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Lens into Flow State

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5th Street East Director Devon Lee is not afraid to make bold decisions in life or behind the camera.

A first generation Asian American, Devon dashed his parents hopes after high school when he pivoted from pursuing a career in anesthesiology to study film at San Francisco State.

“My parents still don’t understand what I do because they come from a very traditional upbringing of what a job is.”

Perhaps Devon is simply following in the bold footsteps of his dad Richard Lee, who fled to Hong Kong from mainland China to escape the Communist Revolution. The senior Mr. Lee immigrated to Sacramento, worked as a dishwasher, and eventually bought an American dive restaurant with five booths and a counter that could accommodate twenty. He started cooking the traditional Cantonese cuisine with a focus on lightly-cooked fresh vegetables and sweet sauces, not spicy unlike the Hunan style. Lee trained sous chefs and expanded the business to accommodate over 300 guests. “When I was in high school I bussed tables for wedding banquets,” says Devon.

(Left) Devon Lee’s father Richard Lee and grandfather in mainland China before the Communist Revolution.

As a young boy, Devon was always drawn to the camera, starting with his dad’s VHS camcorder which was off limits. “He would never let me touch it.” At 15, when his older sister Lucinda gave him a Sony Hi8 camcorder for Christmas, Devon finally found what would one day become his flow state.

“Athletes talk about flow state – not thinking, just reacting – I feel like that when I’m filming.”

Embracing diversity is a leitmotif for Devon as a filmmaker and an Asian American behind-the-camera. “As a camera operator and editor, you are filtering information through a lens and so having on-screen representation is as important as having behind-screen representation so there isn’t a watering down of values or perspectives.”

Telling stories that people have never heard or seen before led Devon to Krista Suh, the creator of the Pussyhat Project, the political movement with the now iconic pink knitted hat symbolic of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. Suh, who is half Chinese, half Korean, met Devon at a screenwriting class in Los Angeles.

“As Asian Americans, both of us connected on the fact that we wanted to tell stories that we haven’t heard before,” says Devon of Suh. The two collaborated on a documentary, “I Am Enough,” about three Asian American women, a writer, singer and comic book artist, who journey to New Mexico to find themselves.

I am Enough, a documentary filmed by Devon Lee with Krista Suh (Left), the creator of The Pussyhat Project.

Devon is drawn to observing how people live. The choices they make. Their habits and motivations. The why. Escape from something. Pursuit of something. Following a dream. Running away. Propelled by curiosity, fear or courage. “As a filmmaker, you are always studying the habits of humans,” he says.

There’s one project he’s been working on since high school, enhanced through years of study, including a degree in Asian American History at SF State along with his degree in Film. Devon’s ultimate passion project is to tell his father’s story, the journey Richard Lee took in the 1960s to come to America during the Cultural Revolution.

“Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people like me on screen in mainstream media. My mom introduced me to Hong Kong films but otherwise it was Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee – and yes, a lot of my peers assumed I could do martial arts…I mean, my last names Lee, after all.” He smiles, “For the record, I’m not related to Bruce Lee and I’ve never been in a fight.”

Devon’s ultimate goal as a filmmaker is to highlight commonalities over differences in hopes to educate people about our collective humanness.

“The endgame – me finding the strength and courage to tell stories that can inspire change and bring us all together. There’s too much division in the world when at the root of at all, we do have more in common. If we help each other, we help everyone.”

Director Devon Lee on set for 5th Street East. Lee has travelled across the country with 5th Street East, filming from Coast to Coast, capturing the vineyards of Napa Valley to the sunsets on Mobile Bay, Alabama.