into first-person and expresses her desire that her own son know more about his heritage. Lowe accompanies a group of journalists touring China, and she intersperses information about China with commentary on her emotional journey (her attempts to communicate using her father's rare dialect, etc.). While visiting a Chinese news agency, Lowe meets a woman whom she describes as her "soulmate" — Sung Meiyu, a mother and a student at Beijing's Institute of Journalism, who asks Lowe, "How do American women balance their careers and their families?" Lowe visits this woman's home, where the two women talk about mothers' roles in the workforce. As with the rest of the film up to this point, this visit is shot and edited as a traditional documentary (with establishing shots and "talking heads"). It is only Lowe's voice over relaying her own impressions that hints at a subjective approach.

Eventually, Lowe departs from the tour group and journeys to meet her father's surviving family, consisting of Lowe's grandmother as well as several aunts and uncles. As with the earlier visit with Sung Meiyu, this segment is visually conventional, but Lowe's narration adds a subjective dimension to the "objective" account of family life in this small village. At film's end, Lowe tearfully says goodbye to her grandmother, and the film closes as it began, with images of the same Chinese countryside.

In contrast, Richard Fung's THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE (1988), produced on video, begins with a seemingly unmotivated image of a brick path, a stylized enactment of a bureaucratic interview, and an almost parodically authoritative, British-accented narrator who relates the story of the birth and North American migration of Fung's father. Fung, a Toronto-based videomaker and activist, is perhaps best known for his videos about Asian Canadian Queer issues.[9] Funded in part by the Ontario Arts Council, THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE documents a filmmaker's visit to China, but unlike Lowe's film, Fung's video reaches beyond the temporal boundaries of the journey itself, documenting Fung's research into his father's story and the process by which Fung assembled the video. This process is revealed not only in Fung's commentary on video production but also in the clear disjuncture between images and narrated events.

For example, the video's opening sequence depicts the story of Eugene Fung's arrival in Vancouver, journey across North America to Halifax, boat journey to Trinidad, and eventual retirement to Toronto. That narration on the sound track is accompanied by contemporary video footage of a ferry crossing a body of water, the view out the window of a jumbo jet, etc. In fact, it is common documentary practice to utilize stock footage or contemporary footage with somewhat tangential connections to the voice-over narration. However, the striking disparity between the sound and image track in THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE hints that this video will not provide the coherent diegesis or story space of Lowe's CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER.

Following the summary of the facts of Eugene Fung's life, the video shifts gears and presents a non-linear, impressionistic portrait of Eugene's family life. Richard Fung's voice over, its lilting Trinidadian tones in stark contrast to the British-accented narrator, describes his emotionally distant relationship with his father. Fung expresses curiosity about gaps in what he knows about his father, those events in his past of which his father would not speak. Here, the image track presents home movies of Trinidad, interspersed with character-generated intertitles that echo phrases spoken by the voice over.

A taped conversation with Eugene's niece and nephew follows. It, too, departs from linear documentary construction. Rather than presenting "talking heads" speaking to an off-camera interviewer, the interviewer/videomaker sits at a dining room table alongside his cousins while the video camera circles them. While there are indications that the interview has been edited for the video, the long-takes and rambling sound track suggest that Fung has taken pains not to streamline the footage and impose a linear narrative. Unlike a talking-heads sequence, then, which either rehearses testimony or edits out tangential comments, this sequence has the intimate tone of a conversation over tea, without however constructing a coherent diegesis.

Like Felicia Lowe, Fung seems to have journeyed to China as part of a package tour, accompanied by his mother; they parted that tour's company to journey to his father's village. Unlike in Lowe's film, in the China sequences here, Fung never appears before the camera, and his voice overs discuss the omissions, mistakes, and frustrations of his project. In another sequence, the visit to Eugene's village is offset by images from the rest of the tour, each section framed further by a series of narratives about China from previous visitors ranging from Marco Polo to Roland Barthes. Fung's video does not close with images of the Chinese countryside but rather returns to Toronto, and Fung makes it clear that he experienced no mystical reconciliation with the land of his father.

Lisa Hsia's MADE IN CHINA (1986) differs from the two previously-discussed movies in that it depicts a long-term visit: Hsia stayed with her cousin's family for five years while attending the University of Beijing. (The film was supported by grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, New York State Council on the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and two other foundations.) As such, Hsia's film is not primarily about retracing her parents' experiences in China. However, Hsia does avowedly frame the journey as one in which she tests American preconceptions about China, so that she constantly compares the narrative of her childhood in Chicago with the narratives of her relatives in China.

