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Seeking funds for 'Seeking Asian Female'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 7, 2010 - Debbie Lum will visit her native St. Louis later this month on an interesting errand. Originally, she was set to arrive, purely to celebrate her mother’s 70th birthday. That aspect of the trip is still alive, but a few wrinkles have been added onto the itinerary of the San Francisco-based video editor and filmmaker.

“Anna Lum is my mother and she’s involved with the board of HEARding Cats,” says Debbie Lum. “It’s crazy, but she’s so sweet. My mom’s the classical Asian woman in that she’s totally selfless. I’m slated to go out to St. Louis for her birthday party and she says, ‘How about, for my birthday, I throw a fundraiser for you?’ She was determined to throw this fundraiser, but, don’t worry, we’ll still get a chance to celebrate her birthday, too.”

That once-unexpected fundraiser’s set to make money for the website of Lum’s five-years-in-the-making documentary, a feature-length debut called “Seeking Asian Female.” (The current version of the site is at seekingasianfemale.com .) In the work, Lum follows Steven, a bachelor in the absolute last days of his 50s, who is searching, very specifically, for a Chinese wife, using the Internet as his primary source of meeting women. Discovering Steven via conversations on Asianfriendfinder.com, Lum struck up a rapport with him and he turned over the next half-decade of his life to Lum’s cameras and questions.

“It’s a film about a man looking for his dream woman, a Chinese bride,” says Lum. “As a documentary filmmaker, I never knew how it was going to turn out. Relationships are unpredictable. I didn’t think he’d find somebody, at one point. It became central that he was using the Internet to find women in China. It’s a long process. First you become pen pals; then you start chatting; then eventually you meet them. There has to be chemistry and you just see what happens from there.

“It was daunting. As a filmmaker, you have to wait for the story to happen. These films are about action and not about waiting. And it’s challenging to wait for something that unpredictable, to guess when love will find anyone.”

Lum says she’s now looking forward to the fundraising part of her Sept. 24 trip to St. Louis, because it will allow her to play a 10-minute section of the film, which is still in the final editing stages. She believes the St. Louis audience will be a good test for a film clip that’s played well elsewhere.

“A lot of women, especially along the coasts, know about my character, a kind of guy that’s not as common in the Midwest,” she figures. “Although I did encounter some while growing up in St. Louis, they’re kind of iconic (in California). These are people who know exactly what they want, a Chinese bride.

“At the beginning, some people couldn’t figure out why I’d want to tell his story, why I’d follow him.” Lum says. “It made at least some people uncomfortable. I think once the story developed, for me, I was fascinated by the main character, Steven, although he’s someone whose motives will be questioned by people. I found it interesting in how he was obsessed with Asian women. It had to be a Chinese woman that he married. And that idea’s not something that’s universal.

“As things progressed, he was able to find a young woman in China,” she continues. “And her arrival counteracted the reality of his dreams. There was an interesting, whole new dimension to it. And people were immediately drawn to the story, a triangular story among myself, my character and his fiancee. People were looking at it with total curiosity, but also trepidation about what they’d see.”

Lum will screen the clip at the Mandarin House Restaurant at an event that will also include a musical performance by Deb Summers, Rich O’Donnell and Tory Z. Starbuck. That group will play traditional Chinese instrumentation in a boundaries-pushing style. A silent auction of Chinese-American artworks will help fund Lum's work. And those interested can also partake in a massive, multi-course meal. Tickets cost $50, or $25 sans the meal. Lum already senses that her mom has been working old connections, looking up grade school and high school (John Burroughs) contacts of Debbie Lum, who admits that it’d be fun to “see some of my old friends.”

Largely, though, she’s looking forward to on-point, directed feedback on the work, which has been in her head for a half-decade. Though offered only in a small dose for now, the piece is being seen by new eyes, which is heartening for her as she heads towards a spring 2011 completion and release.

“The ‘aha!’ moment came for me when his fiancee, Sandy, stepped foot in America,” Lum recounts. “I was in love with this character, Steven, a totally fascinating person and an off-type, anti-hero. It’s harder to convince a larger audience that he’s appealing. But I always felt that way. When I met his fiancee for the first time, I knew I had a story to tell. He’s 64 (at that point) and she’s 30 and spoke no more than a word, or two of English. And he spoke no Chinese. She came from a small farming village. I was blown away by her as a character. She’s a really strong individual and she took this quirky, old man and whipped him into shape. It’s amazing to see someone who was alone for 15 years find love at 64.

“Whenever making a documentary,” Lum adds, “you never know if you’re going to get access to the material you need to get a good story. Steven’s a very open person. That’s what drew me to him as a character. He’s complex, and he was very willing to talk on-camera about his passions, even what you could call his obsessions, about Asian women. The fact that I’m an Asian woman might have contributed to his allowing me to follow his story. The audience for this story will be very different in St. Louis, than when I’ve shown it in Boston, LA or San Francisco. It’d be just great to hear what the average St. Louisan says about this subject matter. I know, personally, that it’s not as common there and I’ll be curious to know how they feel about it.”

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer. 

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