| 2010. Olympics year. 30 year. Back in Vancouver after nights and days in my “F”th floor apartment on Bangbae’s Café Golmok (방배 카페골목) thinking about culture shock and how I would ever bring myself to working in Canada. Here would be no there. English education isn’t a pillar of the Vancouver economy unlike Seoul’s despite what the hagwons (학원) and crowds of multi-national fobs downtown might lead you to believe. People working in that space don’t command the same anything here. I didn’t want the ESL life anymore and the preconceptions and judgments that came with it. I wanted a different career. But it would be hard finding a way to one being what I was on paper, an ESL guy.
I thought I’d found an opening. It was still ESL related but it was different: recruiting English teachers for schools in Korea. Recruitment. A future in HR, maybe. Sounded promising. I lined up the job from overseas, landed Saturday, started Monday. What jetlag? At 29 the body’s still as malleable as ever. 34? You’ll see.
I thought it was going to be a smooth transition especially salary wise. I told people it would be fifty thousand a year. Could be. This was sales. That fifty was realistically twenty four. And it lasted all of three months and 3 placements. Not something you’d hoist a cup over. Stumble.
When I was in college, I studied Beowulf. We talked about how life is transitory, relationships are transitory. People drift, a fact of life. I was back in Vancouver after 6 years and I had 2 friends. Social life: stumble. Friendship Fest was in order. Remember meetup.com? Is that still around? I used it. “Asian Film Vancouver.” I think that’s what I searched. “Free tickets to Esther Lee’s ‘Ming and Singh – Chinese Indians and Chindians’ at the Queer Film Festival. Filmmaker in attendance.” Yes.
August 2010. My first Queer Film Festival anywhere. The theatre is packed. It’s buzzing. People in very liberal clothing (outfits?) (costumes?). It’s a comfortable atmosphere. No pressure to fit in. Do what you want. Be proud. Let it all hang out if you wa—No. Don’t.
The presenter comes to the podium. “And now for our feature. I am sad to say she’s not one of us, but I am absolutely delighted that she is one of us! Esther Lee spent the first 20 years of her life in Sydney, Australia before moving to Vancouver. She is an accomplished fiction writer who passionately scripts stories she says exist or could very well exist and are never told because someone or something, usually a mainstream force, is keeping them out. Her film tonight ‘Ming and Singh – Chinese Indians and Chindians’ looks at the lives of star crossed lovers on opposite sides of the border during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. We’ll have a question and answer period at the end so stick around for that. And now, ‘Ming and Singh – Chinese Indians and Chindians.’”
The film screens to good applause, but no standing ovation or anything. Q&A happens. Wow. Is that Esther? That’s Esther. Ok. That’s Esther. Ok. She could be uppity, though, for all I know. Only one way to find out.
To the stranger on my right, “Excuse me. Do you know anything about Esther? I mean, is she uppity or anything?”
Stranger: “Oh! She’s lovely, isn’t she? Exquisite. Oh look at her. I know you shouldn’t judge books by covers, but she is lovely. If I, as a gay man, could give birth, I would be proud to produce a product of perfection like that.” He brings his fingertips to his lips and puckers said lips. He does that “Muah!” thing Italians are stereotypically famous for when they really like something. “Then again, I’ve never met her. She could be uppity for all I know. Only one way to find out.”
Host: “In closing, I hope all of you will come out to the after party at Five Sixty. It’s, umm, appropriately located at Fiiiiive Sexty. Oh did I say that?! Oh my! No no no no no no no. That was a naughty mistake. Of course that’s not the address. It’s five, six, ohhhh Seymour Street. And cover is fabulously free!”
Five Sixty and its twenty eight thousand square feet of wonderland were a few blocks away. I walked with one of the welcoming mobs up Granville, turned right on West Georgia, and went down Seymour towards Waterfront. It was the old A&B Sound building! Nostalgia — Those Boxing Day sales you would always hear about people being trampled at desperate for door crashers like $99 multi-disc CD players, $99 bubble jet printers, $99 VCRs, and other $99 now obsolete technologies piled atop one another at landfills. The nineties.
[PLAY] Waited. Waited. In! Wow! Movie and club cover. This festival is amazing! [PLAY] Now to find Ms. Lee. But how in this place? It’s huge. 5 floors, maybe more and its packed with all sorts of colourful characters. How to move.
