In 2007, filmmaker Kenneth Eng took on an epic project. The talented documentary filmmaker had decided to do something he had not done in his previous films – feature his Chinese heritage with the main star of the show being his own dad.
Choosing his father as the focal point of the documentary My Life in China comes as no surprise. In the 60s, Yau King Eng walked for seven days and six nights before swimming for four hours to Macau to escape poverty and communism in China and to give his family a better life. When he did settle in Boston, he worked in the fast food industry, and worked his way up to open his own restaurant, but faced much disappointment when it soon went bankrupt. He now spends most of his days caring for his wife who suffers from schizophrenia. He’s rolled with the punches life’s dished out, and has a story that’s both compelling and heartbreaking at times.
“My inspiration to make this film has been my father and all the other immigrants we see walking down the streets of Chinatown,” Kenneth said. “There’s an amazing story behind every person and I wanted to honor them by telling a personal story that brings about a deeper understanding and build compassion for their experience.”
Kenneth also mentioned that his previous works had avoided looking at himself and his roots — something which he was determined to change with this documentary.
“I was also at the age when I noticed my body of work was documenting communities besides my own. Making My Life in China has allowed me to reconnect with my community, culture, and heritage. It also allowed me to spend precious time with my father as an adult – how often do we get to spend precious time with our parents as adults?”
While he knew that retracing his father’s road to freedom would be a challenge, he also knew it would be an emotional journey for him personally, to come face to face with his own feelings about his culture from the past.
“Growing up in Boston, I spoke English at school and Chinese at home. From the food to the way we lived, I knew it was different from most of my ‘American’ classmates. And seeing other students get bullied made me want to avoid that — I tried to fit in as much as I could by speaking English without any accent and being ‘cool’ with the in-crowd.”
It was at that young, peer-pressure-filled age that Kenneth decided to run away from his culture and heritage.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be someone I was not. I thought it was better not be Chinese-American. Society has a way of making you think a certain way. The media out there also has a way to lead people to think a certain way – what is beautiful, what isn’t. I think I got caught up in that.”
As he grew older, Kenneth did discover his identity…as a filmmaker. But even after studying Film at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he found that his conservative Chinese parents would often advise him against his chosen career path.
“My parents had a difficult time dealing with my choice to pursue art and film. Like many other immigrant parents, I endured continuous lectures to choose being a doctor, lawyer – and this had an adverse effect on me. I believe they wanted something stable and something that would allow me to start a family of my own. But I think they finally understand my choice these days.”
Rewind back to 2007, and Kenneth was preparing to trace his father’s footsteps to Hong Kong, Macau, and then to the village of Kwun Tau in the county of Taishan. It had been 18 years since both father and son had set foot in the village and many things had changed. Told through the eyes and voice of his father, the trip documented many gut-wrenchingly aching moments of loss, disappointment, regret, and sacrifice, but ends with hope, reconciliation, and self-realization.
After wrapping up filming, the documentary was finally released in 2016.
“When I started the film in 2007, I was a different person. I needed to mature and heal the pain I had buried deep in myself,” Kenneth said about the long gap between filming and release.
“By pointing the camera at myself and my family, I’m hoping to inspire others when they see themselves reflected in the experience of watching the film,” he said about his aspirations for the film. “I want to encourage young people to be curious about their family histories and not be afraid to ask our elders to share their stories. I think engaging across generations can bring families closer and help people understand themselves better.”
Kenneth now realizes his embarrassment about his own cultural identity when he was growing up had made him ashamed of everything immigrants like his father had achieved and sacrificed.
“When I was younger, I never really considered why I had the things I had – it was a selfish mentality. From the name brand shoes my parents bought to the weeks away from home spent to make a living, it was all so that my brother and I would have a chance at education. It was all to put a roof over our heads and make sure we had enough to eat. The whole point of the film is to bring attention to those who have poured so much effort to make the lives of their family better for the next generation.”
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