Chinatown is a classroom, says filmmaker Jordon Hon, citing one of the interviewees in his new docuseries, A Portrait of Chinatown. It certainly taught him a lot.
"There's no other place in the city like Chinatown," he said. "There's no other place that I feel this real raw kind of reflection of humanity when it comes to culture, when it comes to the arts, when it comes to businesses and history and resilience. It's a really special place."
The inner-city neighbourhood has something to teach Edmonton, too, amid the complex relationships between those who make their living there and those who struggle to survive there.
"Chinatown could really be a model for how communities can support one another," Hon said. "I think if we can figure it out in Chinatown, we can figure it out anywhere."
Hon is the son of immigrants from Hong Kong. They had spent some time in Chinatown in their youth, but he was an infrequent visitor, capable of speaking Cantonese with the shopkeepers but shy about it. He was working on a different project to try to get closer to his roots when he met Shawn Tse at Chinatown Greetings, a collaboration between Tse and fellow artist Emily Chu to build connections through art.
Tse told Hon about STORYHIVE Voices, which grants new and emerging storytellers $10,000 in production funding, peer mentorship, training, and distribution through TELUS Optik TV. He got the grant, and embarked on an ambitious project.
Hon thought about approaching his subject in a purely journalistic way, but he decided it would be more powerful to tell the story through his own experience of trying to learn the story. His genuine curiosity and vulnerability opened doors, he said.
"Especially with some elders in Chinatown, they saw this as a young person using an opportunity to learn more about the Chinese settler history in Edmonton," he said. "I was surprised with how open and eager some folks were to share, and that was great."
Midway through the project, one of the worst things imaginable happened. Hung Trang, 64, and Ban Phuc Hoang, 61, were killed on May 18 at the Chinatown businesses where they worked. Justin Bone has been charged with second-degree murder. The deaths became a flashpoint for debate about what should be done about social disorder in Chinatown and created pressure to increase police presence in the area.
Hon could not help but acknowledge the tragedy in Episode 6, and it nearly derailed him. But he carried on, concluding with scenes from an anti-racism conference led by Indigenous and Chinese youth on the weekend after the men died.
"It gave me a lot of hope," Hon said. "And it gave me that support to finish off the last few episodes in a way that would not just focus on all the negatives that were going on in Chinatown."
Hope emanates from many of the people who spoke to Hon about their belief in Chinatown, such as community organizer William Lau, who called Chinatown "the perfect classroom."
"There's so many lessons to be taught here," Lau said in Episode 3. "There's a lot of problems to solve. And a big way of connecting with an issue ... is to really work on it. And there's a lot of work to be done in Chinatown."
Hon is now working with Chinatown Greetings on a photo-based project about Chinatown through a historical and contemporary lens, with funding from the Edmonton Heritage Council. He would also love to recut the docuseries into a single film and screen it at community events. In the meantime, the series is available on YouTube to continue to educate and connect.
"I hope that the series just allows people to obviously learn more about Chinatown and what's going on, but perhaps develop their own connection and relationship with the space," he said.