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June 10, 2017 12:49 AM   Subscribe

For an entire year, nearly everyone in Hollywood passed on adapting a film version of The Joy Luck Club. Even after Amy Tan’s debut novel became a best-seller, moving 275,000 copies upon its first publication, studio executives argued that no one would want to see a movie about Chinese-American women, especially since no stars were attached to it. Today, while Asian actors continue to be largely excluded from mainstream narratives — brushed aside and told that “non-white stars aren’t bankable” — The Joy Luck Club remains the only Hollywood film to have accomplished what most studios are still afraid to try. This is the story of how Asian-Americans pulled off a movie those in the industry never thought possible and proved Hollywood wrong.
posted by zarq (22 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Crazy Rich Asians is gonna be awesome.
posted by leotrotsky at 4:33 AM on June 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

It's hard to understand that thinking when the book was such an intense runaway bestseller.
posted by Miko at 5:16 AM on June 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

It was racism.

Chinese women have been universally stereotyped in Hollywood (and routinely denied Asian character roles that instead go to white women,) since the days of Anna May Wong.

More than 90 years have passed. Very little has changed. White women are still getting leading roles for Asian characters. Asian women are still getting stereotyped in Hollywood films and on tv as mysterious exotics, Tiger moms, China doll seductresses or martial artists. Exceptions exist but they're few and far between.

The article notes that people expressed concern that the audiences would have difficulty telling the actors and actresses apart.
posted by zarq at 6:23 AM on June 10, 2017 [15 favorites]

The article notes that people expressed concern that the audiences would have difficulty telling the actors and actresses apart.

Even as someone with a half-white family, I have difficulty telling all the short-haired brunet white male and long-haired blonde white female actors apart. In addition, studios like casting people with "ideal" faces and i'd much rather see distinctive, unconventional faces. I started watching The Handmaids Tale recently and I'm pretty sure the only thing keeping me from mistaking June from Serena Joy is their super obvious color-coded uniforms.
posted by picklenickle at 7:44 AM on June 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

I can't stand The Joy Luck Club, but I understand it's a product of its time, and I appreciate what it did for Asian representation. A lot of why I dislike it isn't its fault, but how it's been used and what people think it represents - it's seen as the Asian story. Other people have articulated this more clearly, but there is a single story about Asians, and it's that they Suffer. Asia is a land of nothing but Suffering, and then the people immigrate to the US, where they Suffer for their Children, who then grow up to continue to Suffer because of the Irreconcilable Differences between their Asian upbringing and American lives. And so on. I went to a high school that was about 80% Chinese, and a well-meaning (white) English teacher assigned us the book, probably hoping we could relate - but to a bunch of comfortably middle-class/outright rich kids in the year 2008, many of whom who actually spoke better Chinese than English, we might as well have been reading about aliens from Mars. And I remember thinking, is this what white people think our lives are like? Coincidentally, around the same time, another (white) teacher asked us about feng shui, and we were happy to explain it to her, but then in the middle she stopped us and was like "oh no, it's OK, I don't want to get your friends in trouble in China, because I know the government doesn't like it". And me and the other kid, we just gave each other a Look.

I hope Crazy Rich Asians will be a big hit! I found it much more representative of own experience in the Chinese diaspora, despite not being close to crazy rich. You see a variety of experiences in the book, from all-American Rachel to the Youngs, who fly back and forth (and all over). It's also one of the few books I've read, originally in English, that doesn't depict Asia as this mysterious distant place. Reading it, I felt such a sense of recognition. What's exotic about Crazy Rich Asians isn't the Asians, it's the Crazy Rich.
posted by airmail at 8:10 AM on June 10, 2017 [27 favorites]

