Like most New Yorkers, I was amazed by the “Golden Venture” story when I first heard the news on June 7, 1993. A tramp steamer keeled on a sandbar a few miles from Manhattan… immigrants crammed in the hold like Africans in an 18th century slave ship…the iconic image of the survivors in blankets huddling on the beach. And like most New Yorkers, after a few weeks I forgot about it. Four years later, I learned the passengers were still in jail. I was outraged. I oppose our nation’s exclusionary immigration policies, and here was a shocking example. So it was a combination of outrage and fascination that caused me to launch this project, 10 years ago.
As a screenwriter, I had heard enough about “characters who go on a journey.” The Golden Venture passengers have, of course, gone on a journey -- one of almost unimaginable scale. Four Fujianese men who made this journey are the heroes of the film. They survived the voyage, imprisonment and worse -- and went on to face more trials and heartbreak that doesn’t end. At the same time, they’ve been touched by amazing measures of grace. It came mostly from the people from York, PA who rallied to their support when they arrived in the county jail. Three of the main characters are from York -- a lawyer, a paralegal and a retired factory worker. They represent everything that’s good about America.
The four Golden Venture passengers in the film approach life with stoicism, determination, and acceptance -- some with incredible humor, others with somber resignation. Guilin Chen was delivering Chinese food in State College, PA when we first met. Guilin shattered any stereotypes about Chinese delivery guys. He opened his life to us: we rode shotgun on his route and tagged along for a crazy night in a Manhattan disco. Arming He, who owns a restaurant in Ft. Myers, Fl., was equally generous -- but there were no discos in his world. Instead, he is a model of responsibility and fortitude, who has managed to accomplish so much despite the terrible uncertainty that surrounds his life. Yan Li (his assumed name) overcame his fear of retribution by the Chinese government to be in the film. He’s the soul and poetic voice of the film. And then there’s Kaiqu Zheng. I’ve never met Kaiqu -- he was filmed in China by a fellow film maker based in Fuzhou. Both shooter and subject also risked problems with the government to be in the film. Thanks to their courage, we can present a free wheeling snapshot of life in Fujian Province.
I hope the film is an assault on a US immigration policy: people who should be welcomed are jailed and deported to countries that brutalize them. And of course I also hope “Golden Venture” works just as a movie. To me, it’s a celebration of humanity, a testament to the powerful spirit that can move us to venture across the sea to a strange land.