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Cultural appropriation / racism to use Chinatown

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Lynne View Drop Down
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    Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 11:17am
I have a short story from the first NYC experience that I want to clean up and maybe work as a script. It is set in San Francisco's Chinatown and deals with the a bastard child of a Chinese banker and a Swedish tourist who came to visit and stayed as his mistress in a very hush-hust setup. It deals with this young girl, his death and the rituals built up around saying goodbye. Is it possible to set a story in San Francisco's Chinatown without it being cultural appropriation or racist?

Is there anyone else working on a rewrite of a favorite story that wants to form a group that talks about character arc, converting to screenplay format, theme and scene making? I'd like to find a few kindred souls to exchange work and help each other elevate their works in progress.
See you at the Screenplay comp - best wishes to all those advancing!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (2) Thanks(2)   Quote slipowitz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 11:39am
If you do your research, and if you know people who are part of that culture who can be beta readers for you, then I don't think it has to be cultural appropriation. The question is if you can write a character who seems true to members of that culture, and also if you can avoid stereotypes while doing it. For example, I was in a writing group and one of our white members was writing a story with Chinese characters set in Chinatown in San Francisco. One of her characters' last names was Chong and another one was Ching, which are valid names but meant that when they were in the same scene, the dialogue went back and forth between "Ching" and "Chong." Don't, just don't. Also, she had another character whose nickname was the "Dragon Lady" *facepalm*

Also, be certain you're not using a mixed-race character as a copout so you don't have to worry about whether she's authentically Chinese or Swedish.
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Lynne View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Lynne Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 11:49am
Very good points. The original story was written from the perspective of an outsider to look at what happens with "fresh eyes" but when I went into rewrite mode, it didn't feel right. Thanks for your input.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote aerolissa Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 11:55am
Definitely a tricky subject! I think slipowitz has great advice. I am of the belief (but open to listening) that nothing should be completely off-limits in fiction because of the learning potential, opportunity for discussion, and opportunity to tell different kinds of stories/show different perspectives. However, there is definitely a fine line between representing a culture or community appropriately, and I think you're already taking a great first step by being self-aware about the fact that your writing could dance around that fine line if you're not careful.

What I really wanted to say (since I'm not very helpful/knowledgeable on the appropriation subject) is that I would be very open to joining a group that's all about what you mentioned, and/or I would be happy to help you edit your adaptation from a character or screenwriting mechanics perspective. I'm working on my second feature screenplay and would love someone to exchange feedback with! 


Edited by aerolissa - 28 Mar 2017 at 12:11pm
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Lynne View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Lynne Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 12:03pm
Wonderful. I can be reached at silent.waters1@gmail.com  @Lynnerice
I'm thinking once a week / ten days check in by email exchange of work with some sort of craft discussion component. Interested in hearing your ideas.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote aerolissa Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 12:07pm
Originally posted by Lynne Lynne wrote:

Wonderful. I can be reached at silent.waters1@gmail.com  @Lynnerice
I'm thinking once a week / ten days check in by email exchange of work with some sort of craft discussion component. Interested in hearing your ideas.

Yesss, yes, I love this idea! I'll be sending you an email shortly. I have a screenwriting competition over at Screencraft that I'm toying with entering, but the deadline is Friday, I'm only at 30 pages or so, and I could use as many people holding me to it as possible. @.@ This is why they call me Last Minute Lissa... or why I do. LOL


Edited by aerolissa - 28 Mar 2017 at 12:08pm
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (2) Thanks(2)   Quote fistofcurry Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 12:21pm
Originally posted by slipowitz slipowitz wrote:

Also, be certain you're not using a mixed-race character as a copout so you don't have to worry about whether she's authentically Chinese or Swedish.


As someone who is half-Asian and was born and raised in America, I just want to point out that the perspective of a half Chinese, half Swedish child living in Chinatown is a perfectly valid one. The question of identity is one that frequently comes up for me, and it's one that will be vital to your character's life. I personally think of myself as American first, but most Americans see me as Indian, and most Indians see me as American. Your character probably will worry about whether he or she is authentically Chinese or Swedish or American, that's part of growing up mixed race.

As for how best to avoid cultural appropriation I say that just any subject matter is fair game for a writer, as long as it is given the appreciation and attention to detail it deserves. The best way to do that, apart from living the life of your character, is to do research. Talk to half-Chinese people. Visit Chinatown. Learn the perspective of the people you're writing about.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Lynne Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 12:38pm
Wow - these boards are incredible. Thank you for chiming in. As I was doing in-depth research to fill out my story for the rewrite, I began to wonder but this helps a lot. Lynne
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote LaissezFaire Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 4:39pm
I agree with the above. I am an American of a mixed ethnic background - a cape verdean, but I did not grow up in that culture. I am American. For that reason, even though my characters are usually Americans of mixed race, I do not add specific cultural rituals unless I have researched and ideally asked a person in the know. If you are going deep, then talking to a person who knows is a must.

When I create a character name I search for a database for a country or cultural names with meanings described. I try to avoid equivalents of John Smith, but at the same time giving names that can be recognized without being insensitive due to stereotypes.   I often like to mash up names I heard growing up in my family and neighborhood. There are so many gorgeous names that you rarely see in stories...something as small as a good name paints a picture.

Probably, one of the biggest faux pas I have seen is with writing broken English dialogue. A person can fall into the trap of making the non-English speaker sound stupid and/or uneducated.   Accents are beautiful and there are specific mistakes speakers of different languages make that can add flavor to dialogue. It can be acknowledged with a light hand and sensitivity to when it becomes a rude caricature.

Edited by LaissezFaire - 28 Mar 2017 at 4:41pm
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote fistofcurry Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Mar 2017 at 4:44pm
Originally posted by LaissezFaire LaissezFaire wrote:

Probably, one of the biggest faux pas I have seen is with writing broken English dialogue. A person can fall into the trap of making the non-English speaker sound stupid and/or uneducated.   Accents are beautiful and there are specific mistakes speakers of different languages make that can add flavor to dialogue. It can be acknowledged with a light hand and sensitivity to when it becomes a rude caricature.

Indeed. It's possible to do well, and it can be used to enhance the sense of 'otherness' your main character feels that can come from having foreign-born parents.

This too has some weird rules that will make the difference between informed portrayal and offensive caricature. My dad told me about working alongside a grad student from China who spoke decent English but could not distinguish between 'he' and 'she' when speaking English. Mandarin does not differentiate between the two, so it was confusing for this person to understand. 

Again, this is a thing that needs research.


Edited by fistofcurry - 28 Mar 2017 at 5:15pm
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