I think by 2008 a better and more relatable choice would have been Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), but I guess even if your teacher was aware of the flim it probably wouldn't have been a great idea for him to show it to a class.
posted by FJT at 8:36 AM on June 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't think most people remember what a bizarre time it was in Hollywood back around 1993. You had Joy Luck Club, but you also had Dragon: The Bruce Lee story which came out earlier that year. And then a year later you had All-American Girl on television. Everyone in Hollywood thought Asian-America was going to be the next big thing just like what the booming African-American market was doing for the entertainment industry. But then it didn't. Much of the finger pointing and blame ultimately fell onto Asians-Americans because traditionally we don't support our own artists like other groups.
posted by cazoo at 8:51 AM on June 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Tan's mother has a cameo.
posted by brujita at 8:54 AM on June 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I remember being excited about The Joy Luck Club when it came out simply for the novelty of seeing people onscreen who looked like members of my extended family. Yes, the narrative was centred around the Asians Who Suffer, and Immigrant Culture that Clashes, but to be fair, my mom's family did suffer (she was born in Singapore during World War II under occupation), and sometimes their ideas did clash...with mine, since I was born in Canada and was acutely aware of being different and having a strict immigrant parent. She's no stereotype but there are certain aspects of the strict Asian immigrant parent trope that rang true to me.

I didn't realize they're making a Crazy Rich Asians movie. I'll definitely watch that, especially since it's set in Singapore. I found an interesting article from the Singapore Straits Times paper on the casting--the gist is that the casting of two Eurasians (half Asian, half white) in the leads is pandering to Hollywood's preference for whiter looking actors. It also discusses the prevalence of this attitude in Singaporean audiences, which I can attest to, having been on the receiving end of "compliments" from Singapreans about how I had been "lucky" enough to end up with some of my white dad's features, though I most closely resemble my Chinese mom. That "whiter is righter" attitude they talk about in the article definitely exists, though I also remember relatives worrying that my 1/4 Chinese nephew wouldn't look Chinese at all, so how would people know he was related to us? (He does. He's a little mini me of my brother...people know.)

Sorry for the tangent. Race is complicated and apparently so are my feelings about it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:40 AM on June 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

My high school literature curriculum (California, mid-1990s) included multiple books and short stories by nonwhite California authors -- in particular I remember The Woman Warrior, The Joy Luck Club, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the poem "Oranges" by Gary Soto, but certainly there were more. The "choose 1 of these 6 books" bits included Children of the River by Linda Crew, which focuses on a teenage girl who's immigrated to the US from Cambodia. And I think we watched The Joy Luck Club film in class.

As an Asian-American girl (although of South Asian heritage specifically) I absolutely needed to hear stuff like: you are not alone. The "hold on to your heritage!" message you hear at home and the "what? weird" stuff from everywhere else .... feeling alienated from all your blood relatives who don't speak English ..... not feeling able to bear the responsibility of superlative achievement .... basically, when I think of places I saw art that helped me understand what was going on in my life, while I was in high school, I think of The Joy Luck Club, the one Asian-American character in the TV show Ghostwriter, The Woman Warrior, Children of the River, and a couple of much more low-profile books that made it into my life, Anjana Appachana's Incantations and Other Stories and Joan D. Criddle's Bamboo and Butterflies: From Refugee to Citizen.

If I recall correctly, back in high school, I gave my mom The Joy Luck Club to read, and it helped us talk about some stuff that rang true to our experiences.

I'm grateful to get to read this story of what it took to get this movie made. I am sad that I didn't recognize that many of the actresses, just Chao and Wen, and that there aren't more mainstream US films with multiple Asian-American characters in them.
posted by brainwane at 12:18 PM on June 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

(And Lauren Tom who went on to voice Amy in Futurama and a bunch of other roles. I had totally forgotten she was in Joy Luck Club!)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:24 PM on June 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I went to a high school that was about 80% Chinese, and a well-meaning (white) English teacher assigned us the book, probably hoping we could relate - but to a bunch of comfortably middle-class/outright rich kids in the year 2008, many of whom who actually spoke better Chinese than English, we might as well have been reading about aliens from Mars. And I remember thinking, is this what white people think our lives are like? Coincidentally, around the same time, another (white) teacher asked us about feng shui, and we were happy to explain it to her, but then in the middle she stopped us

