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3 Questions: Far East Deep South

An Interview with Director Larissa Lam

From the series 3 Questions


Far East Deep South
Directed, written and produced by Larissa Lam; Produced by Baldwin Chiu
Giant Flashlight Media, 2020
English
76 minutes in duration
Winner of “Best Mississippi Feature,” Oxford Film Festival 2020.

Trailer available at Far East Deep South.
For availability see bonus question below.

I first heard about Chinese families living in the Deep South and running grocery stores through a video, “The Untold Story Of America’s Southern Chinese.” Hearing Chinese speak with a southern accent and seeing meat barbequed in a backyard wok in the Mississippi Delta amazed me. I wanted to go and check it out, but I haven’t made it there yet. However, Larissa Lam and her family did, but for far more personal reasons—to discover her husband’s family’s southern roots. The result is a fascinating film that explores the Chinese immigration story from a little-known angle and includes a multitude of extraordinary details. Did you know bound feet were an advantage in the immigration process for Chinese women?

We caught up with Larissa recently and found out more about the film in this 3 Questions interview.

3 Questions

1. Far East Deep South is the story of one Chinese family’s history that took place in both mainland China and the Mississippi Delta region of the US—your husband’s family’s story—and, of course, is of great interest to your family. What made you realize that the story would also interest and be of value to others outside your family? 

When we made our first trip to Mississippi, we thought we were just taking a family vacation. But once we got there it quickly became clear that this was going to be more than just an ordinary family trip. On our first day in Mississippi so many incredible, miraculous things happened.

We walked into a Chinese museum in the middle of Mississippi—I had no idea of the rich, deep history of the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta. As a Chinese American who grew up in California, I kept wondering why we didn’t learn about this in our history books. I think it would have changed the way I viewed myself. My parents were born in China, but I was born here and so I only heard about my family in China. My husband, Baldwin Chiu, didn’t know anything about his family which is why we went to Mississippi.

Having struggled with my identity growing up, not feeling like I was very American, and not feeling like I was Chinese enough, the Mississippi Delta history in a sense connected me more to American history in terms of the Chinese immigrant narrative, going beyond the railroads and the gold mines. I hope other people will feel the same fascination with this little-discussed part of history and recognize the importance of it being told.

I was also struck by the evidence of God’s fingerprints all over our family journey. It was such a remarkable series of events and discoveries that unfolded that I wanted others to experience that as well. It was an amazing, miraculous experience on two levels, the historical level, and the personal testimony level. We knew it was a story that needed to be told to a wider audience to document God’s story.

2. Just now as the US, and to an extent the world, is grappling with the ongoing implications of racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, what do you hope the story of Charles Lou and his son KC, and the Chinese grocery stores of the south teach us about race relations? 

It was eye opening to discover that the Chinese were subject to the same Jim Crow laws as the Black community. Again, something we didn’t learn in our history books. And it wasn’t just the Chinese who were subject to these laws but any person of color—Native Americans, Mexicans. It wasn’t just a binary black and white situation when it came to discrimination.

When we discovered that the Chinese were living in the south, it was fascinating to explore their relationship with the Black community. Because of segregation laws the Chinese were forced to live in Black neighborhoods; they were not permitted to live in white neighborhoods. At first the Chinese were recruited to replace slave labor on the plantations, but soon moved out to open grocery stores in Black neighborhoods because they weren’t allowed to live in white neighborhoods and the Black community was their customer base— a very different dynamic than today.

Today there can be tensions, especially in urban areas, between Asian shop owners and their Black customers. So we were kind of scared to ask questions of the Black community to hear their recollections of shopping in Chinese grocery stores, and if any of them remembered Baldwin’s family. We discovered that they had a very interconnected relationship in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

At that time the Black community preferred to shop at Chinese grocery stores because shopping at white stores in the Jim Crow South was not a pleasant experience. To walk into a white store a Black customer had to go through the back entrance. We heard testimony from the Black people in our film that they got to walk through the front door and were treated with respect by the Chinese grocery store owners. That is something that we had never heard about.

