Chinee Girl

A film by Natalie Wei

Natalie Wei

Photo by Kenneth Chou

Canadian born and of Trinidadian descent, Natalie Wei is a freelance artist, photographer and emerging filmmaker. Natalie recently submitted her first film, Chinee Girl to the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award for best short film. Natalie talks to Nu Woman Magazine about how and why this film, was made and how her background and ethnicity and life in Trinidad influenced the making of this film.

Natalie talks about her film

Chinee Girl is a film about identity, representation, belonging and gender in a Caribbean space. Women of Chinese descent in Trinidad occupy a space that is simultaneously visible and invisible. Despite national and regional acknowledgment of this minority group’s significant cultural and economic influence, female voices are notably absent within the early academic literature and migration history of this unique culture. The mixed-Chinese claim varying degrees of Chinese heritage and also co-exist with recent migrants in the fourth wave of Chinese migration to Trinidad. What does it mean to be simultaneously visible and invisible? What purposes are served by existing in the space in-between?

Chinee Girl focuses on fifteen female subjects occupying various social circles. Through their stories, a contemporary portrait of the Caribbean Chinese identity emerges, questioning how one defines ethnicity and identity in a Caribbean space.

The Chinese have been present in Trinidad for over 200 years; the community celebrated the Bicentennial of Chinese Arrival to Trinidad and Tobago in 2006. So the community has a longstanding history that has for the most part eluded the major narratives of Trinidadian and Caribbean identity. The “cast” for Chinee Girl was essentially composed of individuals that were agreeable to the process and what I was trying to do. For every one that was included, at least three were asked.

Nu Woman: How long did it take to put this film together, from writing script to actually filming, editing etc?

Natalie: The research for Chinee Girl began in 2007, as post graduate research in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine under the supervision of Professor Patricia Mohammed, titled “The (IN)Visible Minority: Women of Chinese Descent in Trinidad.” Ongoing research continued through 2008-2010 and various presentations of research in progress at the Association for Cultural Studies (ACS) Conference and the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) through 2008-09 also assisted this process.  Pre-production for the film began in late 2010. By early 2011, pre-production had officially begun. Principal photography began in Trinidad in February 2011 and continued through May 2011. Post-production was completed in September 2011 in time for the 2011 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival.

NW: How expensive and/or labour intensive was it?

Natalie: The University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus, through a Research and Publications Fund Grant, generously supported this project first and foremost. This support allowed for the proposal and subsequent granting of a Production Assistance and Script Development (PASD) Grant from the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company. Chinee Girl received funds under the Production Assistance allocation of the grant. Completion funds for the version screened at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival this September were generously provided through a grant from Chinese Bicentennial Limited. Various additional costs and expenses were covered by personal funds, in-kind donations, and the generous support of friends, family and peers.  As we’re still looking at making some changes and adjustments and also have yet to confirm the final costs for other aspects of the production such as marketing and promotion, the actual budget is still to be confirmed and in no way reflects the amount of work and creative energies that were put into the production of Chinee Girl.

As for how labour intensive it was… where could I possibly start? My crew was amazingly generous with their time and talents and went above and beyond their scope of work to facilitate. Chinee Girl is a product of the Trinidad production team (Oliver Milne, Cedric Smart, Anthony Fung, Rhian Vialva and Kristin Jaggan and others), the Toronto post-production team (John Kimmel, Natalie Schenk, Marsha Greene, Terry John Meyers, Jason Kan, Janelle Carpenter and others), the Trinidadian cast and communities who supported the project and the advice, support and feedback of many others within the Trinidad and Toronto film-making and arts communities, too numerous to name.

NW: Tell us a little about Natalie. How did you get into filmmaking? Where did you study?

Natalie: I began my photography studies as a high school student in Toronto, Canada. It was a wonderful program, and my first teacher, Mr. Mills, encouraged and supported his students in finding their own way of seeing, through the lens. We learned black and white photography the analogue way, developing our own 35 mm black and white film, printing our photographs in the school darkrooms. I was given my mother’s old Canon, AE-1 program, and really fell in love with photography from an early age. I continued my studies at Ryerson University, and graduated in 2006 with a BFA (Honors) in Photography Studies. I was privileged with having professors that really did have a passion for photography. Even more so, as the School of Image Arts also includes Film Studies and New Media programs, we had the opportunity to study under a faculty with diverse backgrounds in practice, theory and criticism. The foundation that Ryerson provided, grounded, and developed my aesthetic and my desire for creating photo-based images, not just ‘straight photography’. It also fostered experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what a photographic image was and what it could become through manipulation, various techniques and processes, both historical and contemporary. My final year thesis project was an installation, composed of a photographic portrait and an experimental video piece shot in Trinidad during the 2006 Carnival. As an artist and photographer, my practice was always self-directed and self-produced. However, I wanted to create a documentary film, for the research I was conducting, and it simply could not be completed individually. This required an understanding of the filmmaking process, and curiously enough, it seems I came to Trinidad and went to film school! The first production I worked on was Professor Patricia Mohammed’s short film, “Coolie Pink and Green”, as a production assistant. Through the recommendation of a friend, two gentlemen took a chance and hired me to work as the third assistant director on a Norwegian feature film shot in 2009, Limbo, which was recently screened at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. Following that, I’ve had the chance to work as an assistant director and production coordinator with some really wonderful, talented and generous people in Trinidad and Tobago on both local productions and foreign projects from Los Angeles, New York, Austria and Germany. It is significant that Chinee Girl was shot on a DSLR camera – the Canon 5D Mark II, a digital still camera with HD video capabilities – another extension of the photo-based process that now extends to video.

