How Wayne Wang Faces Failure

You went to art school right around the time that the idea of “Asian American” identity was gaining traction.

There were some 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 they were protecting and working for their own people, and trying to stand up against racism. It was like a whole other level from David Harris, Bob Dylan, the ranch. Now, I’m on my own, meeting people who were Chinese, who believed they belonged as part of America. They would always say, “I’m just as American as John Smith ’cause I was born here.” Bruce Lee was a big hero. And then what my brother went through also helped me understand so-called discrimination in a more direct way.

Do you think that your brother might have felt differently if he had access to all this? That 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 being Chinese in America really meant, understand the context and the history of Chinese in America, I think he wouldn’t have been so bad off so quickly. I was lucky in that. First of all, I didn’t care. I was more rebellious. If you didn’t like me—fine, I’ll go on my own. But then I found my community in Oakland and Berkeley.

I started taking film-history classes. There was a teacher that I respected who was teaching painting, but he was more of a film buff. The Pacific Film Archive was opening at U.C. Berkeley, and I could go there and watch two films a night. I decided to change my major to film. I was hoping that, since my dad loved film so much, maybe he would be more sympathetic, but he got angrier! [Laughs.]

After graduate school, you went back to Hong Kong.

When I went back, it was around the time 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 the French New Wave directors; they took the cameras outside onto the streets and made almost documentary-like, really free-form films. I was filled with those ideas, and very quickly I was shut down. By the end of summer, they didn’t want me around because I was too different.

When I came back to the Bay Area, there were two women, Loni Ding and Felicia Lowe. Loni was working with PBS and mostly doing documentaries about Chinese America. Felicia started out as an anchor for one of the networks and then started doing some documentaries for the weekend shows. I could work with Felicia; I could be an apprentice with Loni. All of the people who worked on “Chan Is Missing” actually worked on “Bean Sprouts” [a Chinese American children’s show Ding made in 1977].

How else were you paying the bills?

I got a job teaching English at a Chinese language center—a job-training program. One of my co-workers, Elmer, was a graduate of the Asian American-studies program at U.C. Berkeley. We became good friends, and we were also politically pretty radical, reading Mao’s Little Red Book as a study group, you know?

We were teaching these immigrants from Hong Kong, and we were saying how great the Cultural Revolution was. Then one day a student stood up, and he was really angry, and he told us what he went through during the Cultural Revolution. He ended up swimming to Hong Kong as a refugee. And he said to our faces that we were just naïve, stupid, radical idiots. [Laughs.]

That one day turned it around. I realized around that same time that, just within my class, there were immigrants from Taiwan, different kinds of immigrants from mainland China. Refugees. People from Hong Kong. There were people from Singapore. I realized all of a sudden that we were all here, and we were all different, and yet the same. But America knew nothing about this community. I mean, they just came and ate sweet-and-sour pork and wonton noodles. We were seen as all the same—and even the Japanese and the Koreans were the same. They threw the Korean students into our school because, you know, they thought Koreans were probably similar.

This class sounds exactly like the premise of “Chan Is Missing,” where immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the mainland quarrel about whether they truly have anything in common—not to mention the scenes in the film that take place in community centers and English-language classes, like the one you’re describing.

If I think back on it, all the inspiration came first from my brother and what he went through, then from the Chinese American friends that I had, and then from teaching and working in this place. All of it sort of builds up toward “Chan Is Missing.” It didn’t come out of the blue. It had to come out of very specific experiences.

“Chan Is Missing” features professional actors alongside community folks playing themselves—it is a mystery with moments of documentary. Did your crew and collaborators understand where this was going, as you were all working on it?

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