Chan Is Missing is set in the city of San Francisco’s Chinatown of the modern days. Chan Is Missing is a mixture of laid images, pictures, and close-up camera shots, many viewed through the front windshield of a cab, which moves through the streets of Chinatown in search of a missing person. A number of unrelated images appear throughout the film: aged-Asian males and females shuffling along the sidewalk; young Asian-American children holding their parents’ hands waiting for a bus; Kung-Fu warrior posters outside movie houses; Chinese and Italian restaurants; smoked chickens hanging in cafe windows; signs in Chinese; a Christmas-decorated Buddha with flashing lights; and so on. This paper, by referring to the themes and characters presented in Wang’s Chan Is Missing, illustrates how this film defies popular stereotypes about Asians and Asian-Americans.
Joe and Steve set out to find the missing Chan. Steve wants to go to the police, but Joe resists. Their journey brings them in contact with four clues and over twelve persons who know, or knew Chan. Although he is never found, by the end of the film the $4,000 is delivered to Joe and Steve by Mr Chan’s teenage daughter Jenny.
The film offers a virtual dictionary of contemporary Asian-American identities, challenging numerous stereotypes about these people. The first bias that is defied is a notion that all Chinese look, behave, and act exactly the same. The film portrays numerous and dissimilar images of the Asians living in America: Chinese cooks who wear ‘Samurai Night Fever’ T-Shirts and sing ‘Fry Me to the Moon’; Kung-Fu warriors; China dolls; Chinese scholars with hot tubs and their Lo Fong girlfriends; jade-faced rich old men; young Asian males with the Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) look; two-faced schizophrenic Chinamen; Oakland Hill Wah; Ho Chi Minh look-alikes; young Asian males who eat US certified food, cows’ ears and mushrooms from Des Moines, Iowa; young Asian males wearing baseball caps.
These multiple images add up to one conclusion – there is no single Asian-American identity. The film is trying to show that Chinese identity is very complex and difficult to understand. The irony is in the fact that there is no Chan who can be missing, for every Chan (Asian-American) has an identity, even the three Chans, as Joe notes, who everyday appear on the missing person’s list in the Police Department.
Middle-aged Joe summarizes this struggle to define self. To Steve, he states, “It’s hard enough for guys like me who’ve been here so long to find an identity. I can imagine Chan Hung’s problem, somebody from China coming over here and trying to find himself”. Steve protests. “That’s a bunch of [nonsense] man! That identity [means nothing]. That’s old news. Man that happened ten years ago”. Joe retorts, “Its still going on” (Wang, Chan Is Missing).
The second stereotype that is defied by the film is that all Asian-Americans are poor and spend their whole lives earning a minimum wage. Wang takes one away from this bias by concentrating on the real problems (emotional and political, rather than purely economic) faced by the Asian in the United States. Asian-Americans must take a stand on the American experience that is either Pro-Taiwan and implies full assimilation, or anti-American and pro-People’s Republic of China. But this politicized identity is also challenged. Every character in the film has been deeply touched by the San Francisco version of the Asian-American experience of the 83-year-old Asian male who murders his 79-year-old Asian neighbor over which flag should be carried in the Chinese New Year’s Parade.
As Joe and Steve go looking for Chan, no two individuals describe him the same way. To his wife he is a man who never properly assimilated to the American way of life. To his daughter he is an honest and trustworthy man. Fresco, the manager of the Manilla Senior Citizen’s Center calls Mr Chan “Hi Ho” and thinks he is an eccentric. George (who is marketing a version of Chinese apple pie), thinks Mr Chan is too Chinese. Amy thinks he is a hotheaded political activist. Frankie thinks he returned to the mainland. Mr Fong thinks Chan is a genius because he invented a Chinese word-processing system. And an old man in Chan’s hotel says Chan is a paranoid.
The deep and sad irony is represented in the following words, “They call it Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, USA. Look for Chinatown. You travel there in a trolley, up you climb, dong-dong, you’re in Hong Kong, having yourself a time” (Wang, Chan Is Missing). The viewer’s ears are flooded with the sounds of these American Chinatown stereotypes, which are challenged by Wang’s old men and women staring into the camera.
The third stereotype that is challenged by the film is that all Chinese Americans want to become part of the greater US System. The film suggests that Chinatown has enough problems of its own. It does not need to be part of the larger society which demands conformity to America’s version of the Asian other. Racism is right here, at home, with Asians who hurt each other (two-faced schizophrenic Chinaman, jade-faced rich old men, FOBS). No heroes or heroines here. No stars, no cultural models, for every model is a stereotype, and every stereotype itself a stereotype. Here in Chinatown there are no perfect western others who would stand as a measure of the Asian self. This identity has become so thoroughly westernized, no otherness is any longer possible. That is why Chan Is Missing.