Julia: It was very new for us. We were discovering how to support elders over digital spaces, which many people were doing during the early pandemic—teaching their elders how to use Zoom. But for me, what I discovered working online is that the intimate conversations you could have with folks who were not living in the same city, or who would have had difficulties accessing certain spaces, was quite a gift. It also served two purposes: we were uncovering stories and creating art, but we were also just creating connection in a way that I was craving very deeply at that point in the pandemic. So some of the stories were pretty intimate. We had very specific needs like, “Tell us what it was like dating in the fifties in Chinatown?” I found that the conversations, to my surprise, were really rich online. I guess we’ll never know what they would have been like in person, but I think all of the circumstances allowed us to go quite deep into topics with community members across several different cities.
Keira: There’s something about the restrictions of the period we were creating. I remember when we were editing the final stuff and it was so perfectly imperfect. We weren’t in enough control of everything—the sound on this piece is really crappy, there’s a Totoro puzzle in the background (anachronistic!). Or when you were nine months pregnant, and you were trying to shoot POV shots of your shoes and couldn’t see your feet! This as new filmmakers plus all the additional restrictions of lockdown. It was nice that they were just so real. It actually made them quite easy to navigate, right? In some ways, we could figure out what we could do more easily. There was something captured within those restrictions that made the piece itself cohesive on its own terms. After we rewatched it after not seeing it for a while, I remember thinking, Oh, right. If I’m looking for all the mistakes and that kind of stuff, I’d just start to mess with it too much. It causes the piece to lose the reality of the restrictions we’d been dealt in the beginning of its creation, and that actually takes away from the necessity of what was created. So, I feel like what we created was kind of distilled down to what we needed to create. It embraced all the restrictions and limitations of the technology and the realities that we were dealing with in a way that I thought was really interesting.
Julia: Right, like how the only actors we could have were people in our “bubble.” Your children are in it as is your partner, Varrick, and my mother and my nephew. We were really just using who we had available, our intimate family, to perform and tell these stories, which I really liked. That challenge, the imperfect nature of it—when I look back at it now, it was actually artistically fun to have. We had to make this work with, say, the four people we lived with. We couldn’t hire another actor. We had children playing their great-grandmothers and our mothers playing their mothers on camera.
To make community arts with this very specific community meant that we were going to work with our own families because that’s who would have been a teenage girl in Chinatown in the forties and fifties. The excitement of having all of those women in one room, one digital space, felt really powerful.
Keira: Maybe there’s something there. You have these technical restrictions that mean you really can only loop in the people you live with. And when you do include those people, they become part of that community too. I loved how much my kids learned about that part of Chinese Canadian history because they were helping me edit or acting stuff out. They’d want to know more. Now my daughter Rosy knows about that time in Chinatown, Chinese history, more so than if she’d read about it or if I had just told her. That’s kind of cool.
There’s this “personal becoming the community” kind of learning that happens when community artists say, “I am in the community too.” There’s a real compartmentalization in my training. In the field, you know, you’re an actor or a singer or a dancer. This “community-engaged artist” thing is a whole other thing entirely. Also, as a Chinese person who decides to be an artist, there’s a part of me that has a bit of a foundational assumption that my work with my community can’t be real art. This project really changed that in a way that I think is really important. I’m just really grateful to have had that belief shaken up a bit more experientially within myself.
Meeting your mom, and learning more about her experience, and putting myself on a continuum with other artists who come from the same cultural background, are pursuing art in their life, and are being artistic and identifying themselves as artists. All of that exists in my community in a much more grounded and integrated way than I had perceived before, and it exists in a way that allows me to participate in that community, see myself in that community with more confidence and grounding, and see the foundation of shared values within my community.
Julia: Yeah, that’s huge.
Keira: It was huge.