Alan Chong Lau is, in his own words, “a lost soul still searching.” But as a prolific creative and deeply respected leader of the Seattle Asian American community, his life’s work continues to guide generations of artists.
More than 20 years ago, filmmaker Doug Ing met Lau on a bus and was inspired to create a 54-minute film about his life, called Alan @ Work. The film premiered on Sunday at the Seattle International Film Festival.
“He’s really touched the art community for a long time,” said Susie Kozawa, Lau’s friend and artistic collaborator. “I don’t know of anybody else that really has that same pulse on Asian American artists, and not just in Seattle, but throughout the country and throughout the world.”
Lau has lived many lifetimes in one. The journey from his birthplace in rural northern California to the Pacific Northwest spans many decades and multiple continents, from his post-high school stint as a stagehand for a San Francisco band in the 1960s to his time studying under famed visual artist Nirakushi Toriumi in Kyoto.
Lau’s work has taken on diverse forms including brush lettering, oil pastels, and poetry, with many creations reflecting his identity and lived experiences. Ing says that his film brings to light just how influential Lau has been within the Asian American community and beyond.
“He really nurtures artists and he really is a great mentor, he’s pretty much the godfather of Asian American arts in Seattle,” Ing said. “He really cares for all the emerging artists… he must have nurtured several generations of Seattle Asian American artists.”
Ing, who has a deep passion for documentary filmmaking, first began filming in 1998, around the time of Lau’s 50th birthday. Every few years, he would drop back into Lao’s life to film clips of him as well as interviews with his close friends, creating a collage of his life spanning over 20 years.
In 2012, the film was rejected by SIFF, and it was at this point that Ing decided that he would make the documentary for himself and his friends, if nothing else. He worked on it for another decade before it was accepted this year.
“There’s a lot of humor in it because Alan’s a humorous person,” Ing said. “I added a lot of that in when I decided I would make this film for myself.”
The film is a blend of video footage and digitally animated illustrations woven with musical renderings of Lau’s own poetry, Ing said.
Born in 1948, Lau’s life began in the unlikely town of Paradise, California, a small, rural, conservative, and overwhelmingly white population. His family, Hakka Chinese immigrants, moved their restaurant business from Sacramento to Paradise, far from the competition of other Chinese restaurants. As the only Asian student at his school, it was hard not to feel isolated.
“My sanctuary was British pop music,” Lau said. “At night I would lay in bed after midnight when the radio signal was stronger and I could listen to the latest music. In that way, music was my saving grace.”
After school, he and his sister would come home and continue their education with their grandmother, who he describes as his “cultural foundation.” She taught them Chinese characters, rewarding each lesson by allowing them to have art sessions with crayons and watercolors.
In this way, she provided his earliest introduction to the arts, he said. Lau went on to publish six books of his poetry and countless works of visual art, which have been celebrated locally and internationally with nearly 20 solo exhibits and twice as many group exhibits; over the course of his life, Lau has received seven awards for his work. Beyond such accolades, he’s also taken on personal endeavors, such as illustrating a cookbook written by his sister, Linda Lau Anusasananan.
“A dandelion with a bright yellow flower defiantly emerges from a hairline crack in my driveway. When I see it, it reminds me that I am Hakka,” writes Anusasananan in the introduction of her cookbook, The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World. Each page comes to life with Lau’s beautifully characteristic brush strokes, a testament to a journey the two siblings took to China in order to study Hakka cuisine.
Lau attended his sister’s wedding in Denmark in 1970, and afterward he embarked on a journey that carried him across the silk road from Copenhagen through eastern Europe, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, and finally Japan, where he spent about two years during the early 1970s teaching English. During this time, he also met his wife, Kazuko, and they eventually settled in Seattle.
For nearly 30 years, Lau worked in the produce section at Uwajimaya. During this time, he created and published an illustrated book of poetry called “Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal” that celebrates working class Asian Americans in Seattle’s Chinatown.
“I was there so long, I could see the process of life begin and end,” Lau said. “[A grocery store] is a microcosm of society…with people coming in from all walks of life, all classes, all races, all genders.”
As the arts editor at Seattle’s International Examiner since the 1980s, he is always looking for ways to expand what it means to be Asian American.
“As an artist you’re looking for some kind of truth, and it’s an endless search,” Lau said.
Alan @ Work premiered on Sunday, May 14 at 6:30pm at the SIFF Cinema Uptown. The film was also shown on Tuesday, May 16 at 6:00pm at the Ark Lodge Cinemas and will be available for streaming from May 22 to May 28, 2023.
Taija PerryCook is a senior journalism student at the University of Washington. Find her on Twitter @taijalynne.