Veteran San Francisco filmmaker Felicia Lowe—producer of the classic 1988 documentary, Carved in Silence, on early Chinese arrivals detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station—arrives in Seattle this month to showcase a moving new documentary about her mother and the exploration of her family’s secret past.
Lowe’s 56-minute documentary, Chinese Couplets, weaves stories that connect the experience of four generations: Lowe’s maternal grandmother, her mother, Lowe, and her daughter. Lowe narrates the film, which blends interviews, historical footage, old family photos, clips from Lowe’s previous productions, and tape of Lowe’s trips to Cuba and her mother’s home village.
“It took 17 years to do this film,” Lowe said in a phone interview. “The shape of it changed many times over. It was much like putting together a puzzle, stumbling upon different things, collecting different pieces, seeing how they fit together. It started out being an investigative piece about a grandfather that I never knew who had gone to Cuba. My mother had hidden this fact from me. When I learned this, I wondered, ‘What else is she hiding? Who am I if I don’t know who my mother really is?’ In 1998, I traveled to Cuba to find answers. And in 2000, I convinced my mother to go with me to China to return to the place where she was born.”
Lowe’s mother died of ovarian cancer eight months after they returned from the China trip, 10 weeks after her diagnosis. The film was completed earlier this year.
Lowe originally intended to adopt the dispassionate viewpoint of an investigative journalist, a familiar role for the 69-year-old filmmaker, who hails from a career in broadcast reporting. But she soon found her exploration mutating into a deeply personal journey, finally prompting the filmmaker to enlist the help of her own daughter and to turn the camera back on herself. “I just couldn’t keep myself out of the story,” she said. “I needed to become vulnerable enough to expose myself. Initially, my greatest fear was that someone would say, ‘Who cares about you? Who are you anyway?’ But I had learned as a filmmaker that it is only through the specific that you can draw the universal.”
An emotionally rich undercurrent of the film is Lowe’s uneasy relationship with her mother. “I really didn’t know my mother,” Lowe says in the film. “She birthed me, but was unable to nurture me. She spent most of her life hiding who she was, lying about where she came from and how she got here.”
Growing up in Oakland Chinatown until the age of eight, Lowe says, she was embarrassed by the glaring contrast between her family’s lack of overt affection and the cheery white middle class version of family life depicted in television shows like Father Knows Best. Like other “ABCs”—American-born Chinese—she felt caught between a white world where she was invisible and a Chinese culture she didn’t fully grasp. Lowe said the words, “I love you,” were not spoken in the Chinese American home.
“Chinese parents worked their asses off to provide for us,” she said. “But their way of saying ‘I love you’ was to ask, ‘Have you eaten?’
Going to China furnished her with new awareness. There, Lowe enjoyed lavish meals with relatives: “People show their warmth by offering us food. That was their way of expressing affection. I saw how the aunts and uncles in China behaved in the same way as my aunts and uncles in America. But at the same time, I also realized that I wasn’t Chinese like the people in China. I was American—Chinese American.”
One mystery haunted Lowe. After her father died of a heart attack at age 58 in 1977, she was stunned to discover that her mother had promptly readied a box of old photos for the trash. The box included early images of Lowe’s mother and father as an unmarried couple, lighthearted, carefree and full of life.
“I couldn’t understand why she threw out those photos,” Lowe said. “What was she thinking? Was it because his death was too painful for her or was it because she simply wasn’t a sentimental person?” Lowe salvaged the photos, never asking her mother about the individual images, but later integrating many of them into the film, using them to re-imagine who her mother was before she became her mother.
A larger theme in Lowe’s film—beyond unraveling the personal mysteries surrounding the grandfather who went to Cuba and the mother she never knew—is the continuing impact of discriminatory U.S. immigration policies on Chinese American families. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in effect until 1943, barred Chinese laborers from immigrating legally to the U.S. Those who came over to America during this era—like Lowe’s father and mother—were forced to adopt “paper” identities and to blanket their lives in secrecy, hiding necessary truths from their American-born children.
“I had to probe deeper to achieve some level of knowledge, understanding and acceptance of the link between my mother’s individual history and the larger story of other Chinese who had been affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Lowe said. “The silence within families had added to the power of the Exclusion Act, compounded generation after generation. The secrecy had affected our sense of self and our identity in America. I was striving to break through that secrecy. Ultimately, I learned to have compassion for my mother, understand her ambition, and to accept her as a survivor.
The making of Chinese Couplets—which took Lowe to Cuba and China and into the immigration records room of the National Archives—enabled her to at last bring clarity to her family past and affirm her identity as a Chinese American. “I’m not just first generation born here,” she said. “I stand on the shoulders of 26 generations that came before me in China.”
The film premiered in mid-March at a film festival hosted by the Center for Asian American Media in San Francisco. There, it received glowing reviews. Lowe is now trying to make sure that her film, created on a modest budget of less than $300,000, gets the widest possible viewership. She hopes to take “Chinese Couplets” to other film festivals and conferences. She hopes the film will be broadcast on PBS, possibly in March during National Women’s History Month.
Lowe comes to Seattle as a keynote speaker at the opening dinner for the national conference of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance on Thursday, August 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the China Harbor Restaurant. “The theme of the conference is ‘Inspiration, Integration and Interaction,’” Lowe said, “so I intend to frame the role of media in achieving these goals and the strength in working together.” The screening of “Chinese Couplets” takes place at noon on Friday, August 7 at the Best Western Executive Inn.