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Chinatown

A Documentary from KQED San Francisco

 

Chinatown

A Portrait of a World-Renowned Neighborhood

Premiered Wednesday, July 30, 1997 at 10pm ET on PBS

Thousands of tourists flock through its streets every day; its curio shops, all-night restaurants and crowded alleys have been celebrated from Broadway to Hollywood. But few people know the human drama and history that are hidden in the streets and faces of San Francisco's Chinatown. Chinatown, a one-hour documentary in its premiere national broadcast on PBS Wednesday, July 30, 1997 from 10-11pm ET (Editors: check local listings), tells the neighborhood's story from the point of view of those who have lived their lives there. The program is narrated by folklorist Charlie Chin and features the poetry of performance artist and poet Genny Lim.

Chinatown, though focused on one neighborhood, is in many ways the story of all Chinese in America. For decades, San Francisco's Chinatown was the largest community of Chinese outside Asia, and yet was a neighborhood forced to be independent, even isolated, from the rest of society. Its residents were barred from even the basic rights of citizenship. Even so, over 150 years, Chinatown's residents have managed to create a thriving community that today is the second most popular destination for visitors to San Francisco (after the Golden Gate Bridge), and which still functions today as a gateway to immigrants from all across Asia.

Producer/Director Felicia Lowe says, "Chinatown is definitely a living neighborhood, one that reflects, almost block by block, the long struggle of a people trying to gain a foothold here, often against overwhelming odds."

The program uncovers a neighborhood full of paradoxes, using Chinatown's music, poetry and oral histories to weave its intriguing story. Some of the surprises that viewers will discover in Chinatown are:

  • From almost the moment of the arrival of Asian fortune-seekers to Gold Rush-era San Francisco, people were trying to get rid of the Chinese. It culminated in a Congressional law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the country, and created in Chinatown a world of men separated from their families overseas.

  • It was a Chinese merchant, Look Tin Eli, who in the aftermath of the great earthquake of 1906 insisted that Chinatown be rebuilt exactly where it had stood. Look Tin Eli came up with the idea of building fancy-looking pagodas with "Oriental" facades to create an attractive place for tourists - and he hired Caucasian architects to do it!

  • Throughout history, Chinatown provided for itself what the outside world would not: by the 1930's an entire parallel community had grown in the dozen square blocks of Chinatown, with its own schools, hospital, night clubs, and marching bands. There was even a Chinese Telephone Exchange, called the China 5.

  • Today's Chinatown is surprisingly diverse - the residents are as likely to be from Southeast Asia as from China or Taiwan. But the function of the neighborhood is much the same as it was in the 1850's -- a place to land for new immigrants, one that bridges the culture and languages of the Pacific.

Chinatown was awarded a prestigious CINE Golden Eagle in 1996, as well as a 1997 Silver Apple from the National Educational Media Network and a 1997 Northern California Emmy Award for "Outstanding Cultural Special or Single Program from a series." The program is one of an ongoing series of documentaries produced by KQED entitled "Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco." Peter L. Stein is Executive Producer. Felicia Lowe is Producer/Director of Chinatown. David Condon is Associate Producer.

Funding for the national presentation of Chinatown is provided by Pacific Bell and Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund. Production funding was provided by Pacific Bell, The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, The Durfee Foundation, California Council for the Humanities, The Mary A. Crocker Trust, The Morris Stulsaft Foundation, Bank of the Orient, Cecilia and David Lee, Linda Y. Chan/Transamerica, The Thomas and Eva Fong Foundation, Leslie Tang Schilling, Shirley and Leo Soong, and the members of the Chinatown community.

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Press Contacts:

Tina Bachemin, KQED Channel 9, Tel: 415/553-2238; Fax: 415/553-2254

Stephanie Murphy, Stephanie Murphy Public Relations, Tel: 508/495-1796

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