Word of mouth: Documentary to record oral histories of Chinese-Americans in Cleveland

Filmmaker Johnny Wu and his team are embarking on a journey into Cleveland’s Asian-American history—creating a documentary on Chinese-Americans and immigrants in AsiaTown to commemorate the 150 years of the Chinese presence in Cleveland.

The documentary will highlight the history of Cleveland’s AsiaTown through the perspective of Cleveland historians, community leaders, business owners, and residents.

Filming will take place sometime in summer 2021, but right now Wu, who is working with the Greater Cleveland OCA (in which he serves as vice president of communications) to produce the film and ensure the oral histories of Cleveland’s Asian population are recorded before they are forgotten.

“This documentary is very important for Cleveland because it showcases one of the diverse ethnic groups that make Cleveland great,” says Wu, “and it is an oral history that we can preserve for future generations to learn from it.”

Men at On Leong Tong reading room in 1959.The OCA is accepting applications to participate, via video interview. The documentary team, which includes Wu, OCA president Lisa Wong, Kyle Znamenak, and Nick Muhlbach, hopes to talk to Asian-American community leaders, business owners, and residents to hear their lived experience and historical perspective on Cleveland’s AsiaTown.

Wu says he plans to feature some prominent AsiaTown fixtures, such as George Kwan, Jr. who has followed in his father, George Kwan, Sr.’s footsteps in leading the Kwan Family Lion Dance team for more than 40 years; Jason Lin, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and advisor to the Cleveland Chinese Senior Citizens Association; immigration attorney Margaret Wong; and the late Donna Hom—a prominent businesswoman who was founder and developer of Asia Plaza at East 30th Street and Payne Avenue and owner of three restaurants, including Li Wah in AsiaTown.

“We’re looking for historical perspectives from families who have been in Cleveland a really long time,” says Wong. “The deeper the roots, the more interesting the story. We just want to document what we can, when we can, before this knowledge disappears.”

The documentary crew also wants to talk to any long-time Clevelanders who identify as Asian-American and hear their experiences and memories. Wong is one of those people with vivid childhood memories, having spent much of her younger life in AsiaTown before her father moved the family to Cleveland’s west side so they could have a lawn to play on.

She remembers fondly going downtown on the eve of the Chinese New Year with family members to watch the evening Lion Dance. "Before [there was] AsiaTown, at 11 p.m. you'd go down to the Rockwell Building if you wanted to see the Lion Dances," she recalls. "That's where the Kwan family would dance."

Many of the landmarks that are a rich part of the area’s Asian history will be featured. From the establishment of the city’s original Chinatown in the 1920s along Ontario Street, to its demise in the 1970s due to gentrification, to the rebirth of AsiaTown in the 1980s.

One historic landmark is On Leong Tong, or the Chinese Merchants Association at 2150 Rockwell Ave., which has been a hub for banking, business, cultural celebrations, and promotion of Chinese businesses for more than four decades. It is also where the Kwan family first performed their regular Lion Dances.

The team says it really wants to capture the oral histories on film—before this aging population is gone.

“If there is someone out there who has an interesting story to tell and can share why they came to Cleveland or how they came to Cleveland, then it will encourage other people to share their stories with the younger generation,” says Wong. 

Wu says the project was supposed to get started last year but was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. The documentary is being funded by a 2020 grant from the Cleveland Foundation’s Minority Arts and Education Fund and is co-sponsored by Cleveland Public Library and Cleveland State University Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs.

Submit an application to be interviewed as soon as possible. Wu says the team will start contacting people in March.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.