By Eddie Wong. Posted on October 8, 2021.
I had the great pleasure and honor of producing my first documentary film 50 years ago as part of UCLA’s Ethnocommunications Program. The film was “Wong Sinsaang,” a 12-minute profile of my father, Wong Moon Tung, a laundryman in Hollywood, CA. Looking back at the entire process of making the film, which happened over 10 weeks, I treasure the time spent learning about my father and myself. Even though I did not know it at the time, this experience put me on a path that has carried me across decades. I realize now that this film crystalized all that I was and all that I was to be – a storyteller. Whether it is through writing, photography, filmmaking or organizing, it’s always been about a narrative; sometimes it’s harsh truths and sometimes it’s moments of beauty that I seek to capture. In this essay, I can look back at my younger self and laugh at my mistakes and appreciate the choices that were made on the spur of the moment.
This story begins with getting into film school. It was fall 1970 and UCLA’s film program instituted an affirmative action program that brought fresh talent and viewpoints to Melnitz Hall. For the first time, dozens of African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans were recruited to this elite film school, which had almost been predominantly white and male. Us “ethno” folks spent many hours together learning how to record sound, shoot a 16 mm Arriflex or Éclair, and edit on the Movieola all the while sharing stories about our families and communities.
Going to film school was a bit of a stretch for me because I did not consider myself to be an artist. Most of my time at UCLA was spent fighting for ethnic studies, protesting the Vietnam War, working on Gidra, a community newspaper, and editing Roots: An Asian American Reader at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center with Franklin Odo, Amy Uyematsu, and Buck Wong. Applying for film school required assembling an art portfolio and all I could muster up were a few dreadful poems. The closest I came to photographic work was taking family photos at holidays with a Kodak Instamatic. Alan Nishio, who was the acting director of the Asian American Studies Center, encouraged me to apply, accepted my “portfolio,” and passed it along to the film school. Somehow, I got accepted, took a deep breath and jumped into the deep end.
Project One: Choosing a Theme
I had to decide very quickly on a topic for Project One, a class where all entering students are required to produce a non-sync sound Super-8 mm film. One has 10 weeks to develop, shoot, and edit the project. It could be a narrative project or a documentary film, but whatever it was, you were responsible for assembling the team and getting it done. It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to pick a subject that I was familiar with and that meant choosing something close to home literally and emotionally. If you are emotionally invested in a story and tell it honestly, audiences will connect with it and that, after all, is the goal with creative work.
I chose to tell the story of my love/hate relationship with my father. Using this theme as the crux of the film, I gathered elements that would tell the story of my father’s dual identities. The face he presented to his customers was Frank Wong (his paper son name), a quiet, submissive laundryman who spoke English with a sing-song accent. His true nature was far more complex and as a father, community leader, and general badass. He was loud, angry, smart, well-respected and to us kids, feared as a brutal disciplinarian. So, who was Frank Wong aka Fook Gooy Wong aka Moon Tung Wong?
“Wong Sinsaang” is much more a film about how I felt about my father than a look at the life of laundryman. Earlier that summer, I had read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and it was a revelation to me. Though Malcolm Little’s father was quite different than my father, the strictures of racism placed his identity and relationships with family and community within a colonized context. As part of the servant class, men like Malcolm’s father and my father were expected to kow-tow to whites. I saw this every day growing up in the Frank Wong laundry. My father depended on the customers for his livelihood and that meant he had to curry their favor. To illustrate that point, I looped a sequence of Frank/customer interactions with a customer where my father tells a customer, “you have a nice shirt” and the customer replies “well, let’s keep it take way” and my father echoes “yes, keep it that way.”
Peering through a hole punched in the wooden partition that separated the front of the laundry with our living space in the back, I cringed when I saw my father genuflecting several times a day to folks who didn’t give a shit about him. I lost respect for my father. Much later, I realized that eating shit also took a toll on him as he boiled with anger and took it out on four screaming, smart-mouthed kids (Suzi, Donna, Warren and me). My mother, of course, tried to calm him down, but while she was our savior and protector, we didn’t escape from his blows to our heads and whippings with the gai mo sau (chicken feather duster). It’s taken me a long time to forgive him for beating me on the head. I’m damaged goods, folks. But that’s how vicious racism is – tragedy heaped on top of sadness and bitterness coursing through a lifespan of dashed hopes.
