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    The Chinatown Files

    They made America see red

    "The Chinatown Files" is a documentary exposing the McCarthy-era persecution of Chinese-Americans and preserving the memories of people who lived through it.


    As one man notes at the beginning of "The Chinatown Files," the Chinese word for the United States is "Beautiful Country." But the American dream turned anything but beautiful for the people who speak out about their experiences from the 1940s and 1950s in this sad documentary about McCarthy/Hoover-era persecution of Chinese-Americans.

    Produced by: Amy Chen.
    Featuring: Henry Chin, Maurice Chuck, Connie Hwang, Judge Thomas Russell Hones, Him Mark Lai, Kathy Lowe, Matthew Marks, James Sheriff, Eleanor Wong Telemaque.
    In English, Cantonese with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    2001 Asian American International Film Festival

    Chinatown Files
    Joint Security Area
    Official site
    According to the New York and San Francisco old-timers interviewed in the film, just being of Chinese descent marked you as a probable communist sympathizer after Mao's victory in 1949. And the U.S. government actively tried to root out former members of a left-wing youth group, suppress Chinese newspapers, punish business leaders such as laundry owners, and even charge workers for sending money back to their families.

    It is important to note the common feeling among many Chinese of the time that communism — far from the oppressive system that it came to be — then felt like the country's first, bold step into the modern world after a century of being kicked around by the West. It was the world's most up-to-date political system and it seemed like China's way back to greatness. So for many Chinese in and out of their homeland, it was a source of excited patriotism, not shame, and it rarely indicated anti-American feelings.

    The Chinatown Files  
    "We were really happy that there was a new government in China," a New York newspaper publisher recalls unapologetically in Cantonese. "Just like Mao Zedong said, 'China finally stood up.'╩"

    And the Chinese in this country were just in time to bear the brunt of the anti-communist zealotry of the period. We hear stories of men driven to suicide, people pumped for accusations against their friends, years of FBI surveillance, legal immigrants stripped of their citizenship, and pervasive racism by whites.

    The effects have lingered to this day, as one woman explains when she has trouble answering the interviewer's questions:

    When you ask me questions about events and people from that period of my life, it's very hard for me to recall, because I really did sort of train myself not to remember names too well, or events or dates, because when the House Un-American [Activities] Committee used to call up these people, they always asked for dates and names and I thought it was always better honestly just to forget so that things don't slip out.

    When we think of McCarthyism, we generally think of attacks on State Department employees and Hollywood writers, and its impact on Chinese-Americans (one of the country's oldest immigrant groups) has largely been hidden. "The Chinatown Files" makes a very interesting contribution by recording the memories of the people who lived through the experience.

    JULY 25, 2001

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