As a portrait of family life in contemporary China, Hsia's film follows a thematic structure rather than a chronological or linear one. Hsia's position within the film is neither that of an outsider trapped behind the camera (as Richard Fung portrays himself) nor that of a native tour guide. Footage of Hsia's Chinese family at times echoes the journalistic approach used to depict Felicia Lowe's visiting her Chinese "soulmate," but as we also see Hsia participating in that family's life, the film sheds some of its "ethnographic tone." Hsia states in voice over,

"[T]he key to learning about China was not to go the 'protected foreigner' route, [however] it wasn't wise tramping around pretending to be a local, either."

The solution she hits upon is to let her family serve as her guide. By insinuating herself into her Chinese family, Hsia can experience China as a "local" but only because her family buffers the "foreigner."

This complex inside/outside (local/foreigner) authorial position is evident in the interaction of various cinematic registers (types of footage) in the film's China sequences. (In addition, the film combines animation sequences, silent home movies, and still photos to depict Hsia's U.S. childhood). The China experience proper is represented through three distinct cinematic registers (8mm sync-sound home movie footage shot by Hsia, 16mm footage shot by two camera operators, and animation sequences designed by Michael Sporn). Hsia's 8mm footage documents the family's domestic space, and her family responds as an American family would to home movies. They address the camera directly, that is, address Hsia behind the camera (for example, one of the boys performs his Charlie Chaplin impersonation). The animated footage depicts Hsia's solo encounters with "institutional China" (an altercation with a traffic cop, a visit to a clinic). And the 16mm footage operates in three distinct documentary modes: (a) vérité footage of the family (diegetic footage in which Hsia and her family "ignore" the camera); (b) a hybrid talking-heads style, where Hsia's cousin Xue Su directly addresses either the camera or an interviewer (Hsia) off-screen; and (c) journalistic/ ethnographic/ tourist shots of Beijing street scenes (tai chi exercises, a dragon kite), in most of which Hsia does not appear.[10] These five distinct types of footage articulate different positions along the insider/outsider axis: the home movies at one extreme, the ethnographic shots at the other, with the vérité, animation, and direct address falling in between.[11]

Hsia's voice-over perpetually draws comparison between the United States and China, whether noting contemporaneous events in the two countries, comparing the independence and privacy she has in the United States to her restricted role in her Chinese family, or speculating about growing up in China. Footage shot in the diegetic "present" in China is constantly juxtaposed against representations (snapshots and home movies) of the diegetic "past" in the United States. For example, the film begins with Hsia's departure from China, presents animation to depict Hsia's childhood ignorance of things Chinese, shows an old photo of an extended Chinese family in the 1930s, cuts to vérité footage of Hsia presenting gifts to her Chinese hosts, gives us a glimpse of Hsia's 8mm footage, narrates childhood in Chicago with reference to family snapshots, returns to vérité footage of Hsia's mother's visit to Beijing, cuts back to an American childhood by way of home movie footage, and so on…all in the first ten minutes. On first screening, the rapid juxtaposition of divergent eras, cultures, and modes of cinematic representation serves to level out the way the film incorporates various cinematic cues, but a close analysis reveals the complex process of signification alluded to in the preceding paragraph. On the surface, Hsia's film seems far less radical and self-reflexive than Fung's video, stylistically closer to Lowe's CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER. But careful attention to the film's enunciative process reveals a sophisticated, constantly shifting theory of Chinese American identity and history. The film's title, MADE IN CHINA, is an ambiguous, punning reference that seems to imply an essentialist take on Asian American identity. However, does the title refer to Hsia, her family, or the film itself (the latter certainly was "made" in China, even if postproduction was in the United States)?


In these movies, the journey to China always pursues something other than China, something both of the self and beyond it. The object of these cinematic texts is potentially and simultaneously China, the parent, and the child. Inspired by an autobiographical impulse, these movies are not literally autobiographies, yet in journeying to China to find the self, these movies document subjectivities that threaten to disappear into the landscape.[12] Take for example a particularly fascinating passage in CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER, wherein Lowe narrates her first impressions of the landscape:

"These first images of the Chinese countryside are surprisingly familiar. The lush, green fields remind me of California's Sacramento Delta and the many summers I'd spent there as a child. I understand for the first time why so many Chinese settled in the Sacramento Valley: it was just like home."[13]

Later, as she nears her family's village, she notes,

"I'm sure my father crossed the same rivers and tributaries forty years earlier when he left the area."

