Never to Be Forgotten – Lost Years Documents Struggles of Early Chinese Immigrants

By David Li,

On August 12, Lost Years won the Best Documentary Award at 2012 Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF). In the afternoon of the same day, in a large classroom of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston Chinatown, the film premiered in Boston in front of an audience of 200, some of whom had tears in their eyes while watching the scenes of inhumane and injustice treatments of Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s in North America, New Zealand and Australia.
(L to R)Tina Chien, Nancy Eng watching director Kenda Gee answering questions from the audience.

I had this premier marked on my calendar a few weeks earlier, but almost forgot about it. Thanks to the handout at the booth of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC) at Boston Chinatown August Moon Festival on the same day, I made it on time to the public premier by taking a short walk from Chinatown.

Just before the start of the premier, Tina Chien told me that Boston premiere of Lost Years was co-presented by BCNC and Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE). Director Kenda Gee answered questions from the audience following the screening after taking a train ride from Rhode Island to Boston earlier on that day.

According to the movie’s website ( ), Lost Years is an epic documentary touching upon 150 years of the Chinese diaspora in Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia, covering four generations of racism as revealed through the journey and family story of Kenda Gee. Kenda Gee, a Chinese Canadian, travels with his father to China to retrace the steps of his great-grandfather, exactly a century ago, and grandfather, who sailed to Canada in the summer of 1921. For thousands of Chinese immigrants that year, it was a journey of hope that turned into a nightmare when they were confronted with racism and the head tax, depriving them of their rights as citizens.

The movie started from Kenda Gee and his father taking a tour of the Chinese immigrant detention camp on Angel’s Island just outside San Francisco. In stark contrast to the warm welcome European immigrants received on Ellis Island, New York, Chinese immigrants were detained in miserable conditions on Angel’s Island, many for years. San Francisco and Vancouver were the two major gateways of Chinese immigrants coming to North America. After the gold rush subsided, Chinese immigrants began to moved eastward from Vancouver, and became laborers in railroad construction sites and in laundromats. Some of them settled in Boston in the end. Countless others died building the railroads or lived under the burden of head tax.

The main thread of the documentary was the world-wide tour of Kenda Gee and his father, and the side thread was the movement for redress, which brought about the full apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006 to Chinese Canadians for the Head Tax and for the subsequent exclusion of Chinese immigrants from 1923 until 1947. The two threads were carefully interwoven and presented with historical facts and interviews with many distinguished Chinese Canadians involved in the movement for redress. It reminded the audience that the freedom enjoyed by Chinese Canadians and Chinese Americans today was the result of blood, sweat and constant struggles of generations of Chinese immigrants in the past 150 years.

The screening of Lost Years ended with loud applause from the audience. Nancy Eng, executive director of CHSNE, thanked director Gee for making such a masterpiece. She said:”the history of the struggles and sacrifices by Chinese immigrants would never again be the lost years.” It took director Gee twelve years to make this remarkable documentary film.

In a short interview after the premier, I pointed out to director Gee that one of the most moving scenes in the film was when he and his father visited the underground tunnels of a laundromat in Moose Jaw, his father bowed to an empty table against the wall after seeing the inhumane living conditions of those Chinese immigrants. Director Gee replied: “A lot of people have mentioned to me about that scene. My father bowed spontaneously to pay respect to the suffering of early Chinese immigrants. It was such a powerful moment that I chose not to add any soundtrack.”

In addition to the Best Documentary Award at 2012 RIIFF, Lost Years’ acclaims include Best Documentary Award (History & Culture) & Prize at 9th Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival, Dec 5, 2011 in Guangzhou China, nominations for 6 Rosies, 38th AMPIA Awards, May 12, 2012; the Golden Sheaf Award, 65th Yorkton Film Festival, May 24-27, 2012; and, Best Documentary Cinematography, 55th Canadian Society of Cinematographers Gala Awards, Toronto.

The website of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center is The website of Chinese Historical Society of New England is