Similarly from a Harold Bloom journal on Amy Tan's works:

"And that's how we came to be as close as sisters once again for the rest of the time I had left with my family. In fact, from that day forward, until I was married, we called each other tang jie, "sugar sister," the friendly way to refer to a girl cousin."
… The phrase "sugar sister" is an egregious mistranslation based on Amy Tan's confusing two Chinese homophones, while the accompanying … bet a profound ignorance of the Chinese kinship system. about this passage is its very existence: that Amy Tan has seen fit to include and elaborate on such a "gratuitous" detail—gratuitous in the sense of not functioning to advance the plot or deepen the characterization, of which more later-on something of which she has little knowledge.

I suggest it is neither literary fate nor psychological destiny that has conferred favored status on the chinese American mother-daughter relationship, but rather a convergence of ethnic group-specific literary tradition and ideological needs by the white-domirated readership—including the feminist readership—for the Other's presence as both mirror and differentiator.

Haven't read the essay carefully, but I take it to mean there's been substantial, scholarly discussion of the cultural role of JLC, for better or worse. I enjoyed the movie as a teenager, but my impression has been that it and the novel has more value for acculturated/"nissei" Asian Americans, whereas there are other Asian American and immigrant perspectives that in a way it necessarily eclipses because of how its very Western narrative language forces a particular point of view. Asian American children in the 90's were exposed to the book, but not their families, which introduces dissonances. And in part the essay above is to look more critically at this issue and setting up a more nuanced context for it and related literature.

I enjoyed and (oddly) identified with the movie as a teenager (I was not assigned the book in high school), but it was a real moment of truth when I found my mother didn't like it. And that's what's interesting, culturally and politically, when it comes to how literature relates to actual groups.
posted by polymodus at 2:58 PM on June 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

I am really excited for Crazy Rich Asians -- it is a stacked cast, and the book was such a hugely enjoyable "beach read" if you haven't read it yet. (I was a little more eh on the second one; the third came out just recently and I haven't gotten to it yet.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:25 PM on June 10, 2017

The Woman Warrior, Children of the River, and a couple of much more low-profile books that made it into my life

Also, the Bloom essay goes into reasons why The Woman Warrior was less-known, versus JLC which relatively exploded into the mainstream in the 90's. I also like this Guardian review of Crazy Rich Asians; if you juxtapose it with the Bloom essay, you see the ways in which contemporary media repeats the same dynamics, the same contextual issues that the Bloom essay was already talking about. Both authors (i.e. the JLC one a scholarly work by professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley, the Guardian a newspaper review) ultimately articulate a sense of ambivalence in their evaluations, and use examples to illustrate how that comes about in each text.
posted by polymodus at 3:59 PM on June 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I remember several friends of different ethnicities (but mostly Jewish) telling me they related to the film and the book. It was good bonding over mothers and guilt.
posted by girlhacker at 10:31 PM on June 10, 2017

The article notes that people expressed concern that the audiences would have difficulty telling the actors and actresses apart.

Oh, as opposed to the gazillion tan blondes that Hollywood pumps out, who all went to the same plastic surgeons, for the same boobs, noses and veneers? Because those people are so striking and unique? We've been looking at the same fucking face since Marilyn Monroe.
posted by Autumnheart at 11:11 PM on June 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thanks for linking the Harold Bloom article, polymodus! There's so much good stuff in it.

From the essay:
... it works through a subtle but insistent positioning of everything in the mother' lives to a watershed event: arrival in the United States. Like using the arrival of the white man to demarcate two modes of being, the later one redeeming the earlier from cyclical repetition as a matter of inevitable "progress," this practice bears the unmistakable traces of a hegemonic cultural vantage point vis-i-vis a "backward" Third World.


