ArtSEA: A Northwest-made kung fu comedy premieres this weekend

Plus, the backstory of Seattle’s resident dragons and earthy books for Mother’s Day.

Cast members (left to right) Brian Le, Andy Le and Phillip Dang rehearse a fight scene for ‘The Paper Tigers’ at an empty pool in Shoreline, Aug. 22, 2019. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In most films set in Seattle, the “establishing shot” comes courtesy of the Space Needle — just a glimpse and we know exactly where we are. But in the new locally made movie The Paper Tigers, that job falls to a red and yellow dragon curled around a utility pole. It’s on screen only for a moment, in the opening shot, but locals know immediately: We’re in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

The movie (opening May 7, online at Northwest Film Forum and in an actual theater at Cinemark Lincoln Square), is a contemporary kung fu comedy in which three former martial artists reunite to avenge the death of their teacher. Older, if not necessarily wiser, the trio must face up to the demise of their youthful bond — and their way-out-of-practice bodies.

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

Inspired by the Hong Kong fight movies he watched in his youth, Olympia-born writer/director Bao Tran combines endearing characters with funny dialogue and masterfully executed fight scenes (choreographed by Ken Quitugua). The mix is fun and full of delightful asides. But the making of this indie genre flick was hard-fought — read the story I wrote after going behind the scenes on the film set in 2019.

After seeing The Paper Tigers, I kept thinking about those iconic dragons, and how they provide such an immediate sense of place. I remember seeing the fierce figures go up on the poles when I worked in an office near the Chinatown-International District in the early aughts. But I didn’t learn the full story until some 20 years later, this week, during Asian Pacific American Heritage month.

The 11 fiberglass-and-resin dragons were installed in 2002, as part of a community campaign to reemphasize the cultural history of the neighborhood. Around that time the encroaching new stadiums (Safeco Field in 1999, and Seahawks Stadium in 2002) and multiple new office buildings were threatening the area’s historic identity.

The distinct look of the dragons dotting the Chinatown-International District came courtesy of Meng Huang, a self-taught artist who died in 2001. (Daniel Spils)

Weighing about 300 pounds each, and ranging in length between 12 to 20 feet, the dragons were sketched out by local designer Martin Brunt and local artist/animator Heather Presler. But they were brought to twisting-snorting-clawing-ferocious life by cultural adviser and artist Meng Huang, whose guidance on the horns, claws and faces gave the beasts their expressiveness. (“He made them a lot more spectacular,” Brunt told The Seattle Times in 2002.)

Huang grew up in Canton, China, emigrated to the U.S. in 1990 and landed in an apartment at Seventh and Jackson in the Chinatown-International District. That’s where he created countless elaborate dragons, masks and toys out of trash he found around the neighborhood: laundry detergent jugs, milk cartons, take-out containers and other castoffs. In a 2010 exhibit, the Wing Luke Museum reported that Huang’s artwork would’ve likely gone undiscovered had a neighborhood housing agency staffer not stopped by his apartment and seen the trove of treasures. Huang died in 2001, just months before the dragons took their permanent perch above the streets of his neighborhood.

And where did Huang hone his artmaking skills? Before emigrating, he had a career designing masks and sets in the Hong Kong film industry.

Huang was one of the many artists who have had a lasting impact on the neighborhood, carrying forward the cultural legacy of the wide-ranging Asian diaspora and infusing it with fresh vibrancy. Another of those artists, calligrapher and watercolor painter Zuolie Deng, suffered a loss last week, when the Chinatown-International District art studio he opened in 2001 was damaged by a fire. (Coincidentally, Deng’s Studio and Art Gallery, at Seventh and Weller, is less than a block from the opening scene in The Paper Tigers.) The cause is under investigation.

Supporting and uplifting the artists, residents and businesses in the neighborhood is the focus of multidisciplinary Seattle artist Monyee Chau, who grew up hanging out in her family’s Chinatown-International District restaurant. She talked about her efforts — which include resiliency posters, a comic book and a takeout-menu style history of Chinatowns across the U.S. — during our Crosscut Festival panel discussion earlier this week: “Art in a Year of Unrest.”

All of these artists — making films, posters, watercolors and dragons — have contributed to the special sense of place in one of Seattle’s most distinctive neighborhoods.

Seattle nature writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt (pictured with her pet starling Carmen), has a new book out next week. (Little, Brown and Company)

I can’t let this newsletter go by without mentioning Mother’s Day (this Sunday, Hi Mom!). In tribute, I recommend a couple new odes to the mother of all mothers, Mother Nature.

Wise and witty science writer Mary Roach (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) will appear online via Seattle Arts and Lectures (May 9, 6 p.m.) on the occasion of her forthcoming funny nonfiction exploration. Her new book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, is about how humans and wild animals have been forced to co-habitate as we continue our spread across the planet.

In another new paean to the human-nature connection: Seattle naturalist and writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Crow Planet) launches her newest book, Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature and Spirit, with an online talk via Elliott Bay Books (May 12, 6 p.m.). In this lyrical collection of essays, Haupt looks to poets, scientists, mystics and her own lifelong connections with the Earth and its animals to share advice (“go to the trees,” “walk a new way,” “step into the fruitful darkness”) on how to expand our relationship with nature — our personal sense of place on this planet.


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