Dirty Laundry (1996)
Producer/Director: Richard Fung
Principal Cast: Jo Alcampo, Andy Quan, T.H. Xia
Editors: Dennis Day and Miume Jan
Music: Lee Pui Ming and Jeffrey Steven
Dirty Laundry speculates upon the buried narratives of gender and sexuality in Chinese-Canadian history of the 19th century, when Chinese communities were almost exclusively male. A story about a chance late-night encounter between a steward and a passenger on a train interweaves with documentary interviews with historians and writers and historical documents brought to life. The tape poses nagging questions about the personal and political stakes in the writing of history and in our interpretations of the past.
Roger Kwong is on a trip across the Canadian Rockies. He is travelling on railway tracks originally laid in the nineteenth century by immigrant Chinese workers, including his great-grandfather. Roger's readings into the documents of this history contain surprising accusations. These, combined with the discovery of an inexplicable photograph, and fateful encounters with a spirited, tree-planting dyke and a hunky Chinese attendant, raise unsettling questions about Roger's great-grandfather and Roger's own connection to the past.
In the nineteenth century, Chinese communities in Canada consisted mainly of "bachelor' workers, often married men separated from their wives and children in China. Anti-Chinese rhetoric of the time reviled these men as sodomites. The few Chinese women were assumed to be prostitutes. Later accounts of the period, however, cleansed sexuality from this history altogether. Infiltrating its framing narrative with archival material, interviews and stylized recreations, Dirty Laundry excavates the historical representation of outlaw sexuality in nineteenth century Chinese Canada.
“Dirty Laundry follows Roger Kwong’s train journey across Canada, which is simultaneously the Asian Canadian man’s journey into the 19th century past of Chinese immigrant railroad labourers in Canada. The journey across geography spatializes a temporal exploration of an unknown past. But Roger finds that in historical reconstruction, facts are insufficient, appearances misleading. The single piece of evidence Roger possesses is an old photograph of his lone great-grandfather, the first member of his family to immigrate to the West, the artifact through which Roger’s individual family has connected itself to the collective history of Chinese immigrant labourers. Yet during the journey Roger breaks the glass frame holding the photograph and in the process discovers, behind that memorialized image of the “bachelor” Chinese labourer, a second photograph, an image of that same ancestor tenderly holding the hand of another man. The uncovering of the hidden image of love between men discloses “dirty laundry” beneath the purified history of the lone heroic labourer. The discovery of the second photograph enables Roger to image that a wider variety of sexual practices and attachments have been a part of his immigrant past (and that they therefore have a place in his present), inasmuch as it provides dramatic evidence of the mandate to hide sexual life between immigrant men. In other words, a twofold history issues from the breaking of the frame. Roger discovers that such hiddenness, the explicit removal of attachments between men from the public realm of the visual, has itself a history that is inseparable (as the photos, adhering to one another, are found to be) from the singular history that frames a particular image of Chinese immigrant labour in Canada. In place of the historical approach that memorializes the static, single artifact, Dirty Laundry offers an alternative mode of inquiry: break the frame to interpret the residues.” (Break the Frame by Lisa Lowe in Like Mangoes in July: The Work of Richard Fung, ed. Helen lee and Kerri Sakamoto)
“Roger Kwong is journeying by train across the Canadian Rockies along railway tracks originally laid in the 19th century by Chinese immigrant workers like his great-grandfather. During the voyage he comes across surprising historical records, which refer to the practice of sodomy among the Chinese men living in the so-called “Bachelor Societies.” His passionate foraging into the past leads him into an encounter with a lesbian tree planter and a sexy train attendant, and the discovery of a mysterious photograph: a portrait of his grandfather holding hands with another man. The remarkably intimate portrait sparks a chain of questions. Bearing in mind that sexual classifications and notions of companionship were quite different in the 19th century, Roger tries to uncover the social context that made such open displays of affection possible. Dirty Laundry combines fiction and documentary, dramatic vignettes and real interviews, historical re-enactments an archival footage, to investigate the representation of “outlaw sexuality” in early Chinese Canada and the deletion of homosexuality from historical accounts. By presenting itself in quasi-documentary form, the video enters into the ethical wranglings documentary artists have been involved in for years. Richard’s attempt to challenge the dominant account becomes a mediation on what lies in the obscure nooks of the archival vault: the stories that are often passed over as innuendo, rumour, or hearsay. Dirty Laundry succeeds wonderfully in exploiting fiction as a means to opening the doors to a history of wider possibilities.” (Kyo Maclear)