By Ninette Cheng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle’s Chinatown/International District is a haven for dim sum Sundays, grocery shopping at Uwajimaya, and bubble tea, right? Sure, but documentary filmmaker Andrew Hida would like to point out that this is only the beginning.
Hida recently released his documentary, “16 Square Blocks,” a video and photo portrait series documenting 16 stories of Seattle’s International District/Chinatown community.
“I moved into the neighborhood a little more than a year ago,” Hida said. “When I moved into the neighborhood, I started hearing a lot of stories, really fascinating stories that [were] unexpected and surprising to me. [These stories were] not what I would have typically associated with Chinatown.”
Hida said the first story that drew him into the project was about the space of a Latino-Jewish church, Inglesias de Dios. The first news story that I did, I found through Joyce Pisnanont,” Hida said. “She’s a manager at IDS Space.”
Hida went on to include stories of Virgilio “Gil” Besabe, a Filipino war veteran immigrant; the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the only nonprofit organization in Seattle that features an Asian product food bank and a program to help immigrants pass the U.S. naturalization test; Bill Lee, the community street cleaner; the Tsue Chong Noodle Company, Chinatown’s only manufacturing business; Luck Ngi, a music (specifically Chinese opera) club; Richard Huie, and the Block Watch program.
“The goal of the whole project was to break through the clichés, stereotypes, and associations most people have of Chinatown,” Hida said. “Just sort of like, you go [there just] for dim sum or you go to eat at restaurants or [you go because] it’s some sort of exotic shopping destination. A lot of people [also] associate it with a more ghetto neighborhood,” he added. “[However], beyond that, there’s this tremendous community.”
Hida said that his project is a way of celebrating the neighborhood.
“[It is] basically creating a portrait of a community,” Hida said.
Hida encountered many surprising things while working on the project.
“It’s a very close-knit, supportive community,” he said. “It’s extremely diverse. I didn’t realize how many grassroots movements and agencies exist, and they’re all doing really fantastic work.”
Hida speaks only fluent English and Spanish, so communicating with people who were fluent only in Asian languages was a challenge. Hida often took an interpreter with him.
“The SCIDPDA (Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority) was really good,” he said. “They also helped me a lot with translations, anything from documents to letters to interviews. As far as onsite translating, they helped me as well.”
Funding is another challenge. Hida is not sure when or where else he can distribute his project because of funding issues.
“It’s not sustainable,” he said. “Being a one-man band producing, everything is pretty stressful and time consuming,” Hida said. “I have a graphic/web designer (Sean Almeida). Everything else, from painting the walls to taking the pictures, is all me.”
Seattle resident Dustin Backlund was in the area and decided to stop by to see the documentary.
“I’m really into different neighborhoods of whatever city I’m [currently] living in,” Backlund said. “The International District is one of my favorite places to go.”
“I didn’t know there was an amateur opera club here,” Backlund added. “That’s pretty cool actually. I learned the noodle company is the only manufacturer in the area and that there’s a growing watchdog movement. I also learned about the ACRS. There’s a lot that you can learn about in any place. I think that any project that delves into the culture and history of a neighborhood is vital. It’s a distinct part of the city, and it needs its story told.”
“I hope to open the eyes to the rest of the Seattle community and the world at large of just the diversity and the fantastic stories of people, of individuals and subcultures, and little communities that are relatively unknown. I think it’s empowering to them. Giving people a voice is my primary goal.” ♦
“16 Square Blocks” will be featured at 601 S. King Street during the month of June on Fridays from 3–6 p.m, Saturdays and Sundays from 12–4 p.m., and by appointment. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.16squareblocks.com.
Ninette Cheng can be reached at email@example.com.