While she is in China, Lowe's identification with her father leads her to imagine the moment when he left China rather than to look for the China that he knew. She projects her own response onto her father, imagining that he journeyed to the United States and settled somewhere that reminded him of home, thus marking his journey from China while affirming his memory of it. Rather than reveling in "homecoming," Lowe looks out her train window to see California, and in return sees California as not-China. Thus China becomes the source, California the pale imitation. But, of course, for Lowe Sacramento existed before Canton.

Lowe's vision of California as surrogate China is an intervention that views China not as an inscrutably foreign place but rather one with significant continuities with the United States. However, in order to accomplish such a rhetorical move, CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER must also acknowledge China's differences. It must participate in a tradition of representing China as foreign in order to question that tradition. The ways that each of the three movies takes up this rhetorical and psychological problem depends greatly upon the child/narrator's identification with China. The degree to which a movie self-consciously foregrounds the way in which it participates in and contributes to the discursive construction of "China" is inversely related to its narrator's forging of emotional bonds with China.


The child that seeks to understand the parent often wants to understand how parent and child are both alike and different. The parent must be established as both the same and different, as both native and foreign. In this context, Lowe's complicated assertion that China is like and is not like California begins to make sense. Upon venturing deeper into rural Canton, Lowe's narration observes,

"I'm more taken by this scenery than any place I've seen so far. We'd stayed in many cities, but the majority of the population lives in the countryside, so it seems more like the real China to see people actually working in the fields. The faces look hauntingly familiar; they look like the Chinese people in America, but wearing different clothes. The reason is simple: I learn more than 90% of the early immigrants come from this southern province."

Lowe thus makes two paradoxical assertions: first, that the real China is rural (and, by extension, timeless in an "orientalized" sense), and second, that this "real" China is also the birthplace of Chinese America. Lowe seeks herself in the heart of China, and thus she must assert that the land she visits is both genuinely foreign and fundamentally related to her own heritage.

Lowe's discourse about the "real" China does not take place between her relatives and herself or between other Chinese and herself. We hear this discourse only between Lowe and her tour companions and between Lowe and us, her U.S. television audience (to whom Lowe speaks in voice over). In the film's only extended passage without voice over, Lowe and two fellow tourists, both apparently white women, sit on the train and discuss what they've seen so far. Lowe's friends emphasize getting away from the tour, from the hotel rooms and other enclosed spaces, and visiting marketplaces and shops: they are most interested in spaces which reveal the way modern life is lived in China. For her part, Lowe shifts the conversation to a temple that they visited, what she describes as the first "genuine" temple that they saw. At first, Lowe's words echo her companions, in that she emphasizes getting away from the tour and its sanitized sights. But while Lowe's companions find "genuine" China in the rhythms of modern life, Lowe finds "genuine" China in a preserved temple and in a three-thousand-year-old tree that she is able to touch. As Lowe tells her companions that the tree provides evidence of "continuous growth," the image dissolves to Lowe on the Great Wall. The "genuine" China for Lowe resides in the past, not the present.

This difference between Lowe's tour companions and Lowe herself is crucial. It reminds us that Lowe's desire for an exoticized, ancient China, as constructed by her voice over, cannot simply he attributed to an orientalizing vision of China desired by the PBS audience, for that vision is not shared with Lowe's companions, presumably print journalists and thus in a sense a surrogate PBS demographic. Lowe is not so much complicitous with her audience's demand for an orientalized China as she herself is seeking an orientalized China. The footage reveals that the foreignness of the China that Lowe sees is held in productive tension with her own (perceived) ability to penetrate that foreignness. This tension is figured in Lowe's dialect, an offshoot of Cantonese. Lowe cannot speak official Putong hua, the people's language, and thus her contact with contemporary, modern China is mediated. When she encounters Cantonese speakers, she is better able to communicate (although still mediated by dialects) until she finally encounters her family, who speak her dialect, and is able to assert unmediated conversation. Lowe's own knowledge of the Chinese language marks the tension between accessibility to and exclusion from China, and the fact that she has most communication with her family because they speak her dialect parallels her assertion of an "inborn and indestructible" connection to her family.

