Remembering Chinese Bachelors documents fading Chinatown memories

UBC alum Daniel Chen’s documentary Remembering Chinese Bachelors attempts to uncover years of complex histories — with the added challenge of minimal surviving documents or sources to contact — in a runtime of just under 15 minutes.

It is set to run at this year’s Vancouver Short Film Festival, where it has been nominated for Best Student Film and Best Documentary.

During his time at UBC, Chen was an Asian studies and ACAM student. He said this academic experience was how he first got involved in the Remembering Chinese Bachelors project. He was always interested in stories relating to migration and heritage and continues to do similar work at his current position with the City of Burnaby.

The film showcases stories of people referred to as “bachelors” who used to live in Chinatown.

The meaning of the word “bachelor” is not what we might usually interpret it as being — it is used as a term to describe working class Chinese men who left their families to move to Canada with hopes of earning a living and building a better future for themselves and for their loved ones back home.

“They wound up in situations where they're all alone and living in a society where they're excluded and discriminated against, often working very laborious jobs earning fairly low income,” said Chen.

Since all of these men had passed away by the time of the film’s creation, Chen and his team based it around conversations with people who had known these men and had memories they were willing to share. It wasn’t easy to make this happen — these memories were often hazy ones from childhood that were quickly disappearing.

“We wanted to document these memories before they've all faded away, because these are stories that haven't been documented in writing as much,” Chen said.

“A way to document these stories [is] to paint the image of what people's lives [were] like back then — these early Chinese immigrants who built the foundation of the more multicultural society that we have today.”

The film was originally developed for the Chinese Canadian Museum’s exhibit The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, which opened at the beginning of July 2023 — the 100th anniversary of the passing of Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act.

After the head tax on Chinese immigrants continued to rise to $500, the federal government wanted to find a way to permanently ban Chinese people from entering the country, which was the purpose behind the 1923 Exclusion Act, which wasn’t repealed until 1947.

“During that time, practically no Chinese people were able to enter the country. People weren't able to reunify with their families, which [was] another big reason for these bachelor men to live how they [were], because they couldn’t have their wives [or] their children sent over even if they had the financial means to,” Chen said.

The exhibit is built around Chinese Immigration (CI) certificates, which were documents used to track Chinese Canadians during this time — a legal pathway for the government to place racially biased restrictions.

“It consists of many oral history stories, where the research team tracked down as many original scans of these CI certificates as they could [then] try to reach out to families to document stories of early Chinese Canadians.”

There are two films being screened at the exhibit, including Remembering Chinese Bachelors — the other focuses on life after the Act was repealed, and the discrimination that racialized people continued to face even though they were no longer prevented from coming into Canada by law.

“We figured that film was a great way to add diversity to the medium of content displayed at the museum in the exhibit, and it was also a compelling way to tell their stories and to really give a voice to the people who have these memories,” said Chen.

Finding these voices was the biggest obstacle of the project. Chen recalled having to fly to Toronto to film interviews — not to mention the time needed to build trust with sources who were more hesitant to resurface traumatic memories.

Chen and his team put extensive thought into editing footage, ensuring they were handling each person’s story with care.

“Chinese people have come into Canada and have contributed to Canadian society at very different stages of the country. I think it's important to educate, whether it's newer immigrants [or] people who have lived in Canada their whole lives, about what life was like back then,” Chen said.

Through his work, Chen wants to empower people to share their own stories. He noted how the exhibit’s visitor comment box — and his inbox — have seen viewers opening up about their personal connections to the film.

“A lot of times, people don't realize that these are very valuable stories. If they don't tell someone, they would permanently vanish.”

“It doesn't hurt anyone to learn about these perspectives that have often been overlooked in the history books … It paints a fuller picture of what society was like back then, and I think it allows us to be more appreciative of the equal rights [and] multiculturalism that we cherish and we often take pride in today.”

Remembering Chinese Bachelors is running at the Vancouver Short Film Festival from May 31 – June 2 at the VIFF Centre, and until June 9 online.