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Reel Life: the kindness of strangers



Yvonne Welbon, a filmmaker who lived in Taiwan for six years, might have stayed on had it not been for a motorcycle accident that landed her in the hospital for a couple of months six years ago. "That was when I started thinking, Yes, I've had a great time, but what am I going to do with my life? Am I Wei Yi-fang [the Mandarin transliteration of her name], an exotic black American in Asia? Or am I Yvonne Welbon from South Shore?"

By then Welbon spoke passable Mandarin, could read and write Chinese, and was a self-made publisher with a monthly magazine called Bang. And she was in love with Taiwan, where the locals treated her with respect and affection.

When she'd arrived in Taipei in 1984, shortly after collecting a BA in history from Vassar, her Mandarin was spotty. She got a job teaching English for a living and enrolled in an elementary school "to learn the language and the culture from the bottom up." That was when she discovered that the American term "racism" didn't have a Chinese counterpart. "I had to explain to my students what it meant," she recalls. "Sure, some of them were curious about me, about my skin tone and my hair. But all accepted me as an honored guest in their home. I was given a new identity, one unburdened by racial prejudice. Interestingly, Taiwan itself at that time was going through an identity crisis, thrown out of the United Nations, which recognized China. Not being recognized by the international community, however, did not prevent it from achieving."

Welbon used $300 from her savings and plenty of volunteers to start Bang, a guide to nightlife in Taipei and a forum for cross-cultural issues. Her exploits as a businesswoman were celebrated in local Chinese publications that catered to the islanders' worship of entrepreneurs. "But life was a struggle," she says with a chuckle. "The magazine was barely profitable. We gave lots of fund-raisers for the twentysomething set. It was all very exhilarating for someone at the start of her adult life."

Then the accident caused her to look homeward. "I'm, after all, an American, as was my grandma who emigrated here. I must deal with life in America, racism and all."

Soon she was back and enrolled in the master's program in film at the School of the Art Institute, where ideas for her documentary Remembering Wei Yi-fang, Remembering Myself took shape. In the documentary Welbon, now a doctoral student in film studies at Northwestern, draws startling yet convincing parallels between her own journey and that of her seamstress grandmother from Honduras to Chicago's south side. "Both were journeys of self-discovery in which we tried to forge our own identities in a foreign culture. Both my grandmother and I were placed into foreign contexts. We were culturally displaced yet learned to cope with it. The only difference is that she stayed and I did not." Her mother's side of the family is filled with women who sought independence and survived through tenacity and an open mind, and in her video the juxtaposition of the reminiscences of two generations of these black women brings into focus the issue of identity for all black women.

Remembering Wei Yi-fang, Remembering Myself will be shown at 8 PM Saturday, February 3, at Kino-Eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division, on a double bill with Black Nations/Queer Nations?, a provocative documentary by Shari Frilot on an international conference exploring sexual identity for the African diaspora. Welbon and Frilot will be on hand to answer questions. Call 384-5533 for more info.

--Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Chip Williams.

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