Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival NGO Changes Name as It Rethinks What It Means to Be ‘Chinese’

The organization Chinese in Entertainment, the non-profit behind the Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival (LACFF), is changing its name to remove the word “Chinese” after internal discussions about the political implications of the term.

After some soul-searching, the team decided that the new name Sino Entertainment Association (SEA) would be better aligned with its goal of championing inclusivity and diversity. The LACFF, its flagship event, will keep its current name for now.

“The term ‘Chinese’ no longer represents who we are as an organization, since our members and volunteers come from diverse backgrounds, including people from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the U.S., Canada and many other countries and regions,” explained Lewis Liu, the organization’s founder and sitting board member.

“Many of them are Taiwanese or Asian American, and do not identify as ‘Chinese’ [from mainland China], so we have changed the name to ‘Sino’ to include people with origins in Greater China, the diaspora, or elsewhere.”

The distinction between these different backgrounds is often lost both in China, with its growing Han nationalism and official stance that Taiwan is a part of China, and the U.S., where Asians and Asian Americans are often lumped together into single, monolithic categories.

The English word “Chinese” as a catch-all term also fails to translate the variety of words that exist in Chinese to indicate racial, ethnic or national differences within the broadest meaning of the term. Huaqiao, huayi, huaren, hanren, tangren, or zhongguoren all translate to “Chinese,” but mean subtly different things. The LACFF’s Chinese name uses “huayu,” a term for the Chinese language with no direct English translation that refers more to shared cultural traits.

Shan Wu, one of the festival’s two Taiwanese programmers, explained that the event is seeking inclusivity much more than it is trying to take any sort of political stance. She acknowledges, however, that even for a U.S. festival, that goal can be perceived on the China side as inherently political.

“It’s pretty complicated. I feel like we’re on the edge — not offending the Chinese government, but still trying to be true to ourselves,” said Wu. “We don’t want to do too much self-censorship; the question is how we can do that and still thrive as an organization.”

Although most of its sponsors are American firms, SEA has been trying to expand its range of China-based sponsors. A new screenwriting competition, for instance, is sponsored by the Beijing-based Yintai Investment.

The goal, says Wu, is to go ahead and program films that might be politically sensitive, but just try to “limit the damage” and the problems it might pose for the business side.

The inaugural round of the script competition launched on Friday, April 23, and is accepting scripts for narrative features, narrative shorts and TV pilots in both English and Chinese.

Its 11-member jury committee includes Peter Markham, former directing head at the American Film Institute Conservatory; Chen Yu, screenwriter of Zhang Yimou’s upcoming film “Under the Light”; Quan Yongxian, writer of Zhang Yimou’s upcoming spy thriller “Cliff Walker”; and Ying Liang of independent Chinese production house Factory Gate Films (“Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains,” “Summer Blur”), among others.

With the option of an in-person festival off the table this year due to COVID-19, LACFF planned themed programming to take place over the course of the entire year instead of concentrating screenings and activities in a shorter span of time. 

The festival will run four programs next month to mark AAPI heritage month, including a screening and discussion of “The Race Epidemic,” a documentary about racism against Asian Americans since the beginning of the pandemic, and another on representations of Asian women in film.

“We’re not really denying any political connotations [of the name change], but we’re a non-profit, so all we want is to hear voices from all different perspectives,” said LACFF chair Xuan Zhang. “As long as it’s a good film, we’re happy to see it.” 

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