Lowe's simultaneous desire to affirm her connection to and separation from China surfaces whenever she has contact with the Chinese people, not counting her relatives. In Canton, she sees the faces of Chinese Americans. When she converses via an interpreter with Chinese people on the street of an unnamed city, she surmises that their interest in her means they might have relatives in the United States. As Lowe interprets this public interest as people's displaced desire to identify with her, in actuality, it is Lowe who projects her own desires onto them.

The narrators of THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE and MADE IN CHINA are also guilty of projecting their own expectations onto China and the people that they encounter. But Fung's video and Hsia's film differ from Lowe's in emphasizing the processes by which "China" is constructed. The two works' self-reflexive strategy constantly refers to prevailing attitudes toward China, gathered from people "on the street" and from classic texts by Marco Polo, Roland Barthes, et al., and to the role the camera plays not only in framing what is before it, but in actually affecting the pro-filmic situation. For example, Fung describes the process of exclusion and inclusion that governs his imagemaking, while Hsia relates an anecdote about how her use of a camera always marks her as an outsider (both these stories are elaborated below). In contrast, even though Lowe is traveling with a tour of U.S. journalists, her film makes virtually no reference to a tradition of cinematic representations of China nor to the effect her own camera has on the pro-filmic scene.

CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER is extremely unconventional in its own right. Its emphasis on a subjective, as opposed to impersonal, perspective marks it as an important precursor to the more stylized discursive approaches of contemporary documentaries. The eight years between CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER (1979) and THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE (1987) witnessed both the gradual acceptance of self-reflexiveness in theatrical documentaries (for example, SHERMAN'S MARCH, McElwee, 1986) and the increasing codification of a distinct video aesthetic for documentary. This shift might be marked by the differences between 1970s documentaries on PBS, and PBS's P.O.V. series of independent film and video in the 1990s.[14]

Furthermore, the conventional tone of Lowe's documentary is also a function of the expectation that she prove she could make a conventional documentary. As a woman of color working in television production in the 1970s, Felicia Lowe's work would have been scrutinized for signs of "affirmative action bias." Indeed, while critics have argued that women and people of color have pioneered new modes of documentary production (modes that reject documentary conventions designed to promote the illusion of objective truth), it could also he argued that such "marginalized" filmmakers have had to bend over backwards to make more conventional film products in the way that Lowe did.

However, self-reflexive movies are not necessarily less problematic or better able to interrogate received views of China. A movie that calls attention to the processes by which China is constructed may or may not be able to see China in a fresh light. Richard Fung grapples with this very aspect of self-reflexivity in his video about the land of his father.


If Richard Fung's video, THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE, foregrounds the camera and its role in shaping the pro-filmic, self-reflexivity here is not merely a function of shifting conventions or of authorial style. Rather, the formal differences between Lowe's and Fung's work underline a fundamental difference in the two filmmaker's experiences of China. Whereas Lowe seeks connection, Fung finds estrangement. And in Fung's work, this end becomes subordinated to the process, the means to the end. Indeed, the title cards emphasize process by presenting the title in two successive screens (separated by an intervening image), "The Way" and "To My Father's Village," thereby suggesting that the journey is as important as the destination. Fung's work does not describe China but rather the attempt to capture China on video.

When Fung arrives in his father's village, he is not reminded of a North American landscape. Instead his eyes and camera are immediately drawn to the tower of the house built by his family, instantly recognizable thanks to an oft-seen family photograph of the same house. The landscape is different — other houses were built since the photograph was taken — but the house remains visually unmistakable. Fung's awareness that the landscape has changed but is the same, that his video camera is recording what a still camera did years before, indicates that he cannot see China without seeing how China has been previously represented. As he admits at the end of this sequence, he left the village without remembering to ask to see the house where his father was born. The house for which there is already a photograph becomes more important to Fung, or at least more immediate. Fung thus realizes he has been positioned as a tourist, taking photos of things that have already been photographed to prove that he has been there. More important, Fung realizes that as a video-maker and tourist he is not seeking out objects from his father's past but rather objects that he and his father have seen visual representations of and heard stories about.

