It was basically a bachelor society when then Chinese first came over to Jamaica. So there is a whole other side where they did have mixed-race children with local women. I want people to know that there is a whole wide range of experience that has not really been told about this community.
Jeanette Kong is a documentary filmmaker from Jamaica based in Toronto, Canada, who has made it her mission to document the experience of the Chinese-Jamaican community. Her short films The Chiney Shop and Half: The Story of a Chinese-Jamaican Son premiered in Trinidad and Tobago at ttff/12 and ttff/13, respectively. Her most recent film, Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China (2014) is also a ttff/14 selection and it was also shortlisted for Best Diaspora Documentary at this year’s Africa Movie Academy Awards.
Finding Samuel Lowe follows three siblings from Harlem, New York who seek to learn about their Chinese grandfather, who was forever separated from their mother—his half-Chinese, half-Jamaican daughter—in 1920. After a 91-year separation, his black-Chinese grandchildren journey from Harlem to Toronto to Jamaica to China, in search of Samuel Lowe.
Our ttff14 blogger Aurora Herrera was able to talk with Kong about the journey to make this film, as well as pertinent issues in the Chinese-Jamaican experience.
This is your third time in the Festival. How does that make you feel?
I am very fortunate. I consider it an honour and a privilege that all three of my films have made it to the Festival. The Festival has been amazingly supportive and I’m so grateful for that.
Do you find that because of your subject matter that the Caribbean festivals are more accepting of your work than other festivals?
For sure, I think that because of the subject matter that I deal with, the Jamaican and Chinese diaspora communities and trying to record their struggled past, that there is an affinity in Trinidad. I think that the Chinese in Trinidad can relate to the experience of Jamaican history and the migration patters and all that comes with it.
The Chinese immigrants to the Caribbean have had a reputation of being a bit isolated. It is surprising to find out that they had so many relationships with local women. Can you comment on this?
It’s a very complex and complicated history. While the Chinese wanted to retain their culture—which has manifested in this type of clannishness that has always been noticed—it was basically a bachelor society when they first came over. So there is a whole other side where they did have mixed-race children with local women. I want people to know that there is a whole wide range of experience that has not really been told about this community. I think it is very important to tell this story, so in my films I really try to capture the intersection of the two cultures.
There has been a new wave of Chinese immigration that has come in to Trinidad, that’s what I’ve understood. It probably happened from the 1990s onwards. The same thing happened in Jamaica as well. So it would also be interesting to map what happens with these newer immigrants.
Tell me more about this “intersection” of culture.
Well in my film Half, Vincent’s mother sends him away because she feels that it would make the Chinese side of the family happy. However, when he comes back he has this real love for his mother who is a Jamaican woman. Even though we are worlds apart there is this meeting place that happens and it’s what comes out of it that is so special and I think that it is our humanity that comes out.
So with this film, the family looks for the most part very African-American. Paula [Williams Madison] has a quarter Chinese in her but she goes looking for that family and once again it’s that intersection with the Chinese and Jamaican culture that produced her. What happens is beyond anyone’s expectations. She had a hope that she would be accepted but I think it was even beyond her wildest dreams. It has been amazing to see this whole thing unfolding.
Did Paula come to you and ask for your help or did you find her story?
What happened was her cousin saw my film The Chiney Shop and he bought a DVD and sent it out to her in LA. I was actually filming on Half in South Dakota when she got a hold of me and I told her I was a little busy at the moment but would be willing to meet up at the Hakka conference in Toronto. She came to meet me. She said that after she saw the film she felt that I could help because I knew the community and she reached out to me to research her family and as I am a documentary filmmaker, she wanted me to have the story well documented and recorded. Then we went on this great adventure to find the family.
When Paula arrives in Jamaica at the house of her grandfather and she begins to cry, what was your personal reaction to the moment?
I thought it was a very honest moment and at that point it was more than she had hoped for, to find the house and that it would still be standing. It was a beautiful moment because she has family there with her to support her and experience it with her.
Family seems to be very central to the Hakka community and more than one person expresses how much Paula’s efforts to find her family are very touching to them. The way that they accept Paula is very moving as well. Can you talk to me about being around this type of experience?
To me it was an unfolding of this love story. When I would talk to Paula, she would just gush and just be so effusive about her uncle and I said “You’re in love with him” and she said “Yeah!” and after a whole life of not knowing him and then finding him and then him being such a wonderful person was great for her. And then when I went to China, I recognized that he loved her too and I thought it was really wonderful how they have this familial love that connects them. I think it resonates with a lot of people because it makes us reflect on our own families. This family I think is exceptional because as somebody from the community, I know that that isn’t always the case. There isn’t always that openness.
Is Hakka a language on its own?
Hakka is a separate dialect. They are Chinese but they have their own language and foods and culture. Even within the Hakka groups, there are different subgroups. In the film, I would speak Hakka and write things out phonetically and the cousin would translate. Paula’s uncle speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka. He could have answered in Cantonese but it was important to me to have him speak Hakka because I want to preserve the culture. A lot of people in the Caribbean have lost it.
What was it like filming in China?
I went about a week ahead of them with her uncle, who is just such a lovely gentleman, and also her cousin. When I arrived, believe it or not, they welcomed me with open arms! I was going to lunches and dinners with them. They just dropped me into their family. I felt very at home with them and it was extraordinary how they just opened up their arms and had no problems with me interviewing them and they took me around to the ancestral village and I was able to do some filming before. Martin Proctor, the DP, was in Chicago with the family as they prepared to come. I think they really accepted me because we had just been to Jamaica together. I also think being Hakka helped. In the film the talk about the Hakka spirit of family and togetherness and they really exemplified that Hakka spirit when I came to visit with them and they really opened themselves to me.
Do you think the fact that you were making a documentary made a difference in the way that they received you and Paula?
I asked her cousin recently if it made a difference that I am Hakka and he said definitely but this is one cousin’s opinion. But I think once again I think it has a lot to do with that Hakka spirit. Both my parents were Hakka and I think it’s very ingrained in me. I was brought up as very Jamaican as well. I am a product of all three cultures I was brought up in.
Do you feel that this film is a summation of the work that you do with the Chinese Jamaican culture?
I think it’s an aspect of the Jamaican Chinese experience. There are other stories that I want to tell that are not related to the Jamaican Chinese experience that explore identity and belonging. There is a list of documentaries I want to do and I feel like it’s my mission to accomplish that before I leave the planet.
Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China will be showing at the ttff/14 on the following dates. Jeanette Kong will be present to engage in a question-and-answer session with the audience.
Tue 23 Sept, 10.30am, MovieTowne POS
Sun 28 Sept, 1.00pm, MovieTowne POS, Q+A
[vimeo 84472327 620]