Havana Divas (Hong Kong, 2018) [CAAMFest 2018]

For her third feature-length documentary, Hong Kong-based scholar/professor/filmmaker Shiyu Louisa Wei turns her attention to the experiences of Caridad Amaran and Georgina Wong Gutierrez. Though Caridad actually has no Chinese blood and Georgina is half-Chinese, they share the experience of singing/performing Cantonese opera in Cuba through the influence of their Chinese step/fathers. The film’s narrative centers not only on Caridad, Georgina, and their stories of being a part of a Cantonese opera troupe but also the spaces and traces of Havana Chinatown, past and present. Through Caridad and Georgina’s shared experiences and friendship, moulded by Cantonese opera, Wei ultimately takes up the larger history of the specifically southern Chinese diasporic community, in this case Cuba, particularly from the Spanish colonial era to the conclusion of the Cuban revolution.

As in her previous works Storm Under the Sun (2009) and Golden Gate Girls (2013), Wei employs a patchwork expository style that brings together sit-down interviews, photographs, drawings, film clips, archival footage, and observational-style footage to create an ever-expanding portrait of Chinese diasporic experiences that connect Cuba, Hong Kong, Hawaii, and California on the one hand, and opera and film on the other hand. Admittedly, the film’s resulting form is rather on the dry (nay, forgettable) side – and the increasingly wider pool of diasporic experiences make of some transitions from place to place, era to era, figure to figure, less than seamless and even clunky. In truth, all of Wei’s films have this ‘dry side,’ regardless of subject. On a more specific note, however, Havana Divas can be considered a companion piece to Wei’s film before it, Golden Gate Girls, which focuses on American-born Hong Kong Chinese director Esther Eng’s life and work. In fact, several of the interviews featured in Golden Gate Girls also appear in Havana Divas, such as famed singer Siu Yin Fei and Chin-Lee Wu. Moreover, as Havana Divas recounts at one point, apart from Eng working with top Cantonese opera actors – as did Caridad in Havana – and her films being distributed in Cuba, she bought the distribution rights for Hong Kong films and distributed them in the country, which were then exhibited at the now defunct Havana Golden Eagle Theatre. In the same era, Caridad, Georgina, and their families watched those same imported Hong Kong films on a nightly basis, including the Wong Fei Hong films with star Kwan Tak Hing. To further weave the transnational connections, Caridad’s father had studied opera with the same Kwan Tak Hing and set up the Kwok Kwong opera troupe in Havana Chinatown in 1939, the first of the four Cantonese opera troupes in Cuba.

All dryness and structural unevenness aside, anchoring the spectatorial fascination with Havana Divas are precisely the interconnected diasporic stories and experiences themselves and the pluralised, bicultural, and/or bilingual identities at work in their expression, beginning with Caridad and Georgina. More precisely, Wei is very much interested in documenting female pluralised, bicultural, and/or bilingual identities, which extends to herself and her own trajectory (from mainland China, Canada, and Hong Kong) and thus also to Golden Gate Girls. Wei does not hide her behind-the-camera presence in any of her films, thus unequivocally establishing her voice and her filmic expression of (and also in dialogue with) the varied Chinese identities that she presents in her work.

Havana Divas could have even been titled Havana Girls. Caridad and Georgina’s stories and experiences essentially parallel their city’s ‘golden age’ status of being the ‘Paris of the Caribbean’ from the 1930s to the 1950s. And this same period was also arguably the ‘peak’ of the closeness, social activities, and population in number of the Chinese community in the country centered in the capital (following the first arrivals of Chinese in the 1840s – as ‘coolies,’ as the film relates – and those of the ‘Californian Chinese’ in the 1860s/1870s, who came of their own accord), or at least as Caridad and Georgina lived in/through it in their youth. They would not have been able to immerse so deeply in Cantonese culture via language and opera otherwise. The two women even met at a local Chinese school (though it closed when the Sino-Japanese War broke out in the late 1930s). But as mentioned above, Georgina’s father then founded the Kwok Kwong opera troupe, and she and Caridad became regular members of the troupe and seemed to live entirely within the Chinese community. Their fathers, however, were opposites: Caridad’s spoke to her in Cantonese and explained the songs’ meanings, which allowed her to attain a fluency in reading and writing that Georgina never had, since her father spoke to her only in Spanish. (In contrast, the film’s most conspicuous lacuna is the lack of attention towards both women’s mothers). Caridad played female roles, while Georgina often took on male roles. One of the film’s most memorable moments occurs during a sit-down interview with both of them as they sing a scene from one of the many operas that they performed during their teenage years. They even toured around Cuba with the troupe, a kind of schooling unto itself.

If Wei is personally invested in narrating Caridad and Georgina’s experiences in terms of exploring pluralised, intercultural female Chinese identities, her film overall is also located within a bigger project of archiving and reconnecting with the particular history of migration/diaspora that is represented by the two women. Throughout the film, Wei moves between Cuba and Hong Kong, beginning with professor/photographer Lau Pok Chi (following the prologue) speaking of his work chronicling Chinese diasporas around the world and including K.S. Louie, whose own research of the Chinese in Cuba stems from his own father’s and grandfather’s travels to and from the island. Wei continues the project not only by making her film but also by helping Caridad and Georgina fulfilled their wish of visiting their fathers’ hometowns in China.

Havana Divas is showing at CAAMFest 2018 on May 20.