It’s early. Bar be a good bet. There we go! The second one.
Note that in a club, where there are speakers, there is exclamation.
Me: “Esther! Great work! Can I buy you a drink?!”
Esther: “Hello! Sure! Let me finish this!” She was probably 80 pounds, but man she downed that quick. — And now she’s leaned over. — And now she looks like she’s going to throw up.
Me: “Are you ok?!”
Esther: “I’m good!” Cough. Arches back up about 15 degrees. Extends arm supported by thigh. Thumb up.
“Are you sure?!” Still leaning over. Sends out thumb up with other hand.
“Don’t worry! It looks worse than it is! I’m a pro!” Yeah, right. I’ll get her one, but this’ll need monitoring.
“Alright then?! What do you take?!
“Gin and tonic! No ice!”
Wait for a bit. Wait a bit more. Obligatory tip. Done.
“I got you a water too!”
“Beautiful! You’re a lifesaver!” I could very well be if this chick doesn’t know her limits.
“Got time for an interview?!”
“Of course! Always time for the press unless I’m hangry!”
We went to a reasonably quiet room away from the main dance floor and its large projection screens with shirtless men in underwear suggestively staring at each other and turning away when one noticed the other. FYI, there were go-go dancers. And they were busy going. Man, they went.
Esther: “So you’re a reporter?”
Me: “Well, really I’m just a fan who likes to see people like me in films and likes to meet the people that make them. That’s not to say I’ll watch just anything because someone who looks like me and speaks my language is in it. I didn’t see the Last Samurai or anything. There needs to be something else, a creative premise, strong writing, no stereotypes.”
“Hah. Right.” She simulates Seppuku.
“So where did you get the idea for the film?”
“Well, since I saw this movie Saving Face, I’ve wanted to see people like me on screen and I’ve always been fascinated with Asian diaspora stories. So I start with that. Then I go, what’s weird, ridiculous, never told, and not about Chinatown, an oppressive patriarchy, or whining about actors not being put in a production made by some other cultural group that’s not their own? It’s 2010, man. If you want to see people like you on screen, go get a camera and download some editing software. And if you want to aim higher, it’s not like North American Asians are poor, you know? Disposable income’s there. They make more on average than anyone else. I know that’s an average, but still, averages mean a lot. Not only that, a lot of us are spoiled and have family money to draw from if we really needed the capital. Instead, we dump it into real estate, but what’s it all for?”
“Well, land is money and money talks.”
“Yeah, well, what’s it saying? ‘I have a 40 acre estate in Shaughnessy. In five years I’ll have a 60 acre one.’ And what? Boring. Money talks? Media talks. I want a different story.”
Incoming! Cock blockers? Two men swoop in. Congratulatory hugs and cheek kisses (for her). Laughing. Some awkward standing on my part. She introduces. “This is Maximo and Derek. Maximo has a film screening on Sunday. Derek was in a short film tonight.”
Maximo: “It is very nice to meet you.”
Derek: “Hi there.”
Me: “Hi. The pleasure is mine.” To Maximo, “You have a gun on your belt.” He did. This little plastic thing. That was a funny belt.
Maximo: “It’s loaded! Grr!”
Esther: “Excuse me. I’ll be back. Little ladies’ room.”
Me: “So what’s your film about Maximo?”
Maximo: “Well, it’s about love and how many of us wait for this ideal mate to come along when that ideal doesn’t actually exist and what is perfect for, say, you, is right in front of you and you don’t even know it. That is, until you realize it. And then you’re happy and you can finally admittedly say ‘I was so dumb.’ Here’s my card.”
Me: “Great message.” I look at the card. “Garingan. Is that Indonesian?” I sort of knew what Indonesian names sounded like. Kind of.
Maximo: “It’s Filipino.”
Me: “Oh. I wouldn’t have thought that. I thought you were Chinese Indonesian or something by looking at you.”
Maximo: “Well, there’s lots of different types of Filipinos just like there are types of Canadians.”
Me: “No doubt. Living proof.”
Maximo: “Will you be coming out tomorrow? I can give you a pass.”
Me: “Oh. Wow. That would be great.”
Maximo: “Yeah, meet me in the front of Granville theatre at 530 tomorrow and I’ll hook you up. You can give me your number in case.”
Me: “Excellent! Appreciate it! I’m so loving the friendliness of everyone here! So what about you Derek? Are you an actor, Derek?” Duh, that’s what she said earlier. And you said his name twice like that. Dummy.
