Review: Anthropology Review Database

A recent review of the film in the Anthropology Review Database
By Jack David Eller
April 3, 2014

For decades if not centuries, immigrants to America have ended up in crowded tenements in urban neighborhoods, and they have paid ‘coyotes’ and ‘snakeheads’ for the privilege. It is quite stunning to think that in the twenty-first century such conditions persist, and it is quite a shameful commentary on the American economy and society that it cannot and/or will not pay and house its workers adequately.

Your Day is My Night is an impressionistic (another reviewer called it ‘meditative’) portrayal of a group of (mostly older) Chinese immigrants (and one anomalous younger Puerto Rican woman) sharing living quarters in New York City’s Chinatown district, in the arrangement known as ‘shift-beds,’ which means that people sleep in a bed while others do their work shift, then change places when the workers come home and the sleepers head out to their jobs.

I admit that, from the title and the description, I was expecting a study of the labor that contemporary Chinese workers perform, but work is not the real theme of the piece. Instead, in thirteen chapters that can be viewed separately, the film ponders the past and present lives of the people who share an apartment and its closet-sized bedrooms. Opening with ominous music and street noise, we see Chinese workers trying to sleep during the day. “This bed doesn’t necessarily belong to any one person,” they explain. Two of the main characters are a man named Yun Xiu Huang and his father, who sleep individually in a bed when one is available, or with together when there isn’t. He discusses the snakehead (the Chinese term for brokers who provide transportation to would-be immigrants) who got him to New York and found him a closet to sleep in. He walks down the street of Chinatown, talking about his one experience of taking the subway and not understanding the language. Now he does not stray beyond Chinatown.

This opening sequence is the most lucid or discursive of the film’s scenes. In a collage of views and interviews, we meet other inhabitants of the apartment, like Ellen Ho who tells a story about her grandmother and her getting tied up and robbed; then she sings as it rains on the city. Huang and his father practice singing “Happy Birthday” in English (Huang with a powerful singing voice that he seems to demand of his father) and argue about their clothes and space in their little closet room.

A young Puerto Rican woman named Lourdes moves into the apartment, being introduced first to two older Chinese women. She is the only non-Chinese character to feature in the film, which leaves many unanswered questions about the ethnic composition of the neighborhood. Huang, who claims to have owned a nightclub in 1992, brings her to a party where he sings.

Another resident,Yi Chun Cao, tells how his family moved to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek years ago but left him behind. Lourdes interacts with her Chinese housemates and then goes with one man to see Chinese singers performing and doing a dance show “with a Spanish feel.” Much of the rest of the film dwells on the minutiae of tenement life, like making beds and eating ‘moon cakes’ for the mid-autumn festival. Taking out the trash, Huang’s father finds a large thin mattress, and he and Huang argue about bringing it into their room. Lourdes goes shopping with one of the Chinese women, while a woman shows a man around a small room with many tenants. After a scene of cooking, Huang’s father brings up the mattress. This is followed by a narrative from another older man named Chung Qing Che about 1947, when a gang broke into his house and took everything but the stone bed. After the hardships of his younger life, now he sleeps on a soft American mattress (in fact, he calls himself a collector of mattresses), although he sees people who sleep on the street and sometimes tries to help them.

After we see women in the apartment in their beds, one woman tells a story of her youth, growing up without her father but being encouraged to think and dream about him. A man watches a video on a laptop that Lourdes suggested to him, which leads him to muse on how the Chinese live today, including his son; the man himself has been in the United States for eighteen years. The film ends, or drifts to sleep, with people making beds, over abstract music, accompanied with street scenes of children, markets, and a festival procession.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Bonnie Tsui (2011) notes that fewer immigrants are coming to the United States from China because of China’s own domestic economic growth. In fact, she claims that Chinese-Americans are actually returning home and that, at the present rate, Chinatowns may eventually disappear altogether from the American urban landscape. One wonders why the people in this film have chosen to remain in the U.S. this long. The film is perhaps a bit too dreamy for classroom use, and it would certainly require a fair amount of pre-viewing discussion to make it meaningful. I would not have minded a bit more didactic content and some sense of what the denizens do for a living. But as a sheer verite portrayal of an American lifeway that most of us natives have no notion of, it is worthwhile, and I particularly acknowledge the apartment-dwellers, who demonstrated some courage in allowing a camera into their cramped and ignoble space.