Talking about the ‘Lost Years’

Local teacher Chad Soon interviews Larry Kwong, Vernon museum curator Ron Candy and the filmmakers of Lost Years about Vernon and B.C.'s Chinatown past.

  • Sep. 18, 2011 6:00 a.m.
Larry Kwong

Larry Kwong

Special to The Morning Star

Vernon teacher Chad Soon, who is on the board of the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame, recently spoke to the first Chinese-Canadian to play in the NHL, Vernon’s Larry Kwong, who now lives in Calgary, as well as to the filmmakers of Lost Years, Kenda Gee and Tom Radford, and Vernon museum curator Ron Candy about Lost Years and B.C. and Vernon’s Chinatown past.

The following is from those interviews.


CS:  How do you feel about being immortalized in this movie?

LK:  I feel very honoured to be included.

CS:  Do you feel like a movie star yet?

LK:  No, I don’t feel like a movie star (laughs).

CS:  Do you remember seeing movies at the Capitol Theatre (now Towne Cinema)?

LK:  Oh, yeah! There was one show that I saw, The Ghost Train, a spooky story.  That one I can remember, way back.

After one movie, though, I got in trouble from my older sister, Eva.  She happened to be at the show that night, and I was with the Dobies (George and Edgar).  What happened was we snuck out before ‘God Save the King’ came on at the end of the movie. When I got home, my sister was waiting for me and she said, ‘I don’t want to see you do that again.  I was embarrassed by you.’  From then on, I knew.  She said that we were a family that had a good name, and she was afraid that people would see me and say I snuck out before ‘God Save the King’, which was not polite to the head of Canada. And being Chinese…they said they could spot you ten miles away!

KENDA GEE (co-director/producer of Lost Years)

CS:  Lost Years was shot in five countries; its scope is global. Why do the premiere in Vernon?  How does Vernon fit into this?

KG:  Our original intention was to have Lost Years broadcast nationally, but because of programming conflicts with CBC BC unfortunately we weren’t able to broadcast it in the province of British Columbia. So, when we had the opportunity to screen Lost Years in Vernon, we jumped at the opportunity. We thought it was really appropriate that the documentary should air or be premiered in the theatre somewhere in British Columbia, and we thought, what better place than Vernon, where Larry Kwong, one of our characters, grew up?

CS:  You haven’t seen your film with big audience….

KG:  No, I think that the audience in Vernon and in fact all the audiences around the world that see it in a theatre are in for a treat because the experience of Lost Years can really only be received when they’re in the proper environment. A big component of our storytelling is the music of Darren Fung, who grew up in Edmonton and trained in Montreal and is now working out of Los Angeles. His dynamic soundtrack is something to die for. Visually, as well, it’s incredible what our cinematographer, Rene Jean Collins, has shot for us.

CS:  Personally, are you excited about experiencing the movie with a live audience?

KG:  Definitely, we’re excited to see the premiere in Vernon. So much so that Tom Radford, who is the co-director/producer who has worked with me for over 12 years now, is being inducted into the University Alberta as a Distinguished Alumnus on the evening following the premiere in Vernon, but he didn’t want to pass up that opportunity of being at the world premiere release. Thanks to the efforts of your community, it’s now a possibility—a reality, actually—to see this in the province of British Columbia for the first time.

CS:  I know this movie was a labour of love for a long time. What was the biggest challenge?

KG:  When you’re faced with doing a story that covers 150 years, just the expanse of the timeline or the period is the most challenging undertaking. Specifically, with the story of the Chinese diaspora, one of the biggest challenges was trying to find subjects who were willing to think about the past. One of the charms of the story is that many of the interviewees are relatively unknown to the general population, because of this hidden past.  Through the course of the research and the storytelling that we were involved with, over twelve years’ worth of effort, the challenge really was to be able to tell the story very accurately but also in a very dynamic way.  Because of that challenge, the desire to know the truth became almost like this great unsolved mystery that we had to solve in our lifetime.

CS:  What do you hope people will take away from your movie?

KG:  The first priority for us is that we hope viewers around the world get an appreciation of the past and how rich this history was of the Chinese diaspora, especially here in Canada. There are the universal lessons that we all hope we come away with in civilization:  the idea that we don’t want to forget the past, because if we do, as Santayana once said, we’re condemned to repeat it. That, for me, is one of the biggest achievements that we could make.  The other hope for me, here in Canada but also around the world, is that governments own up to the past and make an effort to redress some of the injustices.  In Canada the campaign has now dragged on for 27 years, and we’re looking forward to the day that Canada as a nation can actually proudly look at the past and redress these injustices.

CS:  What’s next for Lost Years?  Where do you plan to go and hope to go?

KG:  We’ll be promoting the documentary at film festivals around the world, but also for international distribution through broadcasting. We’re vry excited about the upcoming year, because it will be a fulltime job to promote Lost Years.  The early responses have been overwhelming but very humbling.

TOM RADFORD ((co-director/producer of Lost Years)

CS:Considering your long list of award-winning documentaries, what’s special about Lost Years?

TR: I think what’s special about Lost Years you can tell right from the title. There’s something very, very powerful about a piece of lost history.  Very often history gets lost for real reasons:  things we’re in denial about, things our leaders have blocked for decades and decades. The story of Chinese-Canadians is a very dramatic part of Canadian history that was just lost, and so to bring it back to light opens up a whole series of questions about Canada and who we are. It allows us to put that history to rest and be the kind of country I think a lot of Canadians would like to see us be:  open to immigrant groups, a fair and just society.


When we look at the opening up of the province—the Cariboo Gold Rush, the Fraser River Gold Rush, or the building of the railway—all of these things were accomplished for the most part with the assistance of Chinese labourers.  A lot of these individuals came to Canada with the idea that they were going to return to China. They were sojourners. They were only here for a short time to make some money. North America was “Gold Mountain.” The idea was that you could make a lot of money in a very short period of time, send it back to China and support your family.  They were very family oriented in that sense. By our standards today, it would be gruelling work and gruelling conditions to live under.  They faced incredible discrimination on so many different fronts. And when we look at the Chinatowns today, a lot of them aren’t what they were 20, 30, 50 years ago. A lot of them have just melted away into the fabric of the community as a whole. But they were very unique aspects of any community. I have deep respect for the Chinese people in the sense of the conditions that they endured coming over here and dealing with discrimination. They did jobs that nobody else wanted to do, especially on the railway. They were expendable, for the most part. They showed incredible tenacity.