Filmmaker Yuko Torihara spent the entire year of quarantine in Manhattan. At the end of January, she and a few artist colleagues burst with pent-up creative energy and began looking for a point of sale. They developed an idea for a project: a nightly shoot in Chinatown with the neon signs of the district against the dark sky. A main character introduced himself – Henry Chang, a seventy-year-old writer, born and raised in Chinatown, whose crime novels are set in the neighborhood.
When Chang was born in the early 1950s, Manhattan’s Chinatown was only three blocks away. He grew up with Corky Lee, a Sino-American photographer who documented the Asian-American community striving for political voice and artistic expression. Lee was in Chinatown what Bill Cunningham was to the Sartorialists of Manhattan and Roy DeCarava was to Harlem after the Renaissance – his photographic sensibility became the lens through which generations of Americans from Asia saw themselves as part of the greater American resistance. Torihara likes to imagine that when Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring made waves in the limelight on Canal Street just a few blocks south in the 1980s, Chang and Lee were living their wild youth. Lee died in January, just the day before Torihara’s shoot, and the group had to ponder the deep connections and resilience of their community. “Corky is not blood to me. He’s not such a family, ”said Chang, looking at the camera. “It’s street. And down here road often means more than blood. “During the pandemic, the streets were emptied of guests and tourists, but residents are not going anywhere.
Torihara was born in Japan and moved to New York City fifteen years ago. She is a photographer and plays in independent productions. She sees Chang as “the quintessential New York artist” – he wrote detective novels for years in the 1990s while he was a day job as a security officer with the Trump Organization. “He’s someone who persevered and, you know, never gave up his art and never gave up living in New York City,” Torihara told me of Zoom. For them, “the street” of Chinatown is the group of Asian-American artists who used to gather at film screenings and events. She hadn’t seen Chang since the lockdown, but had seen his energy in Facebook posts – books on Asian-American history, pictures of him and his friends posing in the street with rock and roll horns, and more recently A picture of a COVID vaccine pin (“You have to take your pictures,” Chang wrote for 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 mixture of the real writer and his die-hard detective fiction – driving through his streets to feel the wind or the rain or the hot sun where reality plunges into your own imagination. “
For a long time, it made little sense to Torihara to be an Asian actor. “The breadth of roles written by non-Asians, filled by non-Asians, headed by non-Asians, and the role pool are so small,” she said. “Even if you get this role, is it satisfying?” With so many limitations, creating art as an Asian person felt almost like activism, and this film – produced by a mostly Asian crew – is meant to be “a piece of protest”. Torihara is still fighting to process last week’s Atlanta shootings that killed eight people, including six Asian women. At a rally in Columbus Park protesting violence against Asians, she saw hundreds of people of all ages “just being together because they’re hurt.” Speech takes many forms. “I portrayed my friend, an older Asian man, the way he wanted to be seen, not the way older Asian men are portrayed in mainstream American media,” said Torihara. Chang on the screen is bragging. After dark in Chinatown, he’s self-possessed and in control of the story he tells – the streets he walks belong to his people.