The Making of an Oscar-Qualifying Short about a Chinese Brothel in the American West

'Eureka'Credit: Miida Chu
When I was traveling in rural America, I stumbled upon the forgotten history of the anti-Chinese riots that took place across California throughout the 1880s.

This post was written by Miida Chu.

Not only was I shocked by how cruel the racist rhetoric was, but also I was surprised by how inhumanely the Chinese women were treated among the Chinese immigrants. Upon further research, I discovered the shocking statistics that 77% percent of the Chinese women in California worked as sex workers in 1870.

I realized it was a story that needs to be told. I wanted to show what it meant to be caught in the intersection of oppression, both for your race and for your gender.

That was how I decided to make Eureka, a 15-minute psychological drama about a young indentured Chinese prostitute who must overcome her toxic dependency on the brothel madam on the eve of the 1885 anti-Chinese riot in Eureka, California.

Research and Design

I was well aware of the potential cost of making a period film, so I wrote a contained script where all but the last scene took place in one interior location, the brothel. For the last scene, the camera ventured into the Chinatown outside, where the riot took place. This way, we would only have to do one elaborate set build, and would save enough budget to “go big” on the riot scene.

The first obstacle was the lack of historical photographs of brothels. I relied much of the research on the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. I pieced together the looks of the characters through the work of Arnold Genthe, a German photographer who did street photography in the San Francisco Chinatown around the same time period. Nonetheless, there were very few pictures of the brothels, and zero photos of the interior. 

I had to think creatively, and that was when I began to find pictures of the opium dens. Perhaps because it was less taboo to photograph people inside opium dens than inside brothels, I was able to find plenty of photos of both opium dens in China and in the west. I used them as design references for the brothel interior.


I wanted to shoot the interior of the brothel on a soundstage and find a western town standing set for the exterior riot scene. Since most of my crew were based in Los Angeles, my producer Xianqi Crystal Du quickly narrowed down the available movie ranches with a western town in the Los Angeles metro area, and the only one that fit our need and budget was Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita.

When I first scouted Sable Ranch, I was pleasantly surprised by how big the western town was. Most of the buildings were not mere facades, giving me a lot of options for compositions. However, great size came with great responsibility. My production designer Xi Chen Chou quickly pointed out that it would cost a lot more to make such a big set look like the Chinatown of that era, but I didn’t mind— if we could really bring alive the torching of the Eureka Chinatown in 1885 at the expense of the brothel interior, it would be all worth it.

Nightmares began as we slowly approached the month of production. It became increasingly hard to get in touch with the owner of Sable Ranch. When Crystal tried to negotiate, it took them forever to get back. In a deep jolt of optimism, I started to see it as a blessing rather than a curse. Perhaps I was never meant to shoot at Sable Ranch.

The instinct later turned out to be spot on. After eliminating Sable Ranch, I had to think creatively. How could I create a successful riot scene without showing much of the town itself? I realized I had been chasing after production value, rather than the need of the story. I began to reconceptualize the ending from the subjective point of view of the protagonist— how would she feel when she finally fled the brothel, free but surrounded by the dark unknown? I decided to embrace the darkness. I kept most of the exterior in darkness, with the contour of the town in the background, putting more focus on the torches and flames as the main subject in the foreground.

Without the burden of finding a western town, I suddenly had a lot more options. I eventually settled on Diamond V Ranch, a small movie ranch with a 50s town set. Next to the 50s town set was an empty house initially built as a middle eastern house. We decided to convert the house into a brothel and keep the whole production in one location. It turned out to be a lifesaver— having the art team concentrate on one location prevented us from spreading ourselves too thin. In the end, we didn’t cut corners for the interior build. Since 90% of the story took place in the interior, had we executed the original plan, the quality of the film would have greatly suffered.

From Festival Rejection to Oscar Qualification

I finished the film in Spring 2021 and began submitting to film festivals right away. I submitted to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the only Oscar-qualifying film festival with a focus on Asian-Pacific-American films. I was really hoping to premiere Eureka there but the film was rejected.

When 2022 came around, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival was open for submission again. I was still sour from the rejection, but I decided to submit again even though I had never submitted the same film to a film festival twice. A few months later, the film was accepted. Another few months later, we won the Golden Reel Award at the festival, qualifying the film for the Oscar.

Advice to Filmmakers

I learned to trust my instinct throughout the making of Eureka. When I first visited Sable Ranch, I felt impressed by the production value, overlooking the production needs and the story needs. It’s not that the initial choice was the wrong choice—there are a million “right” choices when it comes to making a film—but it was not the choice that spoke to me at an instinctual level. It’s easy to convince ourselves an okay choice is a great choice, and the best way to circumvent that trap is to listen to our intuition to find the choice that feels just right.

From rejection to Oscar qualification, I learned that getting an award, or sometimes even getting accepted to a film festival, is a process that involves so many arbitrary and subjective factors. The best thing I could do is to make the film I set out to make. That should be the gratification I seek as a filmmaker. Any awards or festival acceptance is just the icing on the cake.

The film is still on the festival circuit. Email Miida for a private link. Find Miida on Instagram and her website.

For those interested in reading more about the anti-Chinese riots in the 1880s, check out Jean Pfaelzer’s excellent book Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans.     

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