San Francisco, CA

Chinese-American Films That Celebrate San Francisco

Amancay Tapia
Photo by Aaron Houston/Pexels

San Francisco is no doubt a cinematic city and many well known films and television series have been filmed in the Golden Gate city.The contribution of Asian American filmmakers to American cinema is unmeasurable, and many of the best Chinese-American films were shot in San Francisco.

If all you have seen is “Crazy Rich Asians”, get ready for charm and understated elegance with the movies on this list.They have little in common with Hollywood extravaganzas and reflect neither crazy nor rich Asians but a very humble, charming and honest Chinese community on their own terms. These art house films found success primarily in the mainstream art house circuit the 90’s and 80’s.

Without further ado here are a few recommendations for your must watch list, all of them were directed by legendary indie director Wayne Wang, a pioneer of Asian-American cinema who lives in the Bay Area, and one of the first Asian filmmakers to work in Hollywood.

Chan is Missing, 1982

Director: Wayne Wang

An entertaining mystery film made for $20,000 back in 1982 and extremey rich in setting and character detail.San Francisco cabdrivers Jo and his nephew Steve, are robbed of $4000 meant for a taxi license by Chan Hung, who takes the money and goes missing.

The two taxi drivers go looking for him in Chinatown believing he really didn’t intended to steal the money. As they knock on doors and speak to people we are given a real feeling for the people of San Francisco’s Chinatown.The search for "Chan", becomes almost an excuse for the director to guide us through the Chinese community in San Francisco. At the time, they were isolated from the rest of the U.S. and divided due to their own feuding. Comic, intriguing and, often almost anthropological, this was one of the first films to show what the American indie sector was capable of.

Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart,1985

Director: Wayne Wang

I have to admit that ever since I saw this film , my dream is not a cruise trip around the Caribbean but something as simple as a San Francisco holiday where I visit China Town and eat the most delicious Dim Sum. The simple pleasures of life offer no doubt the greatest joy and this movie is that, joyful, understated and mouthwatering too.

The film is a very charming tale of one Chinese San Franciscan family living in Chinatown. A 30-something career woman (Laureen Chew) and her widowed mother (Kim Chew), welcome the new year together. The mother, Mrs Tam, is certain she is going to die soon but before she does so, she wants her daughter, Geraldine, to marry. The story sounds everything but dramatic but the film is a real treat to watch.

Complex human emotions and the universal dilemma for many children as they grow up and are divided by the willingness to follow their own path in life and the responsibility of caring for their family.

The Joy Luck Club, 1993

Director: Wayne Wang

This Chinese-American film is the one that crossed over to a mainstream American audience as it resonates with everyone who has a family, so everyone will identify with it.Based on the 1989 best-selling novel by Amy Tan, the film gives us a wonderful insight into the lives of Chinese families caught between Chinese and Western values and struggling with high expectations, psychological issues and cultural differences.In San Francisco, four middle-aged Chinese immigrant mothers with Americanized daughters and comfortable homes in the city, meet once a week to discuss family issues while playing “Mahjong”, theirs is the “Joy Luck Club” of the title. A joy to watch.

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