June 23, 2021

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Corky Lee, Henry Chang, and the Life of a Storied Neighborhood in “Chinatown Beat”

3 min read

The filmmaker Yuko Torihara spent the entire quarantine year in Manhattan. In late January, she and a few fellow-artists were bursting with pent-up creative energy and began looking for an outlet. They developed an idea for a project: a nighttime shoot in Chinatown, with the neighborhood’s neon signs against the dark sky. A main character presented himself—Henry Chang, a seventy-year-old novelist, born and raised in Chinatown, whose crime novels are set in the neighborhood.

When Chang was born, in the early fifties, Manhattan’s Chinatown was merely three blocks. He grew up with Corky Lee, a Chinese-American photographer who documented the Asian-American community as it strived for a political voice and artistic expression. Lee was to Chinatown what Bill Cunningham was to the sartorialists of Manhattan, and what Roy DeCarava was to post-Renaissance Harlem—his photographic sensibility became the lens through which generations of Asian-Americans saw themselves as part of the larger American resistance. Torihara likes to imagine that when Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were making waves on Canal Street, in the eighties, just a few blocks south, out of the spotlight Chang and Lee were living their wild youth. Lee passed away in January, just a day before Torihara’s shoot, and the group got to thinking about the deep connections and resilience of their community. “Corky is not blood to me. He’s not family like that,” Chang said, looking into the camera. “He is street. And, down here, street, a lot of times, means more than blood.” During the pandemic, the streets emptied of diners and tourists, but its inhabitants are not going anywhere.

Torihara was born in Japan and moved to New York City fifteen years ago. She is a photographer and acts in independent productions. She sees Chang as “a quintessential New York artist”—for years, in the nineties, he wrote detective novels while holding down a day job overseeing security operations at the Trump Organization. “He is someone who persevered and, you know, never gave up on his art and never gave up on living in New York City,” Torihara told me, over Zoom. For her, “the street” of Chinatown is the group of Asian-American artists that used to gather at screenings and events. She hadn’t seen Chang since before the lockdown, but his energy in Facebook posts—sharing books on Asian-American history, pictures of him and his friends posing on the street with rock-and-roll horns, and, more recently, an image of a COVID-vaccine pin (“you gotta take your shots,” Chang wrote as the caption)—always made her smile. She wanted to ask him about his creative process, and the result of their exchange is the intimate monologue of “Chinatown Beat,” in which Chang embodies his alter ego—a blend of the real-life novelist and the hard-boiled detective of his fiction—cruising around his streets, “to feel the wind, or the rain, or the hot sun, where reality crashes into your own imagination.”

For the longest time, being an Asian actor made little sense to Torihara. “The breadth of roles, written by non-Asians, cast by non-Asians, directed by non-Asians, and the pool of the roles are so tiny,” she said. “Even when you get that role, is it satisfying?” With so many limitations, the act of creating art as an Asian person almost felt like activism, and this film—produced by a mostly Asian crew—is intended to be “a piece of protest.” Torihara is still struggling to process the shootings in Atlanta last week, in which eight people, including six Asian women, were murdered. At a rally in Columbus Park protesting violence against Asians, she saw hundreds of people of all ages “just being together because they’re hurting.” Speaking up takes many forms. “I portrayed my friend, an elder Asian man, the way he would want to be seen, not the way elder Asian men are portrayed in mainstream American media,” Torihara said. Chang, onscreen, is full of swagger. After nightfall, in Chinatown, he is self-possessed and in control of the story he is telling—the streets he walks belong to his people.

Han Zhang
2021-03-24 13:54:23

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