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8 Films That Explore Contemporary Issues Surrounding Chinese Diasporas

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People from the Chinese diaspora are spread all over the globe, and movies describing stories of immigration, culture, and struggles accompany these communities. Here are eight films set in eight different countries and across five continents around the world that address issues of identity and culture.

Ping Pong (1986) — UK

This film is a comedy mystery film taking place in London’s central Chinatown area. We follow law clerk Elaine Choi as she tries to execute restaurateur Sam Wong’s will. The ensuing chaos forces her to confront cultural nuances as she meets various members of the dead man’s family after his will is read, with the last condition of the will for Wong to be buried in his hometown in China. The various characters have different reasons for not wanting to accompany the body back to China, such as immigration issues and grievances at not being given Wong’s restaurant in the will.

The film is not shy about depicting the shifting identities of the protagonist British-Chinese youths, and is seen as a reflection of of British-Chinese director Poh-Chi Leong’s own experiences. 

Watch it Amazon Prime

In the Shadow of Gold Mountain (2004) — Canada

In The Shadow of Gold Mountain Diaspora Film Radii China

Gold Mountain, a name initially given to San Francisco by Chinese immigrants during the American gold rush in the mid-19th century, was later applied to British Columbia, a province in Canada, when gold was found there in the late 1850s. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants came to Canada during this time and later in the 1880s to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, leading to racist and discriminatory views against Chinese people at the time.

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Chinese Exclusion: Celebrating the Workers Who Helped Build the Transcontinental Railway

This film is a short, 43-minute documentary, in which director Karen Cho goes from Montreal to Vancouver to meet the last living survivors of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act, which was enacted as a way to single out Chinese immigrants, who were the only nationality that had to pay the head tax until it was abolished in 1923. During that time 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid around 23 million USD in tax. From 1923, the Chinese immigration act, also known as the Chinese exclusion act, was brought in, which barred all Chinese immigration, but for a handful of students, diplomats and merchants. This time period, spanning from 1885 to 1947, still impacts the Chinese Canadian community today. 

Watch it Amazon Prime

Saving Face (2004) — USA

Alice Wu’s Saving Face is a veritable classic. Her feature-length debut, it was the first major Hollywood film to focus on Chinese-American characters since The Joy Luck Club, which was released in 1993. Wu would go on to release The Half of It in 2020, the critically-acclaimed film about a shy and intelligent Asian-American student who discovers her sexuality in the fictional Pacific Northwest town of Squahamish in the US.

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“Tigertail,” “The Half of It” and Modern Asian American Movies in the Mainstream

Saving Face remains a classic narrative story focused on Chinese American characters and is consistently screened at festivals and was even featured at the San Diego Asian Film Festival last year. The love story focuses on a lesbian Chinese-American surgeon played by Michelle Krusiec and her pregnant out-of-wedlock mother. Focused on themes of love and marriage in Chinese-American communities, Saving Face is definitely worth the watch.

Watch it Amazon Prime

Ah Kew The Digger (2004) — Malaysia

Self-taught archaeologist and field historian Lee Eng Kew goes in search of stories of Chinese immigration in Malaysia, turning up tales at graveyards and temples around Taiping in the state of Perak. His search to uncover histories of the Chinese communities in the Malaysian town is followed by filmmaker Khoo Eng Yow.

The film is a must watch to better understand Chinese immigration to Taiping and Malaysia in general, as well as a personal glance into Eng Kew’s life and experiences. 

A Letter of Unprotected Memories (2008) — Indonesia

In 1967, this film Lucky Kuswandi shows us his personal relationship with Imlek, the Chinese New Year. In Indonesia, celebrating Imlek was banned in 1967, made legal to celebrate in 2000, and then turned into a national holiday in 2002. For Kuswandi and many Chinese-Indonesians, the transition from a banned to national holiday makes Imlek a center point around which many think about Chinese diaspora experiences in Indonesia. Kuswandi brings us into his childhood, turning up the unique stories and colors that have come to populate the holiday for Chinese Indonesians. 

Watch it Viddsee

33 Postcards (2011) — Australia

Born in Vietnam, but of Chinese descent, director Pauline Chan made 33 Postcards in 2001 after a career as an actress through her early life. This riveting film revolves around the story of 16-year-old Chinese orphan Mei Mei who receives postcards from an Australian sponsor, played by Guy Pearce, who tells her warming stories about his family. When she gets the opportunity to travel to Australia with her orphanage choir, she finds out that he is actually in prison. 

Mei Mei decides to stay in Australia to wait for Pearce to get out, so that she can have a family, but ends up entangled in crime herself. 33 Postcards picked up awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival and more.

Watch it Amazon Prime

Ilo Ilo (2014) — Singapore

Ilo Ilo is a touching glance into a family’s struggles in the face of death and the Asian financial crisis in 1997. 

The family comprises of Teck, a father who works in sales, Hwee Leng, a pregnant mother and secretary, and their rebellious son Jiale. The economic crisis hits right as the family hires a Filipina housekeeper Teresa. The family and their relationships are further twisted as Jiale and Teresa become closer. This film doesn’t waste any time in depicting the strain Singapore’s economic and hierarchical stress place on the family. 

Watch it Tubi TV

Days of Cannibalism (2020) — Lesotho

South African director Teboho Edkins sets his sights on migrant issues in Lesotho, an enclaved country surrounded by South Africa. Days of Cannibalism is a powerful reminder of the socioeconomic and power discrepancies between migrant groups and locals. Charting different ethnic groups in places such as Guangzhou and the mountains of Lesotho, the film plots out the impact of the growing numbers of Chinese people living in the southern Africa country.

Focusing on the Chinese-South African community in Lesotho, the film looks at the relationship between South Africans employed by Chinese shopkeepers and the linguistic, cultural, and belief differences that affect the relationships between the two parties. 

Lakshmi Iyengar
    Lakshmi Iyengar is a Yenching Scholar studying health, economics, and modern China. Before moving to Beijing, she majored in Biomedical Engineering at Yale. Follow her on twitter @vlakshmiiyengar for insights on China and life