Student documentary confronts stereotypes about the 'typical' American family
It’s Sunday morning, and Wiley Kwok Wai Chan will spend it as he does every week: preparing a sumptuous Cantonese feast for between 10 and 35 family members. As the head of a sprawling family, Chan will drive from Burlingame to San Francisco to haggle with market vendors over the price of rock cod, lotus root and young chicken in Chinatown; haul his treasures home for washing, cutting and slicing; and then fill his home with the fragrance of garlic, onions, ginger, simmering fish, braising duck and steaming chicken — and the sounds of his children, grandchildren, friends and elders who come knocking for dinner.
For his daughter, senior Kerry Chan-Laddaran, the elaborate Sunday dinners are routine — the weekly habit of an average American family. But the 39-year-old mother of two knows that prevailing ideas about what that average American family looks like are much different.
“I was sick and tired of being told, ‘Oh, you’re Chinese, you’re so different from other Chinese people I know’ — I guess because I’m not quiet or shy or a mathematician. So I want this film to dispel stereotypes.”
The film she’s speaking of is a short documentary, appropriately titled “Sunday Dinner.” With the support of CSUEB Department of Communication Chair Mary Cardaras and Cardaras’ production company, and fellow student Jessica Ramirez in the role of associate producer, Chan-Laddaran shot the film in a single 17-hour day. “Kerry is a born producer, with a commitment to the craft of journalism,” Cardaras says.
The 30-minute film (see trailer above) shows the culmination of a tradition that’s been growing for 40 years. At age 16, Chan escaped Communist China by swimming from the mainland to Hong Kong in the middle of the night — a four-hour ordeal. Eventually, through an uncle living in Hawaii, he made his way to the United States and ultimately decided to settle in the heart of Chinese culture in America — San Francisco. Over the past several decades, Chan has sponsored numerous family members in coming to the U.S., found them jobs, and built their houses with his own hands. Though he’s made his living as a contractor, each Sunday he returns to his calling by birthright: Chan hails from a long line of chefs.
“The (CSUEB) communications department highlighted diversity in the curriculum,” Chan-Laddaran explains. “CSUEB is a place where people feel comfortable and safe to be themselves; it made me want to look at my own prejudices.” And through that exploration, she realized that by showing an American family sharing food, working together, talking and laughing — a family that just happens to be of Chinese descent — she could get viewers to see similarities to their own lives that challenge stereotypes.
At the same time, it’s important to her to send a message about preserving immigrant traditions and being ethnic in America. “It’s hard to love something from your culture, and still feel embarrassed by it,” Chan-Laddaran says. She gives the example of not ordering chicken feet at restaurants when she was younger for fear of being made fun of. “I want people to feel it’s OK to identify with their culture. I wish someone had said that to me when I was younger.”
As “Sunday Dinner” enters its final round of editing in preparation for the 2016 film festival circuit, Chan-Laddaran, Ramirez and Cardaras’ production company will continue work on a second film called “This Just In,” which follows two golden-aged Pulitzer Prize winners departing from the print of their heyday to launch an investigative journalism website. Chan-Laddaran is also an engagement coordinator for Not In My Town, an organization that works to end racism through film, events and campaigns.
In the future, she plans to create a “Sunday Dinner” series, with families from different cultures that show what the dinner tables of Americans today really look like.