As a photographer, filmmaker and actress living in New York City during a global pandemic, Yuko Torihara spent most of last year reassessing her entire value system.

“I really focused on my mental and physical health,” she tells The Japan Times via video chat from her Manhattan apartment. “I changed the way I ate, how I communicated with people, the way I consumed the news on TV.” It was, she says, a way of surviving a strange and terrible time.

When the pandemic hit, Torihara could have returned to Tokyo where her parents lived. She was born in Tokyo, but spent her early years moving between Japan, the United States and England, joining the Mugensha Theatre Company in Tokyo at age 15 before graduating from a high school in London and getting her bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and literary theory from the University of Pennsylvania. Torihara moved to New York 15 years ago, and this is the longest time she has ever stayed in one place.

“I’m a New Yorker,” she says matter-of-factly. “Going back (to Japan) wasn’t really an option for me.”

Aside from being a New Yorker, Torihara identifies as an Asian American, though she’s aware that not many Japanese living in the U.S. share that view.

Director Yuko Torihara | ERIC JENKINS-SAHLIN
Director Yuko Torihara | ERIC JENKINS-SAHLIN

“During the pandemic, I had plenty of time to read and think about Asian Americans, and to reflect on what it is to be Japanese,” she says. “I had to ask myself, ‘Are we part of the solution or are we part of the problem?’

“There’s a level of privilege for Japanese that other Asian Americans don’t have, which is that Japanese have a country to go back to and we know it. There’s also the sense that we’re a little different. The world celebrates the uniqueness of Japanese culture and its people. Just because I’m Japanese, people are likely to automatically assume that I’m hardworking, polite and cooperative.”

Torihara adds that these stereotypes don’t always work in her favor, especially when it comes to auditioning for roles.

“Writers tend to think that a Japanese person will not behave in the normal pattern of Asian Americans,” she says. “It’s difficult to gauge what exactly is required of me. Sometimes, I’m too Asian. Other times, I’m not Asian enough. It’s an impossible situation.”

Such stereotypes could boil down to the fact that the Asian American community is under-represented in the media.

“I find it strange that Asians are everywhere in America yet we don’t see ourselves on screen,” Torihara says. “The Asian person that’s most often visible in the media is the ‘tech guy,’ or that quiet person in a corporate meeting room. It’s not encouraging or empowering. Someone has got to change that.”

In January, after months of staying at home, Torihara ventured out onto the streets of New York to make a film with a group of fellow artists. The result is “Chinatown Beat,” a short documentary that centers on 70-year-old Henry Chang, a Chinatown stalwart and crime novelist whose fame has been more or less restricted to the confines of his neighborhood.

“It’s really strange because Henry is so well-known in Chinatown but not elsewhere in Manhattan,” Torihara says, adding that she has long known Chang but hadn’t met up with him in person since the start of the pandemic. As has been the case with many of us, Torihara kept up with Chang by following his Facebook posts, which often consisted of pictures from his youth that were taken by another local celebrity, photographer Corky Lee.

A close friend of Chang’s since childhood, Lee passed away from COVID-19 in January, a day before Torihara began shooting her documentary. “Chinatown Beat” is as much a requiem to Lee as it is a tribute to a vibrant immigrant community in New York. The film is peppered with his photos, and it begins with Chang reflecting on his kinship with Lee.

“Corky is not blood to me. He’s not family like that,” he says. “But he’s street. And down here, street, a lot of times, means more than blood. All my brothers from down here, we know what that means, it’s thicker than blood. … I’m gonna miss the hell out of that guy.”

Chang was born in Chinatown in 1951, back when the neighborhood only took up three blocks. Over the years he saw it grow and thrive, watching tourists flood the area in the 1980s. Just a few blocks away, street artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were painting pictures on the walls and pavements of Canal Street.

“What always struck me as strange is that Chinatown has such a vibrant culture but was isolated from the rest of the city,” says Torihara, whose first apartment in New York was in Chinatown. “Everyone in the city knows about Chinatown, for the food and the amazing restaurants and how everything is much cheaper than other places. But no one really bothers to delve into the culture, as they would with Harlem or Soho.”

Torihara points out that there is plenty of material to work with other than the street culture in Chinatown’s long and storied history. There’s the segregation and discrimination that its residents face, and, more recently, a wave of violence being perpetrated against Asian Americans not just in New York but across the country.

“Chinatown Beat” shows the novelist engaged in an activity that’s common to any New Yorker — walking the streets with the assured gait of someone who has pounded the same pavements their entire life. Torihara’s camera follows him through Chinatown at night, the darkened restaurants and apartment buildings contrasting with the colorful neon signs and life after-hours. A handful of diners are seated outside in the freezing January temperatures, under festive lanterns that signal the imminent arrival of the Lunar New Year.

Chang, who wrote his own voiceover script, says in the documentary that “Some writers face a laptop all day long and they burn out great stories. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those. I prefer to be out on the streets, feel the wind or the rain or the hot sun… where creativity is visceral and emotional, instead of being intellectual.”

“I wanted to portray Henry as a New Yorker,” Torihara says, “because he is, and should exist in that genre.” She wanted to avoid putting the weight of any political message on Chang’s shoulders, but she believes that the fact that she made this film at all is a political statement in itself.

“Asian Americans don’t really fight,” she says. “They were too busy working, trying to make it and be successful. But I feel the pandemic year has maybe changed that mindset. When we saw what was happening with Black Lives Matter, and then the violence against Asian Americans, it’s like people said to each other, ‘We’ve had enough. It’s time to speak up.’”

For more information about Yuko Torihara, visit yukotorihara.us.

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