Mahjong & Chicken Feet
2008, Experimental film, 47 min.
Background to Mahjong & Chicken Feet
Since childhood, I was my family’s memory keeper. When my oldest uncle died, it was to me that old photos were confided, including a few that survived from my family’s years in Harbin, China. By the time I first went to China in 2000, Harbin had taken on a romantic aura for me. Alone, with a video camera, I searched for my family’s traces in the no longer existing locales of their memory. The documentary I had in mind began to take shape from what I could see through the camera’s eye and from what it captured of Chinese seeing me seeing them. Still, I was not a total stranger to China and to the Chinese: I had already begun learning Mandarin and was acquainted with China’s history and culture through Chinese films and Chinese friends.
My parents arrived in America from Harbin in the 1920s. Both my father and mother’s families had lived in China since leaving eastern Russia just after the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-5. Though at its peak in the early 1920s, the Jewish community of Harbin counted only 15,000 in a population of a half-million, it thrived in the Russified but liberal culture of the city. In the far north of Manchuria, Jews enjoyed a life relatively free of anti-Semitic restrictions and the Czar’s pogroms. My parents’ families reflected the mix typical of Harbin: one family was religious, the other more worldly. But even before they stepped on the ship to come to America, their lives were intertwined.
My family did not readily tell stories about their past and I can only assume my grandparents’ motivations for their first and second displacements. Bits of their story, especially the painful bits, came out unexpectedly, when emotions escaped repression. Perhaps more so than for most immigrants, the elements of my family’s stories were dramatic – a tiger hunter grandfather, a daring rescue, violent deaths, a broken heart and abandoned children, a marriage of deception – with more reversals of fortune than a D.W. Griffith melodrama. The meaning of some of my family’s stories I only learned from history books, dispassionate accounts that provided the context for intriguing labels such as “Nikolaevsky soldat” that was associated with my paternal grandfather. It meant, I discovered, that he was a twenty-five year veteran of the Czar’s army – army service being one of the only ways a Jew could win freedom of movement in Czarist Russia. Knowing that he had spent long years in army service gave me further clues about the choices he made in his life. When history books could not provide explanations, I made my own inferences based on what I knew or had learned of my other ancestors’ personalities.
In the context of my work:
Documenting Memory – Stylistic Considerations
How to retell the melodrama of my family’s history? My paternal grandfather died accidentally, burned alive by the nurse giving him an alcohol bath for his typhoid fever. How does one tell such a story with its ‘excesses’? How, too, to tell the story of Jewish life in Harbin without falling into the trap of ‘ethnocentrism’? – because the Jewish story took did not take place in a vacuum; the Chinese were also there.
There are few films among those I have seen on the Jews of China that served as models, few films that embraced a wider history. I chose to include Harbin-the-city – the Chinese fishing village that became the epicenter of a railway construction project intended to shore up Chinese defenses against Russia and China’s common enemy, the Japanese. To explain why the Jews flocked to this far away outpost, I needed to delve into Czarist proclamations that promised relief from anti-Semitism in Harbin. And complementing this story of an outpost of Russian Jews, I delve into the greater context for a Jewish-Chinese history by addressing Kaifeng, the ancient Chinese capital, where Jews lived lives integrated with the Chinese population since the 11th century.
Aesthetically, my choice was to avoid archival images and excessive explanatory narration of historical facts. I wanted the audience rather to “experience” this history. To do this, I tried an experimental approach: the present would substitute for the past. Thus, it is ‘with me’ – through the subjective eye of my camera – that the spectator views China, negotiating as I do the place of outsider, the immigrant to China. And through image juxtapositions – such as the look alike shots of Professor Jin and myself – we see the Jew in the China-man.