By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Seattle filmmaker and lion dancer Han Eckelberg, of Chinese and German descent, grew up on South Beacon Hill. So each side of his heritage left him with indelible memories, starting with his Chinese side.
“My earliest memory of home, family, and the city is taking the Metro 106 line to Chinatown with my Popo (grandmother) and my sister,” remembered Eckelberg, whose short film “Mak Fai Insider,” about Seattle lion dancing, will be shown as part of the Seattle Film Festival in October.
“My Popo would let us know when to pull the string to signal our stop. My sister and I would take turns pulling. We would have dimsum and roam the neighborhood with Popo’s friends.”
“My strongest memories within my Chinese heritage are performing martial arts and lion dancing during Lunar New Year around Seattle. My strongest memories within my German heritage are visiting my German relatives in Wisconsin and learning a German nursery rhyme when I was growing up. Food for sure is different. I’ll have Chinese food any time, any day. To reconnect with my German side, I’ll have a pretzel.”
Any film from the Shaw Brothers inspired him growing up, as did anything with Jet Li or Donnie Yen. He also took in TV dramas such as “Meteor Garden” from China, and South Korea’s “Jewel in the Palace.”
“I remember my mom pointing out how strong these Asian leads are in these different storylines and comparing it to the roles Asians would play in American media (weak/nerdy/subordinate/awkward). Thankfully I had childhood friends who did not want to be like those caricatures and we just made videos for fun or for school. Nothing too serious. But this sparked my interest in videography.”
Eckelbergs’s early film work was silly, cheesy, and very much on the fly. He notes, though, how the storyline to his first finished film was about an Asian kid finding the strength to stand up against a white bully. Studies in video journalism at Cleveland High School followed, undergrad work at the University of Washington, then a UW master’s program, which led him to start on his film in the festival.
The Mak Fai Kung Fu Dragon and Lion Dance Association started up in 1974, directed by Grandmaster Mak Hin Fai. It’s overseen now by Sifu Royal Tan.
Eckelberg got involved with Mak Fai as a teenager in 2016. “I joined because some of my friends were already members on the team. I had previous experience in martial arts and lion dancing from community programs and after school clubs, so a place like Mak Fai really interested me. Once I graduated high school, I committed myself to the association full-time.”
The original class assignment called for a three-minute long mini-documentary, but he felt he couldn’t truly capture Mak Fai teaching and history at that length. His finished short runs roughly sixteen-and-a-half minutes.
“The toughest challenge for the film was finding a way to best explain what it is we do to a general audience. There are so many steps, details, and nuances in our performances. I wanted to guide the viewer into learning more about the performers under the lion, as well as the choreography involved, the level of courage required, and the amount of athleticism needed to be part of a lion dance troupe.
“Every performance is not the same. Certain performances have different storylines tied directly into the dance. I decided to explain our process based on how a new member would come into our team; learn martial arts, learn lion dancing, from practices, to performances.”
Asked about future projects, Eckelberg mentions the annual highlights reel he helps prepare for each Lunar New Year, for his troupe.
“I also plan on making more kung fu films, and working with my sifu and teammates to possibly make a short action film. Outside of Mak Fai, I want to make more video stories for other local companies in the area, while producing my own art that is still centered around my Chinese heritage and home of South Seattle.”
“Mai Fai Insider” plays the Seattle Film Festival as part of the Festival’s “Shorts Program 4,” on Oct. 2 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 North East 50th Street in Seattle’s University District. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit grandillusioncinema.org/series/seattle-film-festival-2022.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.