You went to art school around the time the idea of “Asian American” identity was gaining traction.
There were Asian Americans at the California College of Arts and Crafts who introduced me to people in San Francisco who were more radical. I saw how respectful they were of the Black Panthers. They felt like they were protecting and working for their own people and trying to stand up against racism. It was like a whole other level of David Harris, Bob Dylan, the ranch. Now I’m alone, I meet people who were Chinese, who thought they belonged to America. They always said, “I’m as American as John Smith because I was born here.” Bruce Lee was a great hero. And then what my brother went through also helped me to understand more directly what is called discrimination.
Do you think your brother might have felt differently if he had access to all of this? What maybe he felt lost because there was no community to help him process his experiences?
If there was a community that could help him understand what it really meant to be Chinese in America, to understand the background and history of Chinese in America, I think he wouldn’t have been so bad so fast . I was lucky. First of all, I didn’t care. I was more rebellious. If you don’t love me, fine, I’ll go alone. But then I found my community in Oakland and Berkeley.
I started taking film history classes. There was a teacher I respected who taught painting, but he was more of a movie buff. The Pacific Film Archive was opening at UC Berkeley, and I could go there and watch two movies a night. I decided to change specialty for the cinema. I was hoping that since my dad loved movies so much, he might be more sympathetic, but he got mad! [Laughs.]
After your graduate studies, you returned to Hong Kong.
When I went back, it was during the days of the so-called Hong Kong New Wave directors: Ann Hui, Allen Fong, Tsui Hark. I got a job at RTHK, which is like PBS in Hong Kong. I was influenced by French New Wave directors; they took the cameras out into the streets and made almost documentary films, really free-form. I was filled with these ideas, and very quickly I was shut down. At the end of the summer, they didn’t want me anymore because I was too different.
When I came back to the Bay Area, there were two women, Loni Ding and Felicia Lowe. Loni worked with PBS and mainly made documentaries about Chinese America. Felicia started as a presenter for one of the networks and then started doing documentaries for the weekend shows. I could work with Felicia; I could be apprenticed to Loni. Everyone who worked on “Chan Is Missing” actually worked on “Bean sprouts” [a Chinese American children’s show Ding made in 1977].
If not, how did you pay the bills?
I got a job teaching English in a Chinese language center, a vocational training program. A colleague of mine, Elmer, was a graduate of the Asian American Studies program at UC Berkeley. We became good friends, and we were also quite radical politically, reading Mao’s Little Red Book as a study group, you know?
We were teaching these immigrants from Hong Kong and talking about how great the Cultural Revolution was. Then one day a student stood up, and he was really angry, and he told us what he had been through during the Cultural Revolution. He ended up swimming to Hong Kong as a refugee. And he told us to our face that we were just naive, stupid, radical idiots. [Laughs.]
That day, everything changed. I realized around the same time that just within my class there were immigrants from Taiwan, different types of immigrants from mainland China. Refugees. People from Hong Kong. There were people from Singapore. I suddenly realized that we were all there, and that we were all different, and yet the same. But America knew nothing of this community. I mean, they just came and ate sweet and sour pork and wonton noodles. We were all seen as the same, and even the Japanese and Koreans were the same. They dumped Korean students in our school because, you know, they thought Koreans were probably similar.
This class looks exactly like the premise of “Chan Is Missing,” where immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the mainland argue over whether they really have anything in common, not to mention the movie scenes that take place in community centers and English classes, like the one you describe.
If I think back, all the inspiration came first from my brother and what he went through, then from the Chinese-American friends I had, and then from teaching and working there. It all sort of builds towards “Chan Is Missing”. It didn’t come out of nowhere. He must have come out of very specific experiences.
“Chan Is Missing” features professional actors alongside people from the community playing themselves – it’s a mystery with documentary moments. Did your team and collaborators understand where it was going, since you were all working on it?