NW: How has living in Trinidad & Tobago influenced this film?

Natalie: While many Trinidadians leave the island and go abroad for their education, I did the reverse. This confused a good many people, my family included. But my intention was simple. Having grown up in Toronto, Canada, my experiences of Trinidad were mostly recollections from family visits throughout my childhood and I wanted to experience Trinidad outside of brief visits during summer vacation. Trinidad was always visually appealing to me – the sense of light and space here is aesthetically quite unique and preoccupied my lens from very early on. Without question, this film wouldn’t have been a possibility had I not lived in Trinidad over the past few years. Although, I did take a hiatus from the research and worked in production, my earlier statement of going through film school in Trinidad stands true. It was the combination of my Ryerson University foundation and the production experience and research in Trinidad that facilitated the creation of Chinee Girl.

NW: What made you decide to enter this film in the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (TTFF)?

Natalie: It made complete sense to enter Chinee Girl in the TTFF for its premiere. The film was financed and supported by the academic community, the film community and the Chinese communities in Trinidad along with the general Trinidadian public. The film’s post-production schedule was set to finish by mid-September and I hopped on a plane and delivered it that same week! Bruce Paddington, Annabelle Alcazar and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival were supportive of screening Chinee Girl from the very beginning and I have to say thank you for taking a chance on this first-time filmmaker!.

NW: How were you feeling on opening night?

Natalie: The opening night of the festival was filled with amazing energy. As the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival is still in its early stages and film as an industry is still developing, that early energy is multiplied tenfold. Trinidad’s festival is one that has gathered regional support and submissions, and this year’s programme had some incredible award-winning selections. I think they’re very much working through a new era of film in Trinidad and I am excited to see where it will go over the coming years.

NW: Tell us about the premiere of the film.

Natalie: At the premiere of Chinee Girl, I was fortunate enough to have my parents present for the screening and was really touched that they could experience this with me. The theatre was almost full for a Friday afternoon, 2:00 p.m. screening, so a huge ‘thank you’ to all who came and supported that first screening because many must have adjusted their schedules to attend and support. For those who were unable to attend, they were definitely there in spirit!

NW: What responses did you get? How has this influenced your plans for future films?

Natalie: Chinee Girl won the People’s Choice Award for Best Short Film at this year’s festival. It was an amazing honour to be sure and really showed that the audience was behind our efforts with one story that needed to be told. Of course, so many have offered their suggestions and perspectives and own family histories. But it served its initial purposes, which were:

1. To initiate discussion regarding women of Chinese descent in Trinidad.

2.  To help start a different sort of documentation and visual representation of Chinese culture in Trinidad, as an ongoing effort and process.

NW: What is the message in this film? What do you want people to take home from viewing this film?

Natalie: Chinee Girl is an examination of Chinese and mixed Chinese female identity in Trinidad. But beyond this, it is a universal story of the contemporary questions of identity and belonging that we currently face. The reality is that most of us probably live in a culture that is different from that of our parents, much less ancestors. So how is one’s identity shaped, from both the ‘inside’ cultural perspective, and how are those groups perceived? In fact, this is the other conflict that will become more complicated as each generation passes. The hyphenated identity between ethnic background, cultural upbringing and ancestral history lend to some very interesting self-identifiers, for example, mine would be a “Canadian of Chinese Trinidadian descent”. Within my own family, I have those of Chinese descent but they were born in India, Jamaica, and Tahiti, to name a few. As a “Canadian”, I find it a similar identifier to “Trinidadian”. But can this exist by itself? Chinee Girl is such a specific film that it becomes a universal story, of migration, belonging, and identity. The aspects of culture that are maintained by an individual and the community efforts to ‘preserve’ these cultural signifiers differ from group to group, and from country to country. What does that look like, in Trinidad? But beyond that, what do these women have to say?

NW: How would you describe yourself?

Natalie: Oh this question! Hmmm… well, if I was going to describe myself, I suppose I’d say I’m very curious. It was said to me in jest when I was a child, actually, what was said was, “you’re always so nosy”! But still to this day, it is an appropriate description – nosy, curious – to me they’re interchangeable.

As an artist, academic, student, filmmaker, photographer, etc. I think that which connects all these descriptors is a deep-seated curiosity and the constant asking of the question. “Why?” and the follow-ups are “Why not?” and “How come?” and… You get the point. That one question leads to many. And it’s a desire to understand something unfamiliar, or for the familiar, to come to a deeper understanding. This may seems like a small thing but it’s what drives me to create new work, visit new places, explore new ideas, themes, try new mediums, fuse new technologies with historical materials and investigate that which others might pass by.

Copyright Nu Woman Magazine 2011. This story was featured in Nu Woman’s Fall 2011/Winter issue.