Song of the Exile

Film Synopsis:
Isreal, South Africa, Turkey

Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile tells the story of the Chinese diaspora told through its most recognizable and enduring icon – the family-run Chinese restaurant.

Kien is a Vietnamese refugee and a devout Christian who evangelizes Chinese migrant workers while running a restaurant in Haifa.  His children, meanwhile, variously negotiate their complex identities as Christian Chinese Israelis in a Jewish homeland surrounded by Arab states.

Ying started Cape Town’s first Chinese restaurant in 1947.  Today his widow Onkuen and his daughter continue his legacy.  Through them, we glimpse a South Africa struggling to address the bitter injustices and betrayals of its apartheid past.

Wang, a Chinese Muslim who established Istanbul’s oldest Chinese restaurant, fled Chinese Communists in 1949 with his family in a dramatic trek over the Himalayas, thereby earning a place in urban legend as the man who ‘walked from China’.

Together these family histories illustrate the wider story of Chinese migration, settlement and integration, and celebrate the resilience and complexity of the Chinese diaspora.  Set against events that have sparked some of the past century’s most dramatic global migrations, these stories illustrate communities whose culture and identity are held together by a kinship that is stronger than nationalism and politics.

Directors Statement

I have had this idea for twenty-five years – to make a film about the Chinese diaspora through the eyes of Chinese restaurant owners.

I crave Chinese food when I am away from home and am a firm believer of the Chinese proverb: “Within four seas, all men are brothers.” Whenever I travel, I would eat at Chinese restaurants and talk to the restaurant owners. In 1976, I ate at the only Chinese restaurant in Istanbul. Afterwards I heard that the owner had “walked from China.” So I was naturally curious. How did this man walk from China?

The result is Chinese Restaurants.

Chinese restaurants are home away from home. They are entry points into the host society for immigrants from a social and business point of view. All three families in this film were exiled — physically or mentally — from their home country or by their adopted country. By running Chinese restaurants, these families manage to cling on to a bit of the memories and histories they left behind.

We all have an impulse to connect both with the past and with those amongst whom we find ourselves. We cannot escape the fact that we are shaped by our own family histories, as well as the political realities and social environment of the countries we choose to live in. So what is our identity?

I argue that identity can be a fluid thing, so it is not that important which identity you take. Rather, what is more important is that you be true to yourself — know your own history, have a sense of how you fit into a wider world, and be loyal to your own principles and values.

Film Festivals

Hong Kong International Film Festival

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
Taipei Film Festival
Singapore International Film Festival
DC APA Film Festival
Bangkok World Film Festival
Vancouver Asian Film Festival

Annapolis Reel Cinema Festival
Chicago Asian American Showcase