Five Videos: Ming Wong's “Forget it, Jake… it’s Chinatown.”

Five Videos is an online series "hosted" by Rhizome, in collaboration with FACT, responding to the Liverpool Biennial's theme, The Unexpected Guest. Each week throughout the Liverpool Biennial, an artist will curate five videos about hospitality. This week Ming Wong considers issues related to the uneasy history of Chinatowns in Western urban centers.


“Forget it, Jake… it’s Chinatown.”

So concludes, famously, that 1974 neo-noir Hollywood classic directed by Roman Polanski, ‘Chinatown’.  In one of the pieces I am showing at the Liverpool Biennial, I replace Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston in their iconic roles in selected scenes from the film, speaking about that place called ‘Chinatown’, posited as a space where ‘you can’t tell what’s going on’. 

Despite the axiomatic utterance, I, however, could not forget it, I could not forget Chinatown, and in the subsequent months after making ‘Making Chinatown’ I delved into research into the history of the Chinatowns in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

I discovered a parallel history in Liverpool, home to the oldest Chinatown in Europe. San Francisco and Liverpool were the first and biggest port-of-call for Chinese immigrants coming to America and Europe at the turn of the 20th century. 

Despite having been brought over to build the railroads in America or having fought in the war for the British navy, the Chinese suffered discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic.  Anti-Chinese sentiment ran highest during the Great Depression and the post-war years, when laws were passed to restrict their numbers and chances of survival in the ‘host’ countries.  The phrase ‘Not a Chinaman’s Chance’ came into use during this time.

Here is a video of the story of Angel Island in San Francisco bay, which served as an immigration station from 1910 -1940; today it is a museum where you can still see the calligraphic poems carved into the walls of the detection barrack where the Chinese immigrants were once detained:


In Liverpool, in 2006, a memorial plaque was unveiled at the waterfront to commemorate the Chinese seamen who fought for the British, but who were then forcibly deported after the war. Many of them leaving behind their English wives and Eurasian children who never saw their husbands or fathers again. Here is the story of one daughter.

During this era of ‘yellow peril’, pulp fiction writers began to use Chinatown as a crime setting, feeding the public’s fear and imagination of the unknown, such as Sax Rohmer who wrote the infamous ‘Fu Manchu’ novels.

Eventually this practice of employing orientalist setting and casting made its way into the cinema, especially in Film Noir : ‘The Shanghai Gesture’, ‘The Lady from Shanghai’, ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Daughter of the Dragon’, ‘Mysterious Mr Wong’, ‘House of Bamboo’, ‘Betrayal from the East’, ‘Macao’, ‘Saigon’, ‘Across the Pacific’ to name a few.

The new work I made for Liverpool Biennial ‘After Chinatown’ acknowledges the uneasy legacy of these noir films.  In it I portray a detective as well as a femme fatale who wander through a space called ‘Chinatown’.  It was shot over the summer on location in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hong Kong, so in a way I was retracing the journeys made by the early Chinese immigrants.

In a scene from ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ you can see Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth running through the Chinatown in San Francisco, ending up in a Chinese opera theatre.  Some of these locations also feature in ‘After Chinatown’.

(**jump to 4:30)

In contrast with film noir depictions of Chinatown, consider Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘Chungking Express’, in which the actress Brigit Lin dons the femme fatale uniform of blond wig, sunglasses and trenchcoat and runs through the underworld of Hong Kong.

—Ming Wong