... socioeconomic class is as much a factor as culture in the mother-daughter conflicts in The Joy Luck Club-that, in fact, "cultural difference" can function as a less volatile or more admissible surrogate term for class anxieties

I wonder sometimes if my experiences are so different from what I read from a lot of Asian-Americans because of this. Pretty much every Chinese person I knew was middle class, raised by middle class parents. This is probably because Canada's immigration system strongly favours professionals. On the other hand, it seems in the US, a lot of Asian immigrant writers are middle class people raised by parents who overcame abject poverty. Some of the culture clash stuff is really class-based. Yet another one of the subtle differences between Canada and the US.
posted by airmail at 12:33 AM on June 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was in high school when the novel came out, and it was incredibly exciting to read something written by a Chinese-American, except it didn't quite reflect my personal experience, because the American childhoods weren't the same socio-economic class as my own. Class makes a huge difference, as we all know. One particular experience I didn't identify with whatsoever was the girl who sat outside on the sidewalk in Chinatown while white tourists gave her spare change.

When the movie came out years later, I was confused to see that the American childhoods were upgraded to something like upper middle class. I bring this up because this was the first time that I actually noticed that Hollywood and commercials and mass media in general, seem to default to upper middle class when depicting "typical American."

Of course, I loved the movie and seeing a whole cast of young women who looked just like me reflected on the big screen! That is incredible, heady stuff for someone who grew up in the 70-80's. I had to cringe through all those awful "Ancient Chinese secret" laundry detergent commercials.

In another topic, as a Mandarin-speaking person, I always questioned Tan's translations of Chinese culture, chalking it up to "her people came from a different region than mine," when they didn't line up. But now that I've read the essay from the Harold Bloom journal that polymodus linked to above, it's possibly explains why I wasn't so enthusiastic: it wasn't written for me, it was written for white American women.
posted by honey badger at 5:03 AM on June 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think, when I first read it in early middle school in the 90s, it spoke to me because it was one of the few stories about Asians that was written in English--I mean, at the time, what were my other options, Tikki Tikki Tembo or The Good Earth?

And then re-reading it subsequently, every few years throughout my teenage life, it spoke to me because, even though the women were Chinese and I was not, the clash between my ilse* mother and my ise* views on life, the barrier of incomprehension both from just growing up and having a bifurcated cultural existence, and the guilt of both wanting to understand and accept while being inordinately frustrated at the ways of their parents? I felt that. It was a salve because it pointed the way to rapprochement, at least in the end.

And then watching the movie in college, and re-reading it? And looking back on it now, and occasionally watching the movie here and there, knowing that it's got issues, but it still speaks to me. I know Lena's inchoate frustration at how things are; I have Waverly's annoyance and subconscious terror of disappointing mom; I live Rose's passivity and miasma; and I still want that jade pendant moment that June gets with her mother.

I dunno. I am very ambivalent about them re-making it, because in the twenty years or so since I'd discovered the book, Asian-America has gone through dramatic changes. I don't know how well the assimilationist bent of the book works these days, and I worry how it's too easy for certain (almost proto-hotep-like) bitter segments of male Asian-America can misread it. I don't know if this landmark but dated story should be excavated and re-done when Asian-American literature itself is starting to blossom, and the newer stuff, of which Crazy Rich Asians is but one example, could be highlighted instead.

*ilse (k), issei(j), 一世 (hanja/kanji): immigrants born in the old country.
ise (k), nisei (j), 二世 (hanja/kanji): first-generation americans, second-generation immigrants, born here.

posted by anem0ne at 10:18 AM on June 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

I remember feeling about The Joy Luck Club much the same way I felt about The Wire—that it was a showcase for all these actors who are people of color, many of whom will never have another role so complete or meaty. I liked-but-didn't-love The Joy Luck Club, but I did appreciate a film full of Asian actors. I am glad to have learned from this article that many of the actors had had long careers prior to the film, because I remember it feeling like these wonderful, talented actors coming out of nowhere, and then, with few exceptions, being cast back out into nowhere again.
posted by Orlop at 5:57 PM on June 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I picked up the movie on a whim from the library over Christmas because I was looking for something joyful and lucky to watch.

Man, talk about false advertising...
posted by clawsoon at 8:15 PM on June 13, 2017

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