Whereas CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER involves vaguely remembered stories from long ago, THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE includes more recent reminiscences about China. THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE is constructed around a series of narratives about Eugene Fung, Richard Fung's father. The video begins with an apparently staged bureaucratic interview. An off-screen woman's voice asks, "What is your name?" and a man's voice replies, "Eugene Fung," giving way to a sync-sound image of a woman's hands typing. Disjuncture between soundtrack and image, voice and the printed page, and (by implication) between modes of narration arc subtly suggested by the distortions that creep into the "record." Richard Fung's voice (his body is in frame, but his head remains off screen) reports that his father's occupation is "businessman," but the hands type "proprietor." After some more "facts" are recorded, the segment returns to the image of a footpath. An intertitle reading "1279 AD" appears, a cultured, British-accented voice concisely sketches out a history of the Hakka people, and then it begins to narrate specifically the story of Eugene Fung's birth and migration to Trinidad (via Hong Kong and Canada) as a young man. This narration is accompanied by images which depart subtly from standard documentary practice. Hakka illustrations are given to us as freeze frames shot off a television monitor. Instead of a map of China, we see a close up on the cover of an atlas while a hand opens the book to the map of China. Instead of images of Canada, we see abstracted, obviously contemporary landscapes which connect with the narration allusively, even tangentially, e.g., a shot over the railing of a ferry illustrates the narrated journey by train across Canada to Halifax, and a view of a wing from the portal of a jumbo jet illustrates Eugene's migration to Toronto and his death following a stroke.

The segment concludes and is punctuated by an intertitle that reads "HISTORY and memory." If the section that just preceded the title consisted of facts which are a matter of public record ("HISTORY"), the section that follows consists of ephemera ("memory"): images from home movies are interspersed with textual reminiscences, as Fung's voice-over tells how little he knows about his father. This section, like the one that precedes it, begins with reference to public documentation as Fung goes through a box containing a marriage license, passports, and other documents; in this scene, the voice over comments that these documents don't tell much. But Fung's voice over is not positioned as the presenter of the "truth" of memory or Eugene's identity because the voice over doubts its own access to Eugene. As Eugene's youngest child, Fung tells us,

"I was always aware that I'd come in near the end of a story. Everyone in my family talked about the past…[for example, how] my father would whip out his belt at any sign of disobedience. They all said that I was lucky, but I felt excluded."

These opening sequences of THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE set up the framework of interlocking narratives and positions toward "documentation" that structure the video. The voice over sets out at least two stories: the seemingly objective facts and the subjective recollections, each with their own gaps. Each section begins with a "staged" moment of reflection (the recording of information on a bureaucratic form, and the attempt to read meaning from between the lines of those forms). Home movies and photos represent interventions into time, while official photographs document identity and attach facts, figures, and documentable events to the body. Finally, both introductory sections combine sound and image (voice over and visual footage) in a way that emphasizes their temporal disjuncture. In the "HISTORY" section, contemporary footage of a journey across Canada "illustrates" and alludes to the narrated journey. While in the "memory" section, the voice-over refers directly to the documents, home movies, and snapshots, positioning the voice post-image so that sound can interrogate the image. For example, the voice comments in reference to photos of the family at the beach,

"Besides, I never remember my father being that relaxed," acknowledging that snapshots are simultaneously "candid" and "posed."[15]

As if to acknowledge the inadequacy of these accounts of his father's life, the "HISTORY and memory" segment is followed by "Tony and Dorothy," an interview with Eugene's nephew and niece. In this interview, Tony and Dorothy talk not about Eugene, nor about their father (Eugene's brother), but mostly about themselves, their village, and the house in the photograph. When Richard arrives at his father's village, his camera documents things from Dorothy's and Tony's stories. He gathers images of the bamboo poles on which laundry is hung and from which the Nationalist armies in the war years hung the heads of alleged Communists, a pair of chairs that are no longer in the house with the tower but now reside elsewhere, the house itself that Eugene never saw before except in a photograph. Fung's camera thus seeks to document the stories that he was told, to verify the existence of the family narratives' settings. This processes is emblematized in the image of the two chairs. The video image of the chairs has no meaning for Richard or for the viewer without his cousins' narrative. The narrative is the only thing that connects the chairs to Eugene.