I had also read Pan Africanist and Marxist Frantz Fanon’s book “A Dying Colonialism,” which described how colonized people see themselves through the eyes of the oppressor. Deep within my disgust for my father were the seeds of my self-hatred and inchoate feelings of anger and rebellion.
I didn’t have the time or the insight to reveal the cauldron of emotions boiling deep within my father. I know he had a rough childhood and he told us many times about being so poor that they could only afford to have meat at festival time. Ground up fish heads, vegetables that they grew, and rice were the staple of his diet. And while he was smart (his childhood friends regaled us with tales of my father reciting classical Chinese poems), the family could not afford to send him to college. He and most of his brothers were sent to the U.S. to earn money and send it home to support the parents and the struggling farm. That poverty and lack of educational opportunity truly embittered him. Thus, he invested his hopes for his children, who at times seemed to waste all the opportunities in front of them, by pursuing the arts and attending political demonstrations.
I decided to focus the film on telling the story of the man behind the stereotype of the docile Chinaman. I asked my father to allow me to film him painting watercolors on his one day off, Sunday, and to show him writing poetry and practicing calligraphy. I would scour through family photo albums and found news clippings from his days as a welding crew boss at a Chicago ship building factory during WWII and photos of a dapper blade standing next to his Pontiac coupe. To demonstrate his strength, I asked him to perform his Northern Shaolin kung-fu. After I finished the first edit, he objected to his kung fu performance on the grounds that it was imperfect. He made me reshoot and reedit the scene. And I did so gladly because he had so graciously allowed me to direct him in scenes from his own life.
To this day, I do not truly know why he agreed to let me intrude upon his workday and home life. Maybe, he saw it as a way to help me succeed in school, even though he did not approve of art/film as a field of study. Perhaps by then he had been worn out by Suzi,his older daughter, who wanted to become a writer and Donna, his younger daughter, who became a painter and printmaker. At least, his youngest son, my brother Warren, was a math major; although the math went by the wayside and he pursued his talent, too: playing and coaching tennis. But I am forever grateful that he allowed me to tell his story and the story of how I came to admire the man behind the stereotype.
Deciding on the Look and Feel
Well before I became a filmmaker, I was a film fanatic and loved watching all types of movies – adventure, science fiction, westerns, dramas, and musicals. I also loved reading about how directors prepared for their productions. Several of my favorite directors Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Akira Kurosawa, and the Coen brothers all utilize detailed storyboards to help them previsualize the film and elicit suggestions from the art and production designer, costume designer and cinematographer. It also helps the editorial team. While I cannot draw beyond stick figures and did not create a storyboard for “Wong Sinsaang,” I made mental sketches of the opening sequence of “Wong Sinsaang” to draw the viewer into the setting, going from a pan down the laundry sign outside the shop to a wide shot of my father at work. Thus, the theme of going from the exterior life to the interior was set visually. Similarly, I wanted to convey the mechanics of producing a smooth, ironed shirt and pants with close-ups of the hulking pressing machine. The sound design emphasized the hissing of the compressor and the clanking of the press. Given the intimate circumstance, I chose to shoot everything myself as having a crew would be too distracting.
By the late 1960s, foreign films and American films with an expressionistic flair like Arthur Penn’s “Mickey One” were playing in Los Angeles. The Encore Theater, located down the street from my father’s laundry, exhibited Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” and Jean Luc-Godard’s “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” and “Weekend.” I devoured those films and tried to incorporate the non-conventional editing and fractured timelines into my first work. I also realized that films didn’t need to look Hollywood pretty.
I decided to shoot the film in black and white Tri-X with a 1200 ASA to create a grainy, gritty look. It cost more to process black and white Super-8 mm cartridges than color, but I knew black and white would also make the film stand out in the viewer’s mind. The b/w film footage would pair nicely with the many black and white photographs I would use from the family photo albums.
Now that I had the look of the film, I also needed to find music to reinforce the mood that I was trying to create in various sequences. The notion that my father was transcending the monotony of pressing shirts led me to use Miles Davis’ tune “Shh, Peaceful” and Joe Zawinul’s song “In a Silent Way.” Miles’ fat notes on those ethereal melodies were perfect. The bed of sustained chords laid down on organ by Joe Zawinul with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano accompanied by the churning percussion of the rhythm section of Dave Holland, bass, and Tony Williams, drums, plus Wayne Shorter on sax, and John McLaughlin’s meditative,droning notes on electric guitar created a stunning mood piece. Chinese classical music would also be a good fit for sequences where my father was painting. Having zero budget for music, I recorded the music from albums borrowed from the public library. You can hear the pops, squeaks and scratches if you listen closely.
