My Life in China is an unvarnished portrait of the life and memories of a stoic and reticent man committed to his family and two sons. Director Kenneth Eng’s father would often tell them the story of how he walked for seven days and six nights before swimming for four hours to Macau to escape poverty and Communism. Upon their visit to rural China for the first time in 18 years, Eng and his father retrace the perilous steps his father chanced in search of a better life.
“My father’s story would fall on my deaf ears until I returned to China with him,” says Eng. “During my entire childhood, I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of his story until I saw it with my own eyes. It’s only now that I am beginning to understand and truly value his selfless act.”
Below are personal reflections from Eng on the filmmaking process along with selections from his My Life in China film production blog.
As a young person growing up in Boston, I was embarrassed to be Chinese. To avoid being bullied at school, I learned to speak English without any kind of accent. The pressure to assimilate was great and in doing so something was lost within myself. I felt empty and unfulfilled – disconnected from my family and friends. I felt invisible – like I didn’t exist. Who am I?
My Life In China is a film I had to make before I moved on with my life.
Through the process of making the film, I was able to rediscover myself, learn to value and love who I am and where I come from. I also developed a deeper respect and understanding for other people and their respective journeys in life. I learned compassion for other people.
As a first generation Asian American, it was a difficult decision to defy my parents’ career wishes and pursue art. It was an even tougher one to try to make it as a documentary filmmaker. For me, it’s a big achievement to be someone who came out of the poor immigrant community of Boston, be a product of the Boston Public School System, study Film at the School of Visual Arts, NY, and work my way up to being an independent filmmaker.
I’ve discovered the power, privilege, and responsibility that comes with being a documentary filmmaker. My purpose is to use film to connect the world to deepen understanding and build compassion for our shared human existence. I want to inspire young people to chase their dreams. My Life in China is the result of my desire to tell my story in my authentic way. As an Asian Pacific American, how do we learn to own our identity while educating the rest of America about who we are? With My Life in China, I want to honor and acknowledge the sacrifice of my father and all of our ancestors as well as help forge the new Asian American identity.
It is because of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship that My Life in China is possible. In 2006, when I launched the film project, I didn’t know where the project would go. All I knew was I needed to spend some time with my father and try to document it.
Perhaps I was being selfish, but My Life in China was an excuse for me to spend time with my father, a chance to visit the motherland! (11/1/2007)
When we got to the border in Macau, I could feel my father’s excitement. The way he described the moments leading up to diving into the water was like being there. You could feel the flood of emotion and memories coming back. This is the site where my father swam across in 1966. This is the place where many people from Southern China have died, attempting to escape starvation and oppression. Landfill has completely changed the face of the area connecting mainland China and Macau – what was once a 5-hour swim has become a short walk on the beach. (11/1/2007)
Wednesday was the day to shoot my dad’s old neighborhood. Sam Shui Po is the district in Hong Kong where he called home during those 5 short years. It’s the place where many Taishanese people usually settled after making the dangerous journey from Mainland China. After wandering around the unrecognizable streets with my father we finally found the exact building where my mom carried me for 8 months before making the journey to America. Probably the happiest I’ve seen my dad in years. (11/2/2007)
Going back to the motherland is a typical trip most immigrant families go on with their children. Retracing the steps to remind the younger generation where they come from. In between our Guang Zhou visit, we took a 2-hour bus ride to get to my father’s home village in Taishan. Kwun Tau village is about 14 kilometers outside of Taisheng, the capital of Taishan. It’s been 18 years since my father and I have been back. As part of Chinese tradition, we paid to tribute to my grandmother. Baishan is a ceremony where you make an offering to the dead in hopes of bringing good luck to the living. We were able to offer my grandmother a huge pig and a bunch of roasted quails! (11/7/2007)
It took 8 years to make the film—no regrets. It was the right timing and I needed to mature as a person before finishing it. Through a lot of effort and favors, the film is done now and the focus is to get it to as wide an audience as possible! My goal for the film is to inspire people to consider their own distinct family stories. Let us use the film to bring the younger and older generation together. Let us acknowledge the sacrifice of the generation that came before us. Let us learn to love ourselves so we can learn to have more compassion for others. And let us bring more awareness to the mental health of the aging Asian American community.
Kenneth Eng is a director, editor and executive producer. After graduating from Boston Latin School, Ken left for New York in 1994 to study film at the School of Visual Arts. His thesis Scratching Windows, a short documentary film about graffiti writers, was broadcast as part of the doc series REEL NY on WNET – NY PBS. In 2001, Ken directed and edited Take Me to The River a feature length documentary about the Maha Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India. Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball, his film about the famous Koshien Tournament in Japan was nationally broadcast on PBS as part of POV in 2006 and continues to play in Japan on NHK-TV. In 2007, Ken was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship to launch My Life In China. Recently, he edited Tested for director Curtis Chin, and is currently developing projects on post-genocide reconciliation in Rwanda and the Critical Legal Studies movement at the Harvard Law School.
My Life in China will have its national broadcast premiere Tuesday, May 24 at 8/7c (check local listings) as part of WORLD Channel’s AMERICA REFRAMED series. The film will also stream nationally online on www.americareframed.com at no cost following the broadcast for 90 days.