Fung's piece makes us acutely aware of the distance that separates videomaker and father. On the one hand, that distance is linguistic. "He never taught us his language-there's a real finality in that," notes Fung; when in China, Fung has to ask his mother questions in English, who translates them into Cantonese for a woman who can interpret Hakka. On the other hand, Fung's distance from his father is also cultural. Because China is mediated by previous representations and narratives about China, even when in Shanghai, Fung's camera cannot capture what is in front of it. It seeks out, for example, the famous park with the "No Dogs or Chinese" sign immortalized in Bruce Lee's THE CHINESE CONNECTION (1972) and Han Suyin's The Crippled Tree. Here, Fung's voice-over announces,

"By the way, you can't see it, but to the left there is a park here in Shanghai…There was a sign here. It read, 'No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.'"

The videographer's compulsion to record that which has already been documented is so strong that here on the soundtrack, Fung attempts to compensate for an image which his camera had failed to record.

Fung's video seems, almost of its own accord, to reiterate rather than critique or amplify past representations. In photographing Shanghai, Fung admits in voice over that he intentionally excludes white tourists from the frame for "they spoil the purity of the image I'm trying to capture." Fung admits that his camera attempts to find a China that has not been penetrated by the West, a spatially and/or temporally removed China. In the editing, his voice over undercuts that attempted visual construction, allowing narrative space for those tourists in his video and therefore in China. The visual exclusion of tourists is marked as a deliberate act, yet the temporal disjunction between videography and voice over, production and postproduction, Fung as editor and Fung as camera operator, marks the videomaker in his Canadian studio as ashamed of his own actions in China. Thus in the finished tape, Fung foregrounds the act of constructing his video. He does this not just to call attention to the work's construction but to emphasize the shifts accompanying production, the project's historical evolution, and the videomaker's awareness of his complicity in representing China as exotic.[16]

In other words, while the video might he seen as an attempt to construct a Chinese filter through which to view Eugene Fung, the videomaker is aware that the task of constructing an accurate filter is beyond his capabilities, at least without resorting to simplifying China (i.e., excluding tourists from the image). That process of simplification insists upon a static vision of China as temporally and historically removed. But by titling his video "The Way" and not "My Father's Village," Fung emphasizes the journey through space and time which his video attempts to document, thus preserving temporal and spatial fluidity. Fung thus admits that the China to which he has access is spatially and temporally removed from the China he seeks, and in admitting that, he allows for the ongoing historical transformation of this "Chinese filter." The visual documents — both passports and snapshots — are problematic for Fung. As he notes, the photos

"were taken before I was born; if I had been there they might trigger a memory."

They record a moment in time (as does Fung), but, more specifically, they do not evoke his memories. To interpret the photos, he relies on narratives about the past assigned to them by family members who were aware of the events the photos depict. Fung's video attaches his own memories and thus a new narrative to those still images — the story of his journey to China.

But the video seems always aware that the narrative it constructs runs the risk of distorting the still image even more. For narrative cannot be restored to a still image once severed from it; instead, a new narrative must be constructed and attached to the image. For example, the bureaucratic interview that begins the film functions as an attempt to render Eugene Fung's life into comprehensible narrative, referring to documents like visas that locate Eugene in time and space. However, in offering a narrative, a passport photo further imposes bureaucratic order on the photograph. The passport photo is itself different from a snapshot in that it is posed and organized for legibility, and in addition the official stamp on such a photograph marks the imposition of another subjectivity with its own narrative priorities. Furthermore, the inadequacy of official narratives about citizenship and identity is highlighted by the historical irony that many Chinese immigrants employed false papers to enter the United States. Fung thus attempts to attach a narrative to the passport photo that has meaning for him, emphasizing his subjectivity and thereby the image's "objective" function within the narrative.


MADE IN CHINA takes up in a different way the passage of time and its effect upon narrative. The film documents the experiences of Lisa Hsia, a second-generation Chinese American, who stays with her Chinese cousins when attending Beijing University. MADE IN CHINA begins with a moving-picture family portrait, snapshot-style, marking the occasion of Hsia's departure by train. After this introductory sequence, we see an animated sequence of a cartoon Lisa sitting and knitting. Here the voice over tells us she was a typical girl except for constantly being reminded of her "difference," something rendered in an audio collage of overlapping taunts and more-or-less good-natured inquiries about her ethnic heritage. This audio collage gives way to a montage of "on the street" interviews with white Americans who describe their impressions of the Chinese. At the beginning of the film, then, stereotypical misperceptions are located outside of Hsia in the surrounding white populace. By film's end, Hsia's voice over refers to her own preconceptions about China, followed by a recapitulation of the audio collage, suggesting alignment between her own attitudes before her visit with those testimonies. Hsia's film thus echoes Fung's video, which seems at first to interrogate the exotic portrait of China painted by Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, Roland Barthes, and others but which later seems to admit that Fung too is complicitous in replicating these visions of China.