The Production Process
I don’t remember much about the shooting of the film. There was no particular order to the shoot. It was a crew of one, just me hanging out at the laundry to catch the flow of the day – customers arriving, packing up the dirty clothes to ship out to the industrial laundry which washed the clothes, ironing and pressing sheets, shirts, pants, blouses when they returned from the industrial laundry. Not having a strong photographic background, I struggled with the light meter to set the exposure on the little Nizo Super-8 camera. Several scenes are “blown out,” i.e,. over-exposed. Even though I knew that I needed to zoom in and set focus and then pull back to begin the shot, in my haste to capture a moment, I often zoomed in and pressed the trigger to start filming. Thus, there are many shots that begin out of focus and slowly emerge into focus. And there’s plenty of shaky cam as I searched for the framing I wanted. All part of learning and yet it seemed to work in this flawed effort.
The soundtrack of the film is a mix of incidental sound/environmental collages of machinery and customer chatter, all called “wild” sound in filmspeak. I recorded my voice over right before the editing process. All the sound was transferred from cassette tapes to magnetic sound track to be synced with the filmed footage.
Editing is my favorite part of filmmaking. It was a tactile process of feeding spools of film into a viewer, marking the segments to be used, and then cutting them into strips to be hung up in a bin. One tapes together the segments and runs them through the movieola to see how the scene plays. It’s the constant practice of shortening and lengthening scenes and checking the pacing overall that creates the final cut. Throughout the editing, teaching assistant/filmmaker Betty Chen encouraged me to keep refining the cut. As a rookie, her words of encouragement meant the world to me.
As you can imagine, editing is a time-consuming process. I came down with a bad cold towards the end of the three-week editing process, but rather than stop, I plowed on through. The cold developed into an ear infection, which diminished my hearing in my right ear and led to a punctured eardrum. It turned out to be fortuitous because I then got reclassified from 1A in the draft (lucky number 13) to 4-F, medically, psychologically, or morally unqualified to serve in the military.
I was happy with the final cut and proudly presented my film before the entire film school at the open screening of Project One films. I don’t remember any of the professors’ or students’ comments at the screening. Some of the films were treated harshly, including one Chicano student’s film which was entirely in Spanish with no subtitles. One professor sputtered something along the lines of “how do you expect us to evaluate this film when we can’t understand it?” The filmmaker replied, “Maybe you should learn Spanish.” Verdad!
Distribution and the Legacy of “Wong Sinsaang”
After “Wong Sinsaang” was completed, teachers and students requested copies to be used in Asian American Studies classes. The Super-8mm film was blown up to 16 mm and became the first film, along with Robert Nakamura’s “Manzanar,” which was also a Project One film, to be distributed by Visual Communications/Asian American Studies Central, Inc. Several of the Asian American students in the Ethno program including Bob, Duane Kubo, myself along with Alan Ohashi had formed Visual Communications as a non-profit media production company to fill the void in Asian American curriculum materials. “Wong Sinsaang” and “Manzanar” appeared in Visual Communication’s catalog in 1971 and were purchased by universities, colleges, libraries and secondary schools. I often wonder what people thought of this grainy film with my emotionally wrought voice over. I hope it stirred some awareness of what it feels like to be treated as less than human and yet resisting mistreatment by asserting one’s humanity through art. The title of the film carries a subtle message as “sinsaang” both means Mr. and teacher.
Some friends at the Chinatown Youth Council in Los Angeles, created Chinese subtitles for the film. We projected those subtitles side by side with the film at screening for my father’s friends in Chinatown. There were howls of laughter as they saw their childhood friend who now served as the Secretary of the Chinese Laundryman’s Association up on screen. A few of them came up to me afterwards and congratulated me on a good job. But my most cherished review came from my father who said, “Not bad. Make a better film next time.”
I would have the privilege of making more films with Visual Communications, but “Wong Sinsaang” was a rite of passage and one that I am proud to have traversed.