More to the Chinese side: the ruminations of a fifth-generation Chinese American filmmaker.

Author:Gow, William
Position:8D Paper - Personal account

My Chinese American experience is probably different from yours. We, fourth- and fifth-generation Chinese Americans, represent only about 10 percent of the entire Chinese American population. Many of us, like myself, don't look typically Chinese, our mixed-race blood often masking our Chinese heritage. Because our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers were part of the original wave of Chinese immigration in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, ours seems the experience most often relegated to the history books. The railroad worker, the cook or laundryman, the prostitute: our families' stories have become caricatures forever trapped in the past.

Like so many Asian American artists, I became a filmmaker to see myself represented. I was tired of watching the same film about the tribulations of the white middle class that I had seen the week before. I was equally frustrated with the state of Chinese American cinema, where the majority of films seemed to be about the struggles between present-day ABCs (i.e., American-born Chinese) and their Chinese-born parents. As a fifth-generation Chinese American of mixed descent, I knew that the diversity of stories in our community was much greater than what was being represented in either community or mainstream media. Fueled by a desire to see my Chinese American experience represented, I became a filmmaker.

Although I never connected my passion for movies with my racial identity while I was growing up, my experiences as a college student at New York University showed me how strong the link actually was. NYU attracted me because I knew that it was the school that Spike Lee attended, and I related to the political bent of many of Lee's films. I arrived at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU thinking, or at least naively hoping, that I would be taking classes with scores of people of color who shared my political passions and moral sensibilities. The reality of my experiences could not have been farther from the truth. Despite its placement in one of the most diverse cities in the world, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts remains a bastion of whiteness. A few high-profile alumni and professors, like Ang Lee, Christine Choy, and Spike Lee, serve to mask a student body that is overwhelmingly white, suburban, and upper middle class. I realized soon after arriving that I was chosen, in spite of my less than stellar high school grades, because I added a speck of color to NYU's sea of lily white. I was accepted to NYU in part because I am Chinese American.

At NYU, I put a human face to the type of people who create the images that the vast majority of Americans watch in movie theaters every weekend. NYU is one of a triumvirate of schools--along with USC and UCLA--that provides the bulk of Hollywood "talent," and I could see even from my classmates' student films that they would follow in the footsteps of the classes that had come before them. The content of the work that my classmates at Tisch created, while technically adroit, reflected the lack of diversity at the school. I saw amusing student films about bowling in the woods and about giant killer mice but few films featured any actors of color, and I never saw a film that seemed to be driven by a developed political or moral argument.

Surrounded by suburban whites, I felt strangely out of place at NYU. My interest in classic Japanese cinema, modern Hong Kong films, and movies by Asian Americans made me somewhat of an anomaly at a school where my classmates' favorite directors were David Lynch, Woody Allen, or even Steven Spielberg. When my department offered an upper-division class on Chinese cinema before the fifth generation, I was one of three students who enrolled, a reflection no doubt on the interest--or lack thereof--of my classmates.

As I got to know my classmates, I realized that these future Hollywood moguls and producers didn't make films about the suburban white middle class because they wanted to exclude other voices. They made movies about the white middle class because these stories reflected their own life experiences. If their films were vapid--albeit sometimes engaging--uncontroversial fluff, this was in part a reflection of the suburban strip-mall culture that had bred them. With few classmates of color to speak of, I became patently aware that the next generation of mainstream Hollywood films would be no more diverse than the last. While I didn't see it at the time, later in life this realization would further my commitment to grassroots community media.

I left NYU with a good grounding in film history, theory, and criticism and waded head first into a sea of personal debt. I had yet to take a filmmaking class. My two attempts to enroll in film production classes had been rebuffed by the long waiting list imposed on anyone from outside the film production department. As I stood among a crowd of purple that graduation afternoon in late May of 1999, I looked forward to putting my prestigious $100,000 film degree to use in discussions back...

To continue reading