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Bringing 1940s Chinatown Back to Life in Miniature

Frank Wong’s memories of San Francisco are fading, so to preserve them, the 82-year-old artist recreates them in three dimensions.

San Francisco’s Chinatown isn’t what it used to be in the 1940s and ‘50s, when the artist Frank Wong was growing up there. Once the largest Chinatown in the U.S., it was essentially its own city, with a booming population and a bustling nighttime scene of clubs and neon lights. But memories of his childhood and early adulthood—the good, the bad, and even the ugly—are getting fuzzier for Wong, who’s now in his 80s. So he’s preserving them the best way he knows how: by building miniature models of what he still remembers from the past.

The 2016 documentary Forever, Chinatown, which makes its public television debut this week, follows Wong as he recreates his memories in three-dimensional dioramas. Using fabric, paper, wood, and other materials, he builds out the rooms that he spent time in—the herbal shops selling Eastern remedies, the shoeshine stations, the living rooms where adults played mahjong, and the bedrooms where the dresser doubled as the dinner table and where one shelf held both books and chopsticks.

Wong’s dioramas are composites of his memories of San Francisco’s Chinatown, tinged with nostalgia. (Good Medicine Picture Company)

Some models are more glamorized than others. One features the perfect dining table, set with dishes of all colors, while another depicts a cluttered kitchen with baking supplies strewn across tabletops. “All my miniatures are composites,” says Wong, who once worked as a prop master for an L.A. studio. “It’s half wishing and half memory.”

In one scene, filmmaker James Chan captures Wong at his table making a tiny wok out of a rounded metal plate. Wong is meticulous, applying paint in just the right way to mimic the bumpy texture of a much-used frying pan. “This is not smooth; it’s kind of lumpy, so you have to lumpy it up,” he says, pointing to the pan he’s using as reference. Then he lets out a laugh. “That describes me at my age: lumpy it up!”

A miniature version of the type of single-occupancy room that many immigrants lived in during the mid-1900s. (Good Medicine Picture Company)

The diorama version of single-room-occupancy housing—in its roughest and most unromanticized form, with clutters of clothes, pots, and other necessities crammed into every nook and cranny—was the catalyst for Chan’s documentary. “It felt lived in,” he said in an interview for PBS.

Indeed, the one-room dwelling, barely the size of a storage closet, was essential to the beginnings of San Francisco’s Chinatown, which was built less as a residential community and more as a “provision station” for immigrant workers. Even after families moved in during the 1960s, following the repeal of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, the housing type remained common as Chinatown became one of the densest neighborhoods in U.S. Low-income workers and families crammed into the small spaces as they settled into their new country. (Today, the lack of affordable housing today in San Francisco means that many families in Chinatown are still confined to such rooms.)

For the younger generation, Wong’s craft is a fascinating glimpse into a different era. He’s even got his teenage grandson interested in making the models. But for people Wong’s age, the dioramas are nostalgic, bringing back all kinds of memories—“some pleasant, some not so pleasant,” as one observer comments in the film.

The 30-minute documentary can be watched in its entirety on local channels in California and on the World Channel website.

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