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Dai Hei: A Chinatown Portrait


Dai Hei: A Chinatown Portrait is a story of redemption. While dumpster diving in Chinatown, Wylie Wong, a recent California College of Arts and Crafts graduate, excavated 700 photographs and glass plate negatives. Amid the debris, the eyes of a beautifully hand-painted Cantonese opera star stared out at him. Recognizing the historical as well as artistic significance, Wylie has sought to bring these photographs to light.

Wylie is our protagonist, our griot. He spouts off about his views on collecting art, and living life for art. The Mays Studio photographs were his first art collection. He is now an Antique Asian Art dealer, collecting Asian Art from flea market kitsch to museum quality scroll paintings.

Through Wylie’s search for more information about the photographers, and the world depicted in the photographs, we learn of the husband and wife photographers, Leo and Isabelle May Lee Chan. For nearly forty years, they recorded the high and low life of their community, leaving an unparalleled legacy of images that capture the insiders’ perspective on Chinatown. Many of the photographs that Wylie saved document the “hey” day of Cantonese opera from the 1920s through the 1940s. We learn of the 158 year history of Cantonese opera in San Francisco, and of the opera clubs still existing today.

Directed by filmmaker and cinematographer Michael Chin, Dai Hei: A Chinatown Portrait is a dialogue between past and present, fantasy and reality. This recent history was thrown out in the trash; we want to restore it. We contrast the elaborately painted backdrops and fantastical costumes of the Cantonese opera, with the dreary day lives of the Chinatown inhabitants. We explore the passion for theater, entertainment, and artistic expression in a ‘closed’ community, through Wylie’s passion for preserving the arts of Chinatown.