Grace Lee the filmmaker, right, caught up with Detroit community activist Grace Lee Boggs for the documentary "The Grace Lee Project."

‘Grace’ land

A filmmaker named Grace Lee
is on a quest to meet as many
other Grace Lees as she can

By Nadine Kam

Grace Lee is a dental hygiene student in Honolulu.

Yet, people know Grace Lee as a KGMB reporter.

No, Grace Lee is a lesbian activist in Seoul. Or, do you know Grace Lee the high school senior in Torrance, Calif.?

Will the real Grace Lee step right up?

No doubt all the G.L.'s mentioned are lovely women, all deserving recognition and a story of their own, but this one happens to be about Grace Lee the filmmaker from L.A. via Missouri (not to be confused with Grace Lee the filmmaker from Portland, Ore., via Chicago).

Lee was in town last week to promote her latest film, "Barrier Device," a half-hour comedy starring Sandra Oh and Suzy Nakamura, at the Hawai'i International Film Festival. More important, she was here to track down four Grace Lees (that she knows of) for her next venture, a documentary dubbed what else but "The Grace Lee Project."

Grace Lee the filmmaker tagged along as Grace Lee the KGMB reporter interviewed Mazie Hirono on election day last week.

In Hawaii, where there are countless Lees -- and Kims, Chongs, Changs and Chuns -- and since everyone knows everyone, it's inevitable that some of these will run into someone else with the same name. No big deal.

But for filmmaker Lee, born and raised in Missouri, where she was one of only a few Asian Americans, it was a shock the first time she heard of another Grace Lee.

"I grew up in the Midwest, away from an Asian population, so I thought I had a unique name, that it was special."

That changed when she moved to New York, then to Los Angeles, where she often met people who would say, 'Oh, I know another Grace Lee.'"

She met the boyfriend of KGMB's Grace Lee at a party, and spent a day last week documenting a day in the reporter's life for "The Grace Lee Project."

Meet Grace Lee, a lesbian activist from Seoul.

"Every time I met someone who knew a Grace Lee, I'd ask them to tell me what she's like."

The descriptions would be of an Asian American, a good student, an overachiever, a musical prodigy -- typically a violinist -- who is also a devout Christian.

"I thought, oh my God, are all Grace Lees alike? I didn't think I was like that, but there's always some truth to the idea that expectations, the categories that people put you in, can shape or limit who you become. So, I wanted to look at that question. I didn't feel comfortable with people assuming I'm a certain way."

"Grace is a loaded name for a women because a lot of them were named because of the idea of Christian grace or because their moms loved Grace Kelly, a beautiful woman who married royalty. That's a lot to live up to."

Lee started her search for her namesakes all over the world, a search made easy thanks to the Internet and people's curiosity about what's being said about them. A search for Grace Lee would turn up GraceLee.Net, where the filmmaker has registered 70 Grace Lees. She's met 20 of them, concentrated in California, and she plans to keep the Web site going after the documentary is made.

Meet Grace Lee, a dental hygiene student in Honolulu.

The Internet generally being a plaything of the young, she said, most of those who have registered at the site have been in their 20s. The oldest is an 88-year-old Chinese woman.

Lee worked intermittently on the project for a year and a half, but was able to tackle it full time this fall after receiving funding from public television. The Hawaii visit was her first major trip, although she managed to get footage of a community activist in Detroit and last summer traveled to catch up with Grace Lees in Korea.

Although she's heard from black and Caucasian Grace Lees, her documentary focuses on Asian Americans as a way of countering stereotypes associated with the generic name -- what she describes as the Asian-American equivalent of "Jane Smith."

Meet Grace Lee, a teenager in Torrance, Calif.

On her Web site she writes: "The more I heard about these other Grace Lees, the more I became convinced that 'Grace Lee' signified an unmemorable, conservative hyper-achiever, confirming already existing stereotypes of Asian Americans. I secretly feared that my name alone lumped me together with people I felt I had nothing in common with, or worse, with people who made me look bad!"

Not that Lee has anything to be ashamed of. She earned a master's degree in fine arts from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. She then co-produced and directed "Camp Arirang," a documentary funded by the National Asian American Telecommunications Association and the National Education Association about prostitution in South Korea. Her short fiction films "Girl Meets Boy" and "The Ride Home" have been screened widely in festivals such as Cannes, and in addition to working on "The Grace Lee Project," she is developing a feature film, which she plans to direct.

She hopes that the project will reveal the complexity and diversity of experiences, and while she has not yet begun to edit her tapes, she said her interviews have "far exceeded what I was expecting.

"There are some universal commonalties in terms of growing up Asian, and there are a lot of Christian Grace Lees. That surprised me because that hasn't been my experience. But I've also met a radical Marxist, a Grace Lee who ministers by racing cars and a cruise ship entertainer who uses Grace Lee as a stage name, a successful name.

"There are a lot of Grace Lees I really like. Having the same name is a superficial, tenuous connection, but I feel like we're a secret club.

"Only a couple of people turned me down -- one was in Hawaii -- but for the most part people were interested because how often do you get to meet someone with the same name?"

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