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Vanishing Chinatown: The World of The May's Photo Studio

Vanishing Chinatown: The World of The May's Photo Studio brings families together: in the past by splicing together family portraits in spite of family separations due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in the present by reconnecting May's granddaughter with her family's legacy. These stunning photographs show San Francisco Chinatown in the early to mid-20th century, a vanishing "old Chinatown" vibrant with culture; an immigrant community becoming Americanized.

The photographs were almost lost, but art student Wylie Wong rescued 700 photographs trashed in a dumpster. Corinne Chan Takayama, granddaughter of the photographers Leo and Isabella May Chan Lee didn't know what had happened to the photographs, but forty years later found that Wylie had saved some of the photographs. We interweave Corinne and Wylie as Corinne tells personal stories sparked by the photographs and Wylie, along with other historians and Cantonese opera performers, explain the historical background and artistic value of the images.

The importance of family, preserving memories and dreams of earlier generations, identity, and a creative resistance to racist laws and societal constraints are the main themes in Vanishing Chinatown. During these Trumpian times of immigrant family separations, detention, and deportations, Vanishing Chinatown is an urgent reminder of hardships Chinese immigrants endured during the 60 years of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and resonates with other immigrants today.

The fusion of Eastern/Western, and traditional/modern are illustrated in the May's Studio portraits with hand-painted backdrops, and in the photographs of Cantonese opera which were influenced by Western cinema.

Through Corinne's memories and stories of her family we are able to visualize how her grandparents fulfilled the American Dream, particularly Leo, who arrived as a Paper Son and became a prosperous businessman, creative photographer, and civic activist.

The May's Studio Chinatown photographs parallel James Van Der Zee's Harlem photographs, and should be recognized for their artistry, and their historical and anthropological importance. We hope Vanishing Chinatown will spark more questions about other Chinese American photographers, the Cantonese opera, and the legacy of family histories.

  • Emiko Omori
    Producer, Director, Writer, Cinemaphotographer, and Editor: To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter; Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World; Passion & Power: the Technology of Orgasm; The American Dream: Ripe for Change; Hot Summer Winds; and Rabbit in the Moon (Sundance Film Festival Best Documentary Cinematography award, and National Emmy award).
  • Emiko Omori
    (see above)
  • gayle k. yamada
    Producer, Director, Writer: The Spirit of Taiko; Uncommon Courage: Patriotism and Civil Liberties; Yan Can Cook: Cooking at the Academy; Maxine Hong Kingston: Talking Story; Artwear: The Body Adorned; Czeslaw Milosz: The Poet Remembers; and Julia Morgan: A Life by Design.
  • Lydia Tanji
    First time producer. Costume designer: The Joy Luck Club; Hot Summer Winds; Carved in Silence; Unfinished Business; Dim Sum; A Thousand Pieces of Gold; The Wash; and Life Tastes Good.
  • Wylie Wong
    Asian Art dealer and collector, and savior of 700 May's Photo Studio photographs which he donated to Stanford University's Green Library. Past curator and board member of SF Chinese Culture Center; a League member of SF Asian Art Museum; consultant for SF Chinese Historical Society of America; curator at Triangle Gallery; curator of May's Studio photographs at the Bank of America, Transamerica corporation that traveled to Hong Kong, China, and the SF International airport.
  • Corinne Chan Takayama
    Key Cast
  • Wylie Wong
    Key Cast
  • Wendy Slick
    Producing and Editorial Consultant
    Producer, Director, Writer, and Editor: A Love Poem to My Friend Ethel; The World of Mark Stock; Near Normal Man; and Virtuoso: The Olga Samaroff Story. Producer: Ed Hardy: Tattoo The World; California and the American Dream: Ripe for Change; Passion and Power; and Hot Summer Winds. She has worked for American Playhouse, PBS, Lucasfilm, Disney, Showtime, and has created film projects for the Herb Alpert Foundation, Carlos Santana's Milagro Foundation, Woman's Funding Network, and The Exploratorium.
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Short
  • Genres:
  • Runtime:
    28 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    January 10, 2020
  • Production Budget:
    180,344 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Pacific Film Archive: Women Cinematogrphers: Emiko Omori presentation and screening of rough-cut.
    Berkeley, CA
    United States
    August 14, 2019
    Rough cut screening
  • Seattle Asian American Film Festival
    Seattle, WA
    United States
    February 23, 2020
    World Premiere
    Audience Choice Award Short Documentary
  • Ogeechee International History Film Festival
    Statesboro, GA
    United States
    February 27, 2020
  • Austin Asian American Film Festival
    Austin, TX
    United States
    June 10, 2020
    Honorable Mention Short Documentary
    San Francisco, CA
    United States
    October 14, 2020
  • Santa Fe Indie Film Festival
    Santa Fe, NM
    United States
    October 14, 2020
  • Papa International Historical Film Festival
    November 12, 2020
Distribution Information
  • CAAM (Center for Asian American Media)
    Country: Worldwide
    Rights: All Rights
Director Biography - Emiko Omori

Emiko Omori has produced, directed, shot, and edited: To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter; Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World; Passion and Power: the Technology of Orgasm; California and the American Dream: Ripe for Change; Hot Summer Winds for PBS' American Playhouse, and Rabbit in the Moon, for which she received a National Emmy award for Outstanding Historical Program. Rabbit in the Moon premiered at Sundance Film Festival, and was broadcast on public television's POV. Omori was a pioneer American Asian Camerawoman at KQED's Newsroom, has taught at the University of Southern California, San Francisco State University, and San Francisco City College, and is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures.

Selected awards are the Best Documentary Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, the Society for Visual Anthropology's Awards of Excellence, the Asian American Media Award at the Asian American Historical Association, and Golden and Silver Apples from the National Educational Media Network. In addition to presenting her works at the named festivals, the films have appeared at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, Hong Kong International Film Festival, South by Southwest, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, and INPUT.

She was recently featured in Director's Fort Night at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and an installation of When Rabbit Left the Moon was shown at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

I was drawn to this project by the stunning images from The May's Photo Studio, San Francisco Chinatown's premiere portrait studio from the 1920's to the 50's. Owned and operated by Leo and Isabella May Chan Lee, beyond the conventional studio portraits, their inventive photographs are unique: using collage techniques to reunite families, a 360 degree camera to capture huge gatherings, painting and adorning portraits of opera stars with glitter and sequins. These images etched in the emulsion of glass negatives are the shadows of a Chinatown past.