Peter Steven (1996)

The Art of Calculated Risk: Richard Fung’s Dirty Laundry by Peter Steven
(POV Magazine, Spring 1996)

Richard Fung produces careful sensitive video. He is also a risk taker, in fifteen years of documentary practice he has gently but firmly pushed, pulled, cajoled and challenged his audiences to look closely at the intersecting realms of race and gender. These are tough subjects, fraught with strong emotions and occasionally nasty discourse. Somehow Fung stays balanced – perhaps there is a clue in his black belt in karate. His art is constructed with a light touch and wisps of gentle humour – appealing to, and unsettling, a wide range of viewers.

Dirty Laundry, Fung’s latest and most ambitious work, takes on the conventional historical account of the late nineteenth century, when Chinese railway workers from the Pearl River delta, between Canton and Hong Kong, played a key role in building the CPR through the Rockies. Their frontier work camps often housed hundreds of men, creating what written history came to call Bachelor societies. In fact, most of these men were married; the economic and immigration difficulties of bringing their families from China simply forced men to leave them behind. British Columbia’s Chinese women were similarly improperly labeled; in the towns and cities most single Chinese women worked in the service industry and needle trades, but the census registries somehow didn’t know how to deal with all these unattached women. The solution was to list them as prostitutes. The designation was not always inaccurate – these women lived vulnerable lives and many worked as seamstresses by day and prostitutes by night. Attempts by the Women’s Missionary Society of British Columbia to improve conditions and reform the Mui-tsai (slave girls) generated much press.

In 1885, with the CPR finally completed, the federal government moved quickly to block most working-class Chinese immigration. They imposed a $100 immigration entry or Head Tax; by 1903 it was increased to $500. The Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese immigration of 1902 provides uncomfortable reading for anyone delving into Canada’s history of race and immigration. Asians, it concludes, were “unfit for full citizenship… obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state.” This closed the first period of Chinese immigration, but not the distinct Bachelor and Mui-tsai societies, which continued in smaller, less noticeable, urban forms. (Was it historical coincidence that this moral panic over Bachelors also produced the first Western anti-sodomy legislation (Britain in 1885?).

As the title suggests, Dirty Laundry challenges this account. Fung follows the lead set by Tony Chan’s influential book on the Chinese in Canada, Gold Mountain (1983) – a response to the kind of standard Canadian history that tends to gloss over the systematic oppressions of race and class. Fung feels, however, that even Chan overlooks the sex and gender elements in the Bachelor and Mui-tsai societies, despite, as Fung says, that “he must have read all those references to sodomy and prostitution in the Royal Commissions.”

At the outset, Fung rejects the convention of the straightforward ‘reclaiming lost history’ documentary, based on oral history from the bottom up, a staple of left and liberal cinema since the mid-1970s. Films such as Connie Field’s Rosie the Riveter and Anthony Chan’s Chinese Cafes of Rural Saskatchewan exemplify this approach, combining reminiscence and testimony with archival materials.) Feeling that the complex themes weaving back and forth in Dirty Laundry were beyond the scope of conventional documentary, he moved towards a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, based on his belief, applied equally to film and video, that “different kinds of language convey different kinds of truth. So I developed a kind of proto-narrative to work with these elements. It’s certainly not realist fiction.” One viewer described it as akin to a musical – or a porn narrative – a minimal story punctuated with illustrative scenes and archival footage. The archival footage of railway workers, mountain trains and Chinese families in nineteenth century B.C., carries a historical charge but, also works in counterpoint to the fiction. “I was struggling to create the emotional effect of the ghosts of the railway,” says Fung.

Another revision propels the plot. In the film a series of character sketches serve a range of aesthetic purposes, fluctuating between the enactment tradition of performance video and the conventional acting of motivation and well-rounded character. Roger Kwong, a Toronto writer, takes the train through the mountains to Vancouver. He rides in coach. It’s cramped and hard to concentrate. Roger is uptight and accident prone, but his accidents lead him to adventure. He mets a Chinese train steward who is gay, a young lesbian, earthy and a bit goofy, direct from a stint of tree planting in the B.C. interior. Roger drops a framed photo of his grandfather, breaking the glass and revealing a second photo behind it: a nineteenth-century studio-posed portrait of a man hides a photo of the same man plus another – holding hands. Roger starts to rethink the life of his grandfather. On seeing the double photo, the bubbly young woman tells Roger to seek out his relatives and learn the truth. “He must have known,” she says to Roger’s father, implying that the grandfather in the picture was gay. But she may be jumping to conclusions.
Both Nayan Shah, a historical expert featured in the tape, and a fictional train steward, complicate, even contradict this notion, referring to the historical context. Maybe it’s just ‘homosocial,’ says Shah; maybe it’s just handholding says the steward. Author Sky Lee refers to “the way Chinese society clamps down on revealing who we were, the stigma and shame within us that’s still operating today.”

“In the archives I ran across many pictures of Chinese men holding hands,” says Fung. The challenge was how to interpret this – in historical context and not too narrowly. Was this homosocial, or gay, or something in between?” The idea of the missing man who appears in the second, hidden, photo emerges as a story element from this historical enigma.

Fung is careful not to place undue weight on the views of the experts. He softens the authority of his historians by placing them against either the fictional or archival backgrounds, rather than cutting away to a book-lined office, the way experts usually pop up in documentary. He hints, if ever so slightly, that these professionals are as tangled in messy reality as the rest of us. Fung challenges his viewers; for this tape, he said, “I didn’t want you to feel too secure with either the fiction or the historical material. There’s something to invite and challenge everyone. I knew that if I was to challenge Chinese viewers I had to get some things absolutely right.” So the characters all speak the proper rural Taisan dialect, and the clothes were carefully researched. “I know it’s essentialist,” Fung says, “but it seemed necessary to imagine how different viewers would understand what was happening. I tried to imagine a straight Chinese man, a young lesbian, an older person, a Native Canadian, etc.”

Fung is used to a range of audience reactions. The gentle biographies of his parents, The Way To My Father’s Village and My Mother’s Place, played well on TV, while his starkly presented sex tape, Chinese Characters, proved too much for some viewers at the National Gallery and had to be defended in the Ottawa media by the Gallery’s programmer. Video-art audiences familiar with his earlier work will be surprised at the amount of narrative fiction in Dirty Laundry. Indeed, Dirty Laundry was created to be broadly received, though, admittedly, general audiences, weaned on straight documentary or Hollywood, may have problems with the sketchy, rather hesitant non-professional acting. But if the analogies to porn or musical narrative hold any merit, we know that the marriage of minimal plot with strong non-narrative elements (like sex or dancing) retains great appeal. In Dirty Laundry the plot and the documentary material constantly play off each other, throwing little hints of remaking history and “revising our investment in history’s retelling,” says Fung.

“How can you be Chinese and not speak Chinese?” the train steward asks Roger. “How could men hold hands not be gay?” is a question we ask from our modern viewpoint of Roger’s double pictures. These two enigmas slowly emerge to nag us throughout Dirty Laundry. Neither the questions nor their answers sit comfortably with many viewers; the viewer, like karate, keeps the viewer off balance.