Taiyo Na in front of “Colors of Light” Chinatown Mural by Josh Sarantitis
To commemorate this Thanksgiving weekend. I thought it would be appropriate to send this beautiful music video out to the world called “Lovely to Me (Immigrant Mother)” by New York based artist Taiyo Na from his debut album Love is Growth. I completed the final cut of the music video version of the piece on Thanksgiving day and thought it would be nice to share my reflections and process as it relates to working with communities. I’ll also be sharing some of the technical aspects of the process and a few reviews of some Studio 4 Production and Wondlan gear that helped us greatly with the production of the piece. I thought I’d first start off by sharing some of my reflections on how this piece was created.
Loc Nguyen’s Mom and Brother at their home in Northeast Philadelphia
Last April of 2009 for the grand opening of the Asian Arts Initiative we had a number of amazing artists bless the new space with their artistry and community spirit. Taiyo Na was one of those amazing artists. When he got on stage with just his voice and guitar he moved me to tears with his song Lovely to Me (Immigrant Mother) from his debut album Love is Growth. For weeks after I had an idea of trying to do a community arts project that would combine both documentary and music video elements together with this beautiful song and to set it in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and Love Park.
Mary Seng & Barney Seng holding an old photo of their mom at Love Park
We were fortunate enough to have Taiyo perform again for the Asian Arts Initiative banquet and fundraiser later that month and I mustered up a bit of courage and asked Taiyo if he had anyone put visuals to this song. He tried but it didn’t pan out at the time so I talked to Taiyo about the possibility of creating something special and Philly based for this song and that it would be shot using the Panasonic GH1. I told Taiyo as soon as that little camera comes in we’ll shoot it. A few months passed as I waited ever so patiently for the GH1 to arrive. It wouldn’t come until mid summer so everything was on a holding pattern. As we waited, I was concurrently working on another project with David Lin, an artist and director friend of mine from Los Angeles. We were in the process of collecting stories for a short documentary on Jook Songs , an Asian American writing and performing troupe at Yale University that David began over ten years ago. Because of time and funding issues, I had the idea of passing around the GH1 camera to members of the group around the country and filming a day in their lives. I wanted to test this concept out locally here in Philly and thought it would be great to have community members from the Asian Arts Initiative film their mothers and grandmothers for the Lovely to Me music video. I wanted to just put the camera in the hands of the community, allow each person to film the everyday moments of their moms from washing dishes, to doing laundry, to cooking traditional foods, working a local mom and pop restaurant or shop in Chinatown or just sitting, resting and being.
Lai Har Cheung with camera captures her grandma Lau Fong in Chinatown’s On Lok House
I approached David with the idea of being a producer on Lovely to Me because of the community element that is both shared with the Jook Songs documentary that we were working on and he was all for sharing his resources to create this new piece. With our GH1 and gear in place, I approached Taiyo again at the end of the summer in order to deepen the concept of the piece.
Eric Law captures his mom Wai Man Ip in front of their store, Chinese Culture and Arts Inc. in Philly Chinatown
I wanted to bring that feeling for me growing up looking at old 8mm film footage of my family when they first came to Los Angeles from the Philippines. It was that faded slightly dirty look with those tints of green and deeper saturated blues and red that I remember from those old pictures and film reels that captured a distinct memory of family and our own immigrant stories.
Here are some of the pictures I used for the inspiration for the look and feel of the film:
My Uncle Meng, Auntie Lina, & Auntie Welma (1970s)
Me and My Dad (Isagani) & Mom (Fe) with my Auntie Lina who helped raise me
You know some things are just meant to be.
I wanted to find an old camera to use for the piece so I went on craigslist and found a Cine-Kodak Magazine 16 camera for sale on a listing out in Orange County, CA.
Taiyo Na with Cine-Kodak Magazine 16 prop camera still works!
I called up the owner who said it was his father’s old camera and he had held on to the camera in it’s original box for a few years after his father passed away. His father was a camera collector and loved photography and filmmaking. He sold many of his old lenses and gear but this was one of his fathers last pieces from his camera collection. Though he was hesitant at first to do a cross country sale, he loved the idea of the project and sold me the camera because it would be used in this film and go back to the East Coast where his dad was originally from. The idea of passing the camera from one person to the next, is the idea of passing on our individual histories in order to create a collective story, this is a touch point of the piece and why Taiyo at the end passes the camera to the next generation. This idea for the film was inspired by this cross country craigslist sale.
Manong Al Robles with elder manong from Curtis Choy’s Manilatown Is In the Heart
Another subtle but important aspect of the film is that it honors the people who came before us. I thought it would be an interesting twist to have Taiyo open the sequence of the film as a sort of homage to Al Robles with this old Kodak camera. Al was a gifted Filipino American community poet and community activist based in the Bay area who was instrumental in the political fight against the city of San Francisco to stop the demolition of the I-Hotel.
Manong Al Robles back in the day
He loved to hear stories of the “Old Country” and honored the Filipino elders (manongs) in much of his life and work. Definitely Curtis Choy’s old footage of Al at the I-Hotel from “Manilatown Is In the Heart” is such a huge inspiration for the look of this piece. I thought it would be a nice tribute to pay homage to Al Robles by having Taiyo as a kind of community filmmaker who carries his camera in his guitar case. And begins, the community story telling process with the opening of his guitar and filming through the lens of his camera.
