Jeff Chiba Stearns – One Big Hapa Family
When Jeff Chiba Stearns began creating animated films, he started out small and worked his way upwards. Kip and Kyle, his first film, weighs in at a mere 47 seconds. For all of its brevity, though, it contains the essence of his animation style. Created while a student at the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design (now the Emily Carr University of Art & Design) in 2000, it marked the beginning of his evolution as a filmmaker.
2001’s The Horror of Kindergarten stretched out to 5:07 and further established his classical animation style.
In 2005, Stearns turned to the subject of his interracial background and created What Are You Anyways?, a ten-minute-plus film that looked at his experience growing up mixed-race in Kelowna. The film would prove to be a turning point in his career as an animator and filmmaker and help focus his creative energies. While his previous short films found a small audience and established his skill as an animator, What Are You Anyways?, with its personal storyline and topical subject-matter, touched a chord with audiences around the world. It was an official selection at over 40 film festivals and won eight awards. It also set Stearns off on a whirlwind of Festival appearances and speaking engagements.
With 2007’s Yellow Sticky Notes, Stearns took a step back and created a whimsical look at his life since leaving Kelowna to become an animator. The hook? It was drawn entirely on thousands of yellow sticky notes just like the ones he used to keep track of what he had to do. This too proved to be a success and was acquired for broadcast, as well as showing at over 80 film festivals and winning ten Awards.
With the release of 2010’s One Big Hapa Family (two versions, one at 48:00 minutes and the other at 85:00 minutes), Stearns has returned to the subject-matter of What Are You Anyways?, but on a grander scale. The film was inspired by a 2006 family reunion where Stearns noticed that every single child in the family was of mixed-heritage. “Not a single child out of the around 40 that were there was of full-Japanese ancestry. And I realized that it wasn’t just my immediate family that married interracially—all five of my grandparent’s daughters married non-Japanese Canadian men. In fact, every one in my intermediate family after my grandparent’s generation had married interracially.”
Jeff Chiba Stearns took some time out of his busy life and career (which for a filmmmaker are one and the same, it seems) to talk to The Bulletin about creating One Big Hapa Family.
Jeff Chiba Stearns – In His Own Words
When you say BIG hapa family, you’re not kidding. Judging from the family reunion that’s featured in your new film, you have a huge extended family.
Ya, my family is huge! My great grandparents, Suekichi and Hatsu Koga, immigrated to Canada in 1907 and had eight children. They eventually settled in Kelowna to work in the orchards. So with my grandmother Eiko having seven siblings, you can imagine after all these years, my Koga side of the family has grown quite large. We can have over 120 people attending a Koga family reunion some years at the Koga orchard. My grandma and grandpa, Harry Chiba, along with two of my grandmother’s brothers, bought orchards right next to each other in Kelowna. My parents eventually bought my grandparent’s orchard and we lived next to them as I was growing up. Owning an orchard, we relied on family help for the harvest so a lot of my aunts would come help pick apples and so that meant that I was always hanging around my cousins.
Since my family had settled in the Okanagan, we were not interned during WWII and a lot of my family living in Kelowna stayed here. A couple of my grandmother’s sisters who had married Japanese men living on the coast were interned and relocated after the war—one went out east and the other went to Japan, even though she was a Canadian. Because most of my family stayed in Kelowna, we were very close and I was fortunate to have grown up surrounded by family. As I would discover making the documentary, Kelowna was a tough place to live for Japanese Canadians, even though they were not interned, due to some harsh racism and discrimination from civic leaders. I wanted to focus on how Japanese Canadians who weren’t interned were treated, to share this rarely-told story and show how my family was still affected by the war. We still had a 100% intermarriage rate after my grandparent’s generation, and that sparked my curiosity to find out why. I also focus on my grandmother’s sister, Emi Moore, who married a black man from Trinidad and Tobago in 1971—the first, and probably still the only, intermarriage of its kind in Kelowna.
You started out small, with What Are You Anyways?, and now have a full length feature on your hands. Was there some kind of grand plan in your mind or is it something that evolved over time?
What Are You Anyways? took me on a journey of lectures and talks about multiethnic identity and really opened my eyes up to the need for discussion around this topic. I think after making the film I became more aware of some of these dynamics in my family, whereas before I never really thought about it, because it was just so normal to me. After exploring my own identity through film, I wanted to explore my family’s thoughts on the issues of intermarriage and multiracial identity, because it plays a huge role in our family’s identity. I picked up a camera and started filming the 2006 Koga Family reunion, heading off on a four-year journey to capture my family’s history—which I would discover, after screening the film, parallels almost every other Japanese Canadian family’s story.
Was there anything that surprised you as you delved into the nuts and bolts of your extended family?
This was definitely a challenging film to make. Identity, race, ethnicity, intermarriage are all pretty difficult issues to explore and talk about. I think, though, that we should have an open dialogue about these issues because identity is formed so much by our cultural background, heritage and history. Also, our community is being shaped by this high intermarriage rate that is creeping past 95%.