While both Fung's video and Hsia's film are interested in finding out what role China had in making them as historical individuals, the two works interrogate the role of picture taking and filmmaking in constructing these personal narratives in slightly different ways. For Fung, the home movies and photographs predate his birth and thus indicate a father who pre-existed his consciousness. The impetus behind Fung's video, then, is to attempt to determine which photographs reveal the truth of who his father was and how they do so. In MADE IN CHINA, however, the photographs which document Hsia's childhood stand in for the narrative of her life in the United States.[17] MADE IN CHINA presents its home movies and family snapshots as the baseline against which a childhood in China is imagined; Hsia's film asks the classic diasporic question: Who would I have been if we had not left?

When we are first formally introduced to Hsia's Chinese family, Hsia tells us that her auntie acted as if she had known her all her life. She

"treated me like the daughter she'd never had, which was wonderful, except that it meant she would consider me a child until I married. Whether I was three years old or twenty-two, it didn't matter. She considered me a kid, incapable of doing anything myself."

Hsia thus positions herself within the narrative of Chinese daughter while marking her inability to fit that role due to her American identity. When Hsia tells us how all-American her childhood was, we are shown photographs in a family album which attest to her family's not-particularly-Chinese-ness (e.g., a young Hsia in a Girl Scouts uniform). The sequence is underscored by the Beatles' "When I'm Sixty-Four" (1967).

The film later returns to this topic of her all-American childhood with a montage of home movies showing such activities as clearing the yard, skipping rope, and riding a bike. This sequence is underscored by the Beach Boys' "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" (1964). The use of these two songs is instructive. The lyrics look to the future while the recordings themselves connote a specific period in America's past, the period of Hsia's youth.[18] In looking forward, both songs' lyrics articulate an interest in how life will turn out in the personal narratives that one envisions; at the same time, the recordings locate the snapshots and home movies in the filmmaker's childhood and vice versa.

The home movie sequence ends with a shot of a child — Lisa — on her bike followed by shots of the adult Lisa cycling with the Chinese masses. These shots lead directly into the animated sequence of her encounter with a Chinese policeman. In this sequence, Hsia's voice-over informs us that she sought to blend in with the Chinese, only to find that her ignorance of social customs caused her to run afoul of a traffic cop. She escapes by pulling out her camera and taking a photograph, which makes the policeman realize that she is not Chinese but rather an "honored foreign guest." In attempting to immerse herself in an alternative personal narrative in which she is an anonymous Chinese, Hsia finds it necessary to extricate herself by reverting to her role as tourist/ documentarian.[19]

This trope of parallel childhoods continues through another home movie montage sequence, this time of childhood vacations to Egypt, Greece, and Thailand. In the film's penultimate sequence, Auntie tells stories about her own youth and the Cultural Revolution. The sequence begins with Auntie showing traditional Chinese embroidery, which she had to put to practical use during the Cultural Revolution, highlighting the historically rupturing effect that China's political evolution had on its traditions. A brief insert of home movies illustrates Hsia's comment that she was eight when the Cultural Revolution began (the year she attended Disneyland) and eighteen when it ended. Auntie next pulls out her own photo albums, and the first image we are shown is of Auntie at twenty-two. Hsia's voice over informs us that that was the age when she herself arrived in China, explicitly connecting the tropes of cross-generational identification and parallel childhoods. The sequence ends with Auntie's pointing to mutilated photographs where friends and relatives with "political problems" were excised, followed by pages of empty photo mounts where photos of Lisa's U.S. family had been.

A photo album already marks the boundary between public and private memories. It is as private as the closet where it is kept, and as public as the coffee table where it is displayed. How then to interpret this blank page in the Chinese photo album? Here, it depicts the U.S. family's excision from the public face of their Chinese cousins, yet that absence is still marked by the photo mounts. These mounts, then, preserve the space for the reinsertion of the U.S. family, just as Fung preserves space for reinserting white tourists into his video record of Shanghai.

