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A new documentary tracks Chinatown’s trajectory through 2 pandemics

Award-winning Hawaii filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford is producing a new documentary that examines the resiliency of Honolulu’s Chinatown during two pandemics.
Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 5:28 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 3, 2022 at 5:36 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Award-winning Hawaii filmmaker Kimberlee Bassford is producing a new documentary that examines the resiliency of Honolulu’s Chinatown during two pandemics.

“It really is a bigger look at Chinatown both today during the pandemic and juxtaposing that with what happened 120 years ago during another pandemic in Hawaii,” said Bassford.

“In 1899, the bubonic plague arrived on our shores. Authorities put a quarantine on the entire Chinatown area.

“Back then, they didn’t really understand how the plague was spread and so the authorities at that point decided anytime there was a victim who died that they would burn the building that the victim lived in. It meant that all the other people in the building had to go live in detention camps.”

One of those fires burned out of control and destroyed 16 blocks of Chinatown.

“So, if you walk around Chinatown today, you might notice if you look at the buildings none of them go back before 1900,” she said.

The Punahou and Harvard graduate dug through the State Archives for old photographs and found an autobiography of her late great grandfather Chun Quan Yee Hop.

He opened one of the first and largest markets in Chinatown in 1887.

“He remembers when the fire happened that he rushed to the scene, but he wasn’t allowed in and he just had to sort of watch his entire market burn to the ground,” she said.

“I think his story is not the only story. There are a lot of people from that time who basically lost everything and had to rebuild.”

Bassford is the founder of “Making Waves Films” and is best known for her multiple award-winning documentary: “Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority.”

She hopes this documentary sheds light on important lessons we can learn from both pandemics and offers our community hope that things will get better.

Bassford’s film is called “Chinatown 1899 / 2020.”

It’s commissioned by the Asian-American Documentary Network and will air in May on the World Channel in a series on Asian American resilience during the pandemic.

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