It was amazing for me to realize after talking to my interracially-married mother and father, aunts and uncles, their cousins, that no one really saw themselves as being interracially married. I never realized just how Canadian or westernized we were. It made sense that my family would see themselves as just being Canadians marrying Canadians. In Kelowna, my mother and her sisters never learned to speak Japanese. They didn’t eat a lot of Japanese food and they were brought up very western. Aside from their appearance, they were Canadian, although I noticed as their mixed children have grown up and started to identify with their Japanese side, the parents have become more interested in their heritage. We make sushi for our gatherings, some have learned the language, and we’re now putting together a book that celebrates our history.
Japanese Canadian identity is evolving and shifting and it will continue to do so with each new generation. I wanted to celebrate this in the documentary. I wanted to show that even though Japanese Canadians felt they had to be more Canadian after WWII, that Japanese Canadian culture and heritage is not fading away but getting stronger. The mixed children I spoke with, as they got older, expressed how they were very interested in that part of them that is Japanese—even if it was only a ¼ Japanese. At times they seemed more interested in being Japanese than my mother’s generation, who are actually full Japanese Canadian.
It’s certainly shifted from when I was growing up.
These days, it’s cool to be different and for mixed kids, being part Japanese Canadian makes them unique. It’s important for us to realize that we are not shrinking as a community or diluting ourselves through intermarriage but the dynamic of Japanese Canadian culture is shifting and we are growing. As well, even though my generation and the next generation in my family are mixed, we are whole and not a fraction. We need to get away from breaking ourselves down into fractions because that weakens us. I consider myself Japanese Canadian and even though I may not look Japanese on the outside, I feel Japanese on the inside—what percentage of Japanese makes no difference as to how Japanese Canadian I am.
I think we need to realize as a community that looking Japanese has nothing to do with feeling Japanese internally. Some of the most Japanese people I’ve met are Caucasian men and women who’ve married Japanese Canadians. I think we should celebrate this. In One Big Hapa Family, I’m saying, “it’s okay if we mix, we’re still a big happy family,” and you see that in how close we are as a family.
Do you think the film resonates beyond the Japanese Canadian community?
I really want other communities to see this doc. Chinese Canadians have 17% intermarriage in their community and South Asians have 13% intermarriage. I want these groups to know it’s okay to mix and blend and that our community is not mixed up but strengthened. I get sad when I hear from Chinese Canadian or South Asian Canadian friends whose parents get upset if they date outside their communities. If Canada as a country wants to celebrate its diversity and multiculturalism we need to start celebrating the changing landscape of Canadian identity through intermarriage and mixing! I think a lot of ethnic groups could learn a lot from the Japanese Canadians. Even though we’ve had to endure some tough circumstances in Canada, we’ve grown and stayed strong as a community.
Being a documentary, the film must have shaped itself as you went along.
Making a feature documentary on the subject of the high Japanese Canadian intermarriage rate and multiethnic identity was a huge undertaking. At first the film was only supposed to be 15 minutes long. I started to interview my family—I spoke to four generations of my Japanese Canadian family—accumulating hundreds of hours of footage. We interviewed over 50 people, many of them in sets of two. I interviewed my mom and dad, aunts and uncles, or my two sisters together. It made for more comfortable and honest interviews. I started to pitch the doc as a 45-minute broadcast version and received more funding and some license fees. I knew I had enough footage to make a feature-length cut as well, so I did. Because my family had given me their time and stories and most importantly, their trust, I knew I had to handle all aspects of the filmmaking—from directing and producing to writing, and editing. I traveled hundreds of miles to talk to historians, toured the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre in New Denver, sifted and read through tons of material, and spent countless days in the Nikkei Museum researching photos and watching old films just to make this doc. This film became a gift to my family and it was important for me to capture that point in my family’s long history where the dynamics of our family makeup began shifting and evolving because of intermarriage.
With some of the elders in my family, I knew this might be the only time I would have to record their stories and preserve them. It was amazing to hear my 88-year-old Uncle Suey talk about growing up in Kelowna pre-war, and to find out hidden stories from my 92-year-old grandfather.
You must have learned a lot as you were doing the research and interviewing family . . .
One of the most eye-opening interviews came when I talked to my grandmother, Delores Stearns, on my father’s side of the family. She used to work with my grandma, Eiko Chiba, in the Kelowna packinghouse. They used to talk about how they would have liked it better if their children (my mom and dad) had married within their own communities. No one in my family ever knew they felt that way because they never talked about it. I learned that my grandma Stearns moved to Kelowna right after the war and she used to see all the Japanese kids in the class being ignored—no one would play with them. She was worried that her grandkids would also suffer racism. So it wasn’t that my grandmother was racist in any way but rather she just wanted the absolute best for her grandkids. I had never really thought about it that way.
