Just last week, family members joined community advocates to rename Elizabeth Street in New York’s Chinatown “Private Danny Chen Way.” As you’ll remember Danny Chen was so horribly hazed through racial epithets from his fellow soldiers that he took his own life in the fall of 2011. His hometown of NYC Chinatown continues to search for justice through traditional organizing as well through the arts.
Filmmaker, community advocate, and activist ManSee Kong uses her craft to document the stories and lives in Chinatown, New York and beyond. From documentaries exposing the rampant gentrification in Chinatown to fictionalized accounts of everyday mother-daughter life, ManSee’s work aspires to “document and tell stories that inspire social change.” Her project “What Happened to Danny,” sponsored by the Asian Giving Circle, the Puffin Foundation, and Third World Newsreel will examine the life and death of Private Danny Chen and his community’s response to the racism that permeates the military. She began filming for the film shortly after Danny died in 2011 and continues to document today.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with ManSee Kong!
Suzanna Bobadilla: First off, thank you so much for speaking with me today. You work bridges two worlds — community advocacy and filmmaking. I would love to learn more about how these two aspects influence each other in practice.
ManSee Kong: It’s definitely the community organizing work that has influences my filmmaking. I honestly was never really a film buff — I didn’t study film in undergrad. It wasn’t until I started getting involved with a lot organizing in Chinatown New York during college where I was seeing a lot of our stories and pressing issues that low-income and immigrant communities were facing that the media just wasn’t covering. That was very frustrating to me.
I once saw JT Takagi, who is a huge influence in my filmmaking and activist career, documenting and organizing in Chinatown and running around with a camera, that’s when I realized that was what I wanted to do. That is where my interests and commitment to filmmaking really took place. I wanted to document, share our stories, and highlight our inspirational leaders, activism and organizing on the ground to hopefully influence social change locally and also globally.
SB: When your films are complete, what are some elements of them that make them uniquely yours?
MK: I don’t do this enough, I definitely try to make them bilingual, I try to use Chinese subtitles. I think at least moving forward and the projects that I am working on I want to make sure that not only are they accessible for English speaking audiences but also for Chinese speaking audiences giving the fact that there are so many different dialects and not everybody understands Mandarin or Cantonese.
In terms of my past work that is uniquely mine, I focus a lot on Chinatown stories. Maybe I’m not the only person who does that but I find myself gravitating towards those stories.
SB: When you find a story upon which you’d like to build a film, what is the following process?
MK: My process is very long. Usually when I realized that I’ve found a story that I want to share and help tell, I spend a lot of time getting to know the people that I am focusing on. This doesn’t quite apply to the fictional work that I do, but for documentary I spend a lot of time hanging out with the community and the individuals. When they feel comfortable and they are okay with the idea of me filming them, I’ll bring my camera out.
That’s usually pretty intimate. I don’t bring on crew members until later on in the process. Maybe just a sound person or one additional camera person, I definitely try to keep it small. When I interview and talk to them, I let them tell their story and make it more of a conversation as much as I can. I then film them go about their daily lives.
SB: One of your upcoming projects is your film “What Happened to Danny” and I also saw that you were involved with the recent campaign to a street named in his honor. Can you update us on the process of your film as well as the wider organizing to bring his community justice?
MK: I’ve been working on this project for two and a half years. When I first heard the story, I wasn’t really intending to making a documentary film out of it. I originally intended to help out with the advocacy, when they first started I was a film student so they asked me to create a YouTube call-to-action video. That happened within a few days to a week and that video’s purpose was to raise awareness to his story and to bring folks out to participate in a march and rally.
When I made that first video, I felt very strongly and a lot of empathy for them. It wasn’t until the march in December when I saw surprisingly nearly 500 people came out. It was pretty impressive for the Chinese immigrant community because we are often mistakenly seen as we keep to ourselves, we don’t participate in protests or stuff like that. That rally was very moving and I realized that this was an important story that really touched the community. The Asian American community compared this to the Vincent Chen story which took place 30 years ago. So I checked with the family to see if they would be interested in creating the documentary.
It’s been two and a half years. The first year was a lot of advocacy. It ranged from multiple press conferences to teach-ins at Harvard, Yale, locally and at in state schools. We made a birthday card campaign so we could raise awareness about Danny’s case to make sure that the court marshals were just. The second half of 2011 was the trial which ended in 2012.
Just this past weekend, after petitioning and going to local community board votes, OCA New York along with other group was able to get a street renamed as Private Danny Chen Way. That was a pretty nice bittersweet moment for the community and especially for the family.
There will actually be an opera premiering next month at the Kennedy Center in DC about Danny’s story. It is created by David Henry Hwang who is one of the most notable Asian-American playwrights. In terms of legislation, groups are petition the military to make reforms in their hazing practices but it’s going to be a pretty long road.
SB: Any other upcoming projects coming up that you’d like to shout out?
MK: I’m a long time volunteer with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and they are having a dance-a-thon this month in New York that is going to be a lot of fun. People should check it out and they are dancing to a good cause. In terms of my own projects, I’m working on a series of short videos called “Chinatown Tenant Story” they are a series of short-portrait videos of members of the community who are being impacted by gentrification and displacement.
SB: And to close things off — you’re stranded on a desert island, you get to take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist.
MK: A drink — that would be bourbon. A food — well this is a weird combination but I’d say burritos. And a feminist, I’d take my mom.
Suzanna Bobadilla is the interviews contributor for Feministing. If there is someone that you think she should interview next, send her a holler at @suzbobadilla.