Far East Deep South
by Hope Madden
In 2015, Larissa Lam convinced her husband Baldwin Chiu that they should start filming. Chiu had begun to dig into his family’s history and Lam believed that what he was finding would make a great movie. The result was the award-winning short film Finding Cleveland.
The filmmaker believed that the surprising evidence of a substantial community of Chinese immigrants living in Cleveland, Mississippi dating back to the 1800s would compel viewer interest.
It did – so much interest, in fact, that Lam and Chiu dug deeper. The result is the feature length documentary Far East Deep South. Told in chapters, Lam’s doc begins intimately with the family and broadens to tap universal themes.
We travel with Baldwin and his family, uncovering an America few people knew existed. In watching the effect of this discovery on Baldwin’s father Charles, who last saw his own father when he was barely a toddler living in China, it’s tough not to be moved. Learning who his father was, why he lived so far away, and that he missed his children reshaped the way Charles saw himself.
Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese women couldn’t immigrate to the US for decades. Because of anti-miscegenation laws, the Chinese men who’d come to the States couldn’t easily marry here. Many of these men therefore traveled back and forth to China to marry and have families, essentially creating generations of fatherless families in China.
Dr. Jane Hong and other experts punctuate Lam’s tale with some of those missing historical details we all should have learned in middle school. Like many products of the American educational system, the Chius were unfamiliar with the Chinese Exclusion Act. They had no idea there was a vibrant Chinese American population outside of the West Coast, or that their own history was so entrenched in America’s. This documentary points to the painful impact of massive omissions in the teaching of history.
Wisely, Lam limits the expert talking head footage, using it to illustrate the backdrop and letting the touching family drama drive the film. Far East Deep South is not only a statement about absence but a testament to the effect a person can on a community.
What’s maybe most touching is how this journey softened Charles Chiu’s memory of his grandmother, who’d lost both a son and a husband and still devoted herself to Charles. Seeing his love for her deepen before our eyes delivers as much emotional punch as his evolving feelings toward his father.
Come to Far East Deep South for the beautiful and surprising human drama. Stay for a chance to see America with sharper vision.