Derek: “Yeah, I was in a short film called Bathing in Black. It’s really a pilot and the filmmakers are hoping it’ll get picked up. Not here, though. Festivals are just excuses for parties. The only thing getting picked up here are people.”
Derek: “So what’s your deal, mister?”
Me: “My deal? I’m just a fan of the arts. I’m looking to get into the scene maybe as a writer or in some funding role. I’m not talented enough to make my own films but I’d love to be able to influence production and give someone a bunch of things I want to see on screen and have them run with it.”
“Cool. So what do you write?
“Well, I haven’t really written anything yet.”
“You’ve got some work to do mister!”
“Hah. Right. I do.”
“You should try acting. You’ve got the looks for it. I mean, you’re not a super model or anything, but you’re a solid 7.”
“Hey, I’ll take that.”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
“Not at the moment. Kind of working on it.”
“Have you ever thought of a boyfriend? Sorry, I can’t totally tell if you’re straight or what.”
“Not really.” I had actually, not as a matter of physical attraction, but just for curiosity sake, like an experiment. I wasn’t ready to admit that to anyone.
“You should. Guys are way better than women. They’re not as emotional. You don’t want that baggage.” Did I? “Give it a try!”
“I think I’ll think about your thought.” Is that really how that came out?
“Well, my friend Karin would enjoy you.”
Esther: “Hey I’m back!”
Me: “Thank you for being back!”
Esther: “Let’s dance! It’s Lady Gaga [PLAY]. One must!”
And we musted. And after a while:
Esther: “Hey I have to get going! I need to wake up tomorrow for a photo shoot!”
Me: “Oh! Yeah, I’ll walk you out!”
Esther: “No no! It’s cool!”
Me: “Nah, don’t worry about it! I should get going anyway! I want to see an early screening tomorrow.” I didn’t, actually.
Esther: “Ok, then.”
We walk out. It’s summer. No coat check to line up for.
Esther: “Hey, so are you anonymous or do people call you something?”
That’s right. I didn’t ever tell her my name. “Remmington. Chow.”
“Nice. You’s a Hong Kong person?”
“Kind of. My parents. I was born here. How’d you know?”
“It’s in the name, man. Weird-sort-of-English name. Asian. Probably Hong Kong. If you were a girl, you’d be Candy, Mimi, Freezer Burn or something.”
“Oh yeah! Talk about names. Cookie Cutter Korean Esther. Ok there.”
“Haha! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Are you Christian?”
“My parents are. Sometimes they take me to get churchin’.”
“And how many Esthers do you know?”
“Well, what about you? Property magnate’s parachute child?”
“Not quite. Just some hardworking peeps tryin’ to make a living or die trying. Mom works at the Bay bakery. My dad sells computers. You now.”
“Me now what? Who talks like that?”
“I’ll come clean. Parachute child. Property magnate. Not full-blown or anything. He owns a few buildings in Seoraemaul and somewhere in Hanoi. Got in early. Got lucky.”
“Word. All about timing.”
Random chatter for another few minutes. We get to her car. Ain’t no Bentley, that’s for sure. I think it’s an Avante. In Canada they call it the Elantra. What’s so different about those two names that they needed to use both for the same thing, I’ll never know.
“Thanks for walking me. That was sweet of you.”
“No problem. I want to see you again.”
“Direct! Oh yeah? And what?”
“And breathe. And comprehend words that come out of your mouth. And respond to them.”
“And maybe this.” I took her left hand with my right.
“Pretty fast moves there, mister. I’ll have to get back to you.”
“Kidding. I’m an artist. I got nothing going on. Let’s do it. Here’s my card.”
And we got dietary constraints out of the way. Me: peanuts. She: pine nuts. I’d show her Double Double in Richmond and demonstrate how juk (죽) and those little sides of kimchi, chopped up chili octopus, marinated beef strands, and vinegar soup thing have nothing on congee (米粥) with a nice, crisp, light oil stick aka donut aka youtiao aka 油條.
Till then.a&b sound, Asian Australian, Asian Canadian, asian diaspora stories, cbc, chindian, chinese canadian, chinese indian, esther lee, five sixty, granville street, gyopo, inter-asian relations, korea, korean canadian, parachute child, seoul, seymour street, vancouver, vancouver queer film festival