These blank pages near the end of the film recall the family photos at the beginning (which should be here, in the photo album, as well). The absence of the photos here might indicate that it is ultimately impossible to conceive parallel childhoods, the "What if we hadn't left?" But the photo album pages, bookending the film as they do, remind us that the film itself arranges time into its own version of narrative: We have been led to believe in Lisa's gradual incorporation into her Chinese family over the course of the film. The film itself has straddled the Chinese and American narratives, doing the work of connecting and contrasting them. The film's narrative articulates the forces which impelled departure from China and compelled "return."


These movies interrogate China as a point of departure for a series of potential narratives. The act of traveling to China in CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER and THE WAY TO MY FATHER'S VILLAGE involves an imaginative reversal of identifications with the forces which led fathers away from China. MADE IN CHINA speculates on the potential lives that Hsia might have led had she been horn elsewhere. I have argued that these films are most successful when they emphasize and thematize the processes by which they constitute China, thereby illuminating the process of identity formation, of becoming.[20] It is when these films refer to China as if it were a tangible, fixed object that their hypotheses are most precarious: attempting to secure China definitively risks reversing the process of constructing the film/videomaker's subjectivity. It is only in the process of departing from China that subjectivity emerges. Richard Fung understands himself best when he understands his father least, and Felicia Lowe recognizes that forging a connection with her family in China will strengthen her as she leaves China behind.

The investigation of the past continually throws the film/ videomaker upon the shoals of the present. The process of "returning" to China, identifying with an ancestor or the landscape and attaching new narratives to old images, emphasizes the discontinuity of cinematic investigation into the past. If Richard Fung traveled to China hoping to attach his father to a photograph of a house, he left China with that photograph irrevocably attached to himself, not to his father.

Images of the past fascinate not because they connect the past to us, but because they reveal the arbitrary relation of the past to ourselves. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes the process of seeking the one photograph that captures his mother's essence, settling on a photograph of her as a child taken at the Winter Garden long before he was born. This photograph, he says, captures his mother best, but it also captures the specter of her discontinuity.

"In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W.H. Steward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to he hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe." (96, emphasis in original)

The Winter Garden photograph is catastrophic since Barthes' mother is already dead, and by dying in this photograph, she dies before Barthes is born. A photograph of the past erases the present; the photograph is like a time traveler who returns to the past and murders her/his own ancestor. The narratives we attach to images connect them to us, hut the images themselves possess the spectre of our own death. It is hardly surprising, then, that Richard Fung's process of becoming, "the way" he finds his connection to the past, is to tell stories, for narratives contest the discontinuous past represented by cinema. The narrated story asserts the connection of the still image to the present through its existence in continuously unfolding time. Our connection to the past is an illusion, however, as illusory as the process of ventriloquism through which soundtrack and image track assert their ontological connection.[21]

But the shadows in Plato's Cave do not produce sounds; it is the mind of the viewer/auditor that associates sound and image. Cinema expresses both the desire to connect to the past and the fundamental disconnection with the past, a desire for continuity built upon an underlying discontinuity. The process of constructing Asian American subjectivity is thus akin to the process of film/videomaking as foregrounded by Richard Fung's video. By narrating the process of videomaking, Fung emphasizes the choices he could have made, the moments in the past where divergence might have taken place, and the selection of images which, once shot, mark a catastrophic murder of the present.

These movies smooth over the discontinuous past and propose a means of connecting past to present while they mark that very discontinuity. Simultaneously pointing to the gap in the past and attempting to fill it, they stumble when they let themselves believe that their efforts are more than makeshift. Felicia Lowe's search for the "real" China succeeds too well since the only China she can see is the one she set out to find. Richard Fung searches for a pure China as well, but by narrating his failure to do so, he permits both China and his father to exist apart from his own image of the past. Lisa Hsia's figure of the censored photo album reveals the discontinuity of the photographs themselves (the catastrophe they reveal) as well as the revisionist political history that impelled their removal.

The absence of an image here marks both its discontinuous existence and the historical rupture represented by its censorship. The truth of the past would not be in recovering the missing photos, unless the photo album could somehow mark the history of their absence and return, for the restoration of the photo album would not accurately depict the photos' prodigal years, when retaining the past was relegated to memory. Similarly, Chinese American movies cannot simply narrativize images, masking their discontinuity, rather such films must instead mark the historical rupture occasioned by the image's narrative detachment. When Fung's photograph attaches to Richard, and not to Eugene, then Richard becomes the link that marks the discontinuous past, the past that separated the photograph from Eugene. Linking the past to the present, these film/videomakers become the splice that holds together the discontinuity of a jump cut.

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