Documenting Memories

After introducing Asia to the world through television, Patricia Chew, an award winning journalist, wants to turn the camera on you.



“Knowing where you come from tells you who you are,” affirms Patricia Chew, award-winning journalist and founder of the Vancouver-based Living Legacy Project.

Chew’s career as a producer, correspondent and anchor for CBC, CNN International and Discovery Channel polished her filmmaking skills, but the story of her own family motivated her to create a new way for families to preserve their unique stories. Her company creates private, personal documentaries. 

On a retrospective tour of China with her Chinese-Canadian parents, Chew was amazed by her family’s broader tale as they retraced the often heroic paths they took during World War II and the later civil war. “I had a feeling that there were all kinds of stories that even my brothers and I didn’t know, and sure enough, when we got there, all this stuff came pouring out.” Chew filmed the experience, motivated by her daughter’s desire to learn more about her origins, followed up with interviews of her relatives and produced a documentary for her family members’ eyes only, painting a picture they had never seen before.

A life of adventure

Though ethnically Chinese, Chew’s foundation lies firmly in the West, in Toronto’s Scarborough suburb. “It’s hard to believe now, but my brothers and I were the only Chinese in our entire school.”

When Chew turned 15, she moved with her family to the other end of the cultural stratosphere — Hong Kong. After graduating from university, she freelanced as a writer in different countries and returned to Toronto with a new calling — to be a broadcast journalist and television anchor. At CBC, she discovered her ability to hunt down stories like buried treasure and her knack for telling them with gusto. Her face on billboards throughout Toronto, she won awards for her investigatory journalism. She partially attributes her success to her experience as a minority in Scarborough’s schools. “Journalists kind of consider ourselves outsiders, flies on the wall.”

In 1995, she left CBC when CNN International asked her to be the lynchpin of their new broadcast center in Hong Kong and anchor the ground-breaking show World News Asia. “I had always wanted to see more Canadian coverage of Asia, but CBC at the time only had a single Asia correspondent. CNN offered exactly what I had been talking about. World News Asia broadcast live to over 120 countries. I got letters regularly from as far away as Buenos Aires, Ghana, Sweden. They loved being able to really understand what Asia is like.” After three years, Chew started her own documentary production company, working with the Discovery Channel. She traveled every corner of the earth and witnessed humanity at its best — and its worst.  

Four years after the Rwandan genocide, alone except for one cameraman, Chew visited one of the alleged killers, a Hutu, who, while in jail, professed his innocence. In search of the truth, she visited his home village. 

“No one wanted to talk to us. Finally, one Tutsi woman, one of the few remaining, very bravely stepped forward and said, ‘I’ll talk to you.’ Then this big crowd of unhappy-looking men gathered around, the accused man’s supporters. It was quite scary. We decided we should move our conversation indoors. She took us to a house and had gathered three other Tutsi women. So there they were, these four incredibly brave women, some of them with babies, and outside there was this crowd which was not friendly at all.” Chew captured testimonials from the Tutsi women who risked their own lives recounting the man’s numerous murders and macabre showboating. They said the only reason they were still alive was because one policeman was assigned to their village. Chew thanked them for the interview and moved on to cover other parts of the war-ravaged country.

A change in perspective

In 2010, Chew’s life changed when her mother died unexpectedly during a heart bypass. “I was just amazed at how her identity vanished. There was nothing left of her except a pile of stuff. It was a giant emptiness there. I was so glad to have the film from the Chinese journey and so were my father and my brothers.”

But the film was no replacement. “I felt this sense of being in suspended animation. I didn’t know what to do or what mattered anymore.”

For a time, she took care of her father and spent time with his friends, listening to their amazing stories, woven in and out of the twentieth century’s definitive moments. Their memories opened her eyes.

Inspired, she decided to offer that same experience to everyone. “One morning I sat up in bed at 5 a.m. and thought ‘This is what I want to do.’ I want to make films for them, telling these stories while they still remember, while they’re still vital. Because the future generations will never see these relatives, never know them, and everyone needs to know where they came from.” The Living Legacy Project offers something that no one else in Canada has ever done.

Sometimes people worry that their stories are not interesting enough, Chew says. “I have to tell them to leave it to me to find the story. That’s the beauty of working with a professional journalist: you might not even know what treasures you’ll find in your own memories. And the mosaic that appears as your family’s stories weave together is more interesting than you could ever imagine.”