My grandmother, Eiko, I think felt the same way as every other Japanese Canadian person after WWII . . . even though they didn’t really want their kids to marry outside the community, they just had to let it happen since that is the way it was going and because of the forced assimilation, the only way to become more Canadian so their kids wouldn’t suffer racism. Even though I did grow up suffering a bit of discrimination living in Kelowna, it helped shape me as a storyteller and filmmaker.
Through spending four years editing these stories and researching I feel I’ve really grown closer to my family because they trusted me to make this film about them. Everyone was so supportive and after screening One Big Hapa Family to my family in Kelowna and Vancouver they were very honoured, proud, and thankful that I had captured a small moment in my family’s history with honesty, integrity, and love. And that for me was the most important and only thing I could have asked for after making this film.
What was your biggest challenge in making this film?
The biggest challenge I faced was the four years it took, from the raising of the funds, to production, to the one and half years it took to edit it all together. I’m super happy with the final film—it encompasses everything I wanted to explore about the topic. The feature version may be a little long for some people but that’s why we also have a 48 minute broadcast version.
I knew it had to be as entertaining as it is educational, so we created what I call a candy shop of animation to bring the stories to life. I knew I’d never get a chance to create a feature-length animation anytime soon, so it was great that we were able to incorporate a lot of animation into the film. I was able to get some super talented animators to create their own personalized conceptions of stories told by the interviewees. I think the animation really brings the film to life and appeals to younger viewers.
What has the response been to the film? Do you get to talk to people after screenings?
The response to the film has been amazing. Both the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and Toronto Reel Asian Int’l Film Festival screenings were sold out. People were sitting in the aisles at the Vancouver screening. We also did a couple of screenings in Kelowna, which were also packed with family, friends and the Kelowna community.
Joy Kogawa came out to the Toronto screening and afterwards emailed and said to me, “The Hapa generation have been thirsting for something like this for a long time.” To have the support of Joy Kogawa, who has played such a prominent role in Japanese Canadian cultural identity, is a huge compliment and I am greatly honoured.
After a screening I always have a huge line up of people wanting to buy the DVD and tell me a bit of their own stories. Whether they are an intermarried couple who have been married for 50 years or Hapa teenagers just happy that there are other people who have similar struggles with identity, the range of the audiences have been incredible. I even had one Hapa woman come up to me and tell me, “where was this film 30 years ago when I was growing up . . . ? I really could have used it.” For a lot of Japanese Canadians who come out to watch the film, they always comment that it’s like watching their own families up there on the screen!
The film is getting noticed and gaining the attention of multicultural societies, organizations and schools, so I guess I’m preparing myself for a pretty big tour this Spring!
My main goal with One Big Hapa Family is I want this film to incite dialogue and discussion. I want a family to watch the film together and talk about it. We’re so quick to talk to kids about sex and drugs but no one realizes that identity plays a huge role in the development of our children and being multiethnic is something that needs to be discussed and celebrated. That is why I try my hardest to accompany every screening and be there to answer questions after the screenings.
Do you have any greater insights into what it means to be bi (or multi) racial after all these years of making films about it?
In the documentary I asked the kids “What are you?” and for some of them this was the first time they’ve ever heard the question. That blew me away, since I got that question almost every day growing up. I realize that kids these days are not having to answer this question because there is a lot more education on multiculturalism, diversity in schools, and immigration. That’s what I’m trying to celebrate in One Big Hapa Family. It is the idea that we can be whole and we can be part of many things.
What’s next up for you?
I have a few other feature length documentaries up my sleeve. The one I’m most passionate about, entitled Mixed Matches, involves people of mixed ethnicity needing bone marrow transplants or who have rare blood diseases. I’m teaming up with an organization in California called Mixed Marrow (www.mixedmarrow.org), which is dedicated to finding bone marrow and blood cell donors for patients of multiethnic descent. It’s a really important topic. Their outreach concentrates on this minority due to the desperate need for registered donors as well as the lack of public knowledge regarding this topic. The documentary will hopefully get more people to realize that multiethnic people are one of the fastest growing demographic in North America and as we mix it will be important for people to know their ethnic background to find proper donors with similar DNA structure. We are seeking public donations to start pre-production and proceeds from One Big Hapa Family DVDs are going towards the development of this new documentary. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to donate funds toward the project or know someone of a multiethnic background currently seeking donors or who has survived thanks to finding a proper match.
The 48 minute broadcast version of One Big Hapa Family will air on Omni this March 6th at 9pm in BC and Ontario and 11pm in Alberta. It will air in BC again on the Knowledge Network in April and beyond.
Visit www.onebighapafamily.com for updates on public screenings as well as to order DVDs of One Big Hapa Family online. The One Big Hapa Family DVD that is available for purchase contains both the 85-minute and 48-minute version. The DVD also comes with a bonus CD soundtrack of the original Japanese-inspired music created in the film.
DVDs can also be purchased in Kelowna at Komatsu Japanese Market, in Vancouver at the National Nikkei Museum Gift Shop, in Calgary at the Calgary Nikkei Cultural Centre, and in Toronto at the JCCC gift shop.