Also, we were fascinated to learn that Baldwin’s great grandfather, during the Great Depression, extended credit to his Black customers. Most of them were sharecroppers in the area and were only paid once or twice a year making it difficult to pay for groceries and other things. White banks and stores would not give them credit. It was the Chinese who were willing to give them credit. We heard that this was common practice for a lot of the Chinese grocery store owners. This created a very symbiotic relationship: the Chinese needed the Black customers; the Black customers needed a place to shop where they didn’t feel like they were second-class citizens. I think there are a lot of lessons that can be learned.

Often Chinese and Asian communities, whether here in the US or around the world, feel a disconnect to the Black experience. We don’t learn in our history books what we discovered in the Mississippi Delta. We don’t realize that there’s a strong connection. Whether it’s being faced with the same discriminatory laws or living in the same neighborhoods and relying on one another in the Deep South, we have more in common than we think. It’s something that has sparked a lot of conversation between our communities. We have started reaching out to Black church leaders because we feel like our film is an important story that can bridge cultural and racial divides. It will help move us towards better racial reconciliation.

3. The film is not an overtly Christian film and yet faith is seen in some of the details. One of the most moving moments is when Charles Chiu is handed his father’s Bible in the Chinese Heritage Museum. Why did you choose to tell the story in this way? 

When I set out to make the film, I wanted to tell a strong family story that anyone could relate to—not just a Christian or Chinese story. I also wanted to tell a story where faith was organic to the journey of the family. It’s not an overtly Christian film in the sense that there’s no altar call at the end; however, God is definitely present in our film. You hear Baldwin’s dad’s testimony of how he came to faith. He tells about the first time that he heard of a Heavenly Father at an Air Force chapel service; it resonated deeply with him because he had no earthly father. It is a beautiful moment in the film that tied his personal story of growing up fatherless, which set us out on this adventure in the first place, with his faith.

We want people outside the church to hear the story because of its historical value. We want this film to be shown in classrooms at public schools and public universities so people will also see that there is a history of Chinese Christians in America. People are surprised that we’re Christians because they assume that all Chinese are either Buddhists or ancestor worshipers. There are a lot of Chinese Christians around the world and that number is growing. It’s important to represent that historically—this is one way to do that.

We’ve been able to show the film to many different audiences, including at secular film festivals. To gain the respect of other filmmakers and have people who are not believers telling others about our film means a lot. People are touched by the film regardless of their race, regardless of their spiritual background. Hopefully they will see the film and realize these are not coincidences; maybe there is a higher power dictating it.

We have had conversations with people who have seen the film and then ask about our faith. We have partnered with non-Christian organizations to promote and show the film. People who would never walk into the church are seeing our family’s testimony and God working through history. Not everybody’s going to watch an explicitly Christian film but a lot of people have an interest in the Asian immigrant experience, or racial equality, or an interest in genealogy or history. It was important to make this film relatable to a larger audience yet still have the family’s faith as part of the story.

Bonus Question: The film was supposed to have been seen at film festivals this past spring but due to the COVID-19 crisis, most of those festivals did not take place. Is the film available in other ways? How can someone see Far East Deep South?

Covid-19 definitely threw a wrench into our plans. The best way to find out when our film is showing next is to go to our website FarEastDeepSouth.com. I’d highly recommend subscribing to our email newsletter to get updates. You can also follow us on Facebook or Instagram @FarEastDeepSouth.

Eventually, we plan on making it available for purchase as downloads and DVDs. In the meantime, if there are groups or organizations that want to arrange private screenings, they can contact us directly through our website.

Thanks, Larissa for sharing a bit about the background of your film.

Narci Herr

Narci Herr

Narci Herr and her husband, Glenn, lived for just over 30 years in Hong Kong. They were first involved in working with the church in Hong Kong and then for the last 20 years of their time in Asia they served workers living in China. During that time Glenn traveled extensively throughout China and Narci …View Full Bio


Image credit: Far East Deep South

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