Ying was a filmmaker with peculiar fashion sensibility. During the week, Ying wore business casual to his job managing containers on freighters coming from China. On weekends, Ying favored spangled bustiers, dresses with spaghetti straps, and expensive lipstick (I remember one of his girlfriends borrowing a tube of his – was it ‘Harlot Red’? – and saying, ‘This cost thirty dollars!). For years Ying wore a speculum on a cord around his neck; later, he replaced the speculum with a bicycle horn. Like a lot of the other Williamsburg characters in the early days, Ying was an instinctive eccentric. Eccentricity was often the only thing the characters had in common but in Williamsburg that was enough. I first met Ying in San Francisco at a party where he screened a film he’d shot on the Brooklyn Bridge. The film was beautiful and we talked about collaborating, even though Ying’s films didn’t have stories or actors. Still, we became friends: Ying introduced me to off-menu delicacies in Chinese restaurants (crab roe, pig intestines) and wu-xia films – together we watched a young Jet Li flying across the screen spinning and kicking. Ying’s father was an admiral in the Chinese navy [TK] and Ying worked for a Chinese shipping company. His first job had been in the Chinese merchant marine. One night I had to defend Ying from a bunch of Mexican guys who jumped out of a car because Ying was so damn cute in his tight black dress. Ying didn’t like to talk about his past and my questions annoyed him; Ying had fled China for the same reasons I’d run from Catholic school. When Ying’s company transferred him from SF to New York he ended up in Williamsburg.
Ying’s studio in the former Tung-Fa Noodle Factory had a large bed, a folding movie screen, tens of thousands of dollars of film equipment – including a camera with a shutter speed so fast it had been designed to film rocket launches – and not much else. The Noodle Factory was a fourteen-story white monolith that had once housed a lot of small-scale businesses – most of them sweat shops – a central feature in industrial NYC since the Civil War (a feature that continues to this day, if you squint. One night in a Soho dance studio, I looked out the window into a neighboring building. At ten p.m. dozens of Chinese women sat waist-deep in fabric leaned over sewing machines).
Ying had started off in New York delivering pizzas via bicycle but he’d graduated quickly to a big American car. He loved big American cars and in the decade we were friends he was never without one. He loved the automatic windows, the plush upholstery, the leisurely steering. No matter how much Ying drank or how far we were from my apartment on 169th Street, he’d always drive me home. But most nights we went out together we landed at the Noodle Factory. Film canisters, lengths of film and empty cognac bottles covered his floor. Through the 11th-floor windows J-M-Z subway cars clanked over the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge lights and the headlights made it look like Six Flags. A darker skyscape rose to the south, warehouses crowded together and behind the warehouses the squat towers of housing projects. Like Drew and Stefan, Ying spent most of his time in Manhattan and when he came home, he parked his car and hurried inside. The Noodle Factory was a retreat, cut off from the street, a place to hover near the city.
Watching the bridge and the Manhattan lights from Ying’s studio, I didn’t think about the streets. They were just an obstacle as we moved from the car to the building, fear vanishing only when we sat cradled inside. It a long time for me to realize that you couldn’t have the freedom without the fear.
The Day the Humor Died
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