Before it became one of the city’s main tourist attractions, San Francisco’s Chinatown was a hard-scrabble place where Chinese immigrants and their children built a community in the face of racist geographic segregation. Artist and Chinatown native Frank Wong pays homage to the neighborhood’s Great Depression-era history with his miniature three-dimensional dioramas. Wong discusses his work in James Q. Chan’s ”Forever, Chinatown,” a half-hour documentary that PBS made available for free streaming after its television premiere last night (May 8).
“People have always asked me, ‘How do you make it look so real?’” Wong says over a clip of his hands constructing a Chinese take-out container—no bigger than his index fingertip—for a kitchen diorama. “Because it is real, in my mind.”
After a successful career as a prop master in mid-20th century Hollywood, Wong built the dioramas over the past four decades in part to preserve his memories of the rapidly changing neighborhood and its importance to other Chinese Americans. “All my miniatures are composites,” he explains. “It’s half wishing, half memory.”
“Forever, Chinatown” is one of seven documentaries airing on PBS and World Channel in May, through a partnership with the Center for Asian American Media, to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. “Mele Murals,” a crowdfunded film about graffiti artists working with Native Hawaiian youth, is already available.