Aleyamma Mathew holds a picture of her father Mathew Varughese & mother Annamma Mathew
In our conversations about how to deepen and push the concept of this piece Taiyo expressed to me that it was important that the piece begin in Chinatown and start from a personal Asian American experience but that by the end of the music video it should be a song for everybody. That upon ending in Love Park that this personal immigrant mother tribute not just be for Asians but for all peoples.
Kaitlin S Dugan with her mom Lynne T. Dugan at Love Park
And this is where the Asian Arts Initiative comes in. A call was made for people to come to Philly’s Love Park, to bring your mother, grandma, or person who raised you. If not in person, you could bring an old photo of your mom or even a picture of your mom in a cherished picture frame.
Asian Arts Initiative community members at Love Park
So many people came out. Just filming each person standing in front of the Love Park sign with their old photo of their mom or with their mom in person was so moving, simple, and real.
Jes Vu holding a picture of her mother Hao Vu Le
Taiyo Na holding a picture of his mom on his birthday
There was one moment at Love Park that I knew was going to be an ending moment for the film. One of the Asian Arts Initiative’s youth, Kaitlin Dugan was holding her mother so lovingly. Unrehearsed and in the moment she closes her eyes and hugs her mom deeply and says, “I love you mom.” In the film we don’t hear her say it. It is just the way they held each other in that moment that said it all to me. It was beautiful.
I think this was not just a music video it was a community coming together to reflect, share, and pay tribute to all our mothers. In a way, Taiyo’s song brought a community of people together to create a living breathing piece of art. It gave us all an excuse to have permission to break away from the everyday routine of our lives and to take a deeper moment to remember where we all came from. Our mothers. To bring different folks together, asian, black, young, old, mixed heritage, buddhist, muslim, and everything in between, to share both our love and our struggle is rare and a powerful act of courage and hope. I hope this film captures a Philadelphia that is here and now, growing, loving and always ever changing.
Asian Arts Initiative community members wrapping up the Love Park shoot with a group pic.
This was a community arts endeavor that I nor Taiyo could not have done with out the support of the Asian Arts Initiative and the Chinatown community. I am so grateful to them and could not have done it with out them. Please take the time after you see the piece to look at the credits below and see that so many people were involved in making this piece possible and then make a contribution to support the Asian Arts Initiative and the local businesses in Philly’s Chinatown.
Loc Nguyen’s Grandma picking tomatoes in her Northeast Philadelphia garden
And lastly, I hope that everyone who sees this piece can appreciate and reflect on our own mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or that special someone who raised you. I hope that you share this with your closest friends and people who you have disconnected with over time. I think it is my hope that this song and this film can touch people’s lives in the same way that this song first touched me.
“Lovely to Me (Immigrant Mother)”
Artist: Taiyo Na
Album: Love Is Growth
Label: Issilah Productions
Director: Gary San Angel
Featuring the Asian Arts Initiative and the larger Philadelphia Community.
Additional Vocals: Vudoo
Violins: Jason Kao Hwang
Electric Bass: Mas Yamagata
Additional Instrumentation: Taiyo Na
Producer: David Lin
Co-Producer: Asian Arts Initiative, Gary San Angel
Chinatown & Love Park, Philadelphia
First Assistant Director: Jeff “Slope” Cylkowski
Second Assistant Director: Eric Law
Camera Operators: Kaitlin S. Dugan, Loc Nguyen
Mom & Grandma Everyday Life Movie Clips
Camera Operator – Mom / Grandma
Victoria Chau – Anna Hang
Lai Har Cheung – Lau Fong
Lo Eric Law – Wai Man Ip
Loc Nguyen – Loc’s Mom – Loc’s Grandma
Linda Saroeun – Linda’s Mom
Love Park Community Participants
Aditi Vilayphonh & Catzie Vilayphonh
Aleyamma Mathew & Annamma Mathew and Mathew Varughese
Asdy Wan & Viola Kung
Barney Seng & Mary Seng & Sangvuth Ly
Betty Nguyen & Tina Huong Nguyen
Charles Ramirez & Cornelia K. Ramirez
Chon Phoeuk & La Phoeuk
Gary San Angel & Fe San Angel
Gayle Isa & Hazel Isa
Jes Vu & Hao Vu Le
Jordan Coates & Inja Coates
Kaitlin S Dugan & Lynne T. Dugan
Lai Har Cheung & Yuk Kan Lo
Lauren Harris & Nya Harris & Cathy Harris & Mildred Carter
Linda Saroeun & Linda’s Mom
Myong Pok McCloud & Vanessa McCloud & Victor McCloud & Michelle Myers & Myong Pok Myers
Husayn al-Jamil & Sham-e-Ali al-Jamil & Juhi Nayeem
Ratha Chea & Sarin Sek
Taiyo Na & Taiyo’s Mom
Toni Dang & Can La
Chinese Culture and Arts Inc.
Wai Man Ip
QT Vietnamese Sandwich
Karen Tha & Mai Phan
Annie Tran & Trieu Le
Philly Chinatown Murals
“Furious Style” by Jeff Cylkowski
1219 Vine St. at Asian Arts Initiative
“History of Chinatown” by Arturo Ho, Giz, N. Phung, H. Tran
10th and Winter St.
“Colors of Light” by Josh Sarantitis
12th and Vine Street
QT Vietnamese Sandwich
Tim Ovel, Studio 4 Productions
Frederic Cheung, Wondlan
Steve Serota, Classic Camera Workshop
Asian Arts Initiative
Chinese Culture and Arts Inc.
Eric Law & Wai Man Ip
QT Vietnamese Sandwich
Karen Thai & Annie Tran
Lai Har Cheung
© 2009 Taiyo Na & Gary San Angel