Joan Chen Reflects on Career and Talks ‘Youth Voices On China’ Video Competition

Marco Polo's Joan Chen. Photo by: Don Flood for Netflix.

We are excited to announce that Youth Voices On China will be playing at CAAMFest this year! More information on ticketing and times here!

It makes sense that Joan Chen, the renowned actress and filmmaker who has been working in both the Hollywood and Chinese film industries since she was 14 years old, is especially curious about what young Americans think about China these days. So curious that she’s the head contest judge of the 1990 Institute’s newest education initiative, Youth Voices on China (YVOC), a national video contest that asks American students in middle school through college to create videos with the theme “What’s China? Why Understanding China Is Important to My Future.” CAAM is partnering with Youth Voices on China and will be screening the winning films at CAAMFest in March 2015.

When Chen immigrated to the U.S. at age 20, she was already a household name in China. She went from being a Best Actress award winner (for her role in Zhang Zheng’s Little Flower) who was first discovered as a teenager by Madame Mao herself in a Shanghai rifle range; to unknown Asian American film student, waiting tables and trying to find her way; to being “discovered” again (in America, at least) in a parking lot by legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis.

After attaining international acclaim for her performance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 Academy Award-winning film The Last Emperor, she was a guest on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman an experience she remembers as a disaster. “Oh my gosh, how horrible was that?” she says. “When I left the show, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I do to myself?’ I didn’t have a publicist or someone to brief me on things. I just kind of bumbled my way around with no plans, and that was an example of how bad it could get.”

She’s exaggerating. To an average viewer, she’s perfectly charming, but watching the interview now, what’s most striking is their conversation about China. Letterman asks her about her impressions of the U.S. when she first arrived, and she talks about the car lights. She had never noticed that the back lights were red and the headlights were white, because there weren’t very many cars in Shanghai. Letterman isn’t even aware of a film industry in ChinaThe Last Emperor and Empire of the Sun were the first two Hollywood films to ever be shot thereand Chen says when she was in China, she had only seen two Hollywood films there, 1940’s Waterloo Bridge, and The Godfather on a pirated tape.

It’s a completely different time and different world, and in the last 25 years, China has transformed, as have American opinions about China. So Chen hopes these Youth Voices on China submissions enlighten us about the perspectives of young people, those who are “innocent and hopefully haven’t been exposed to years and years of media distortion.” “I’m looking for a truthful, honest take on how they view China, Chinese Americans, and the Sino-U.S. relationship,” she says. “I’m very curious to see what they know, how much they want to know, and what they say.”

With over $15,000 in prizes, Youth Voices on China is imagined as an annual contest, and this year’s deadline is Monday, January 19, 2015. (Videos entered by Saturday, December 13, 2014 will be eligible for Early Bird prizes.) Chen will soon be seen in Netflix’s Marco Polo, out December 12, and she is currently adapting scripts she hopes to direct. Chen also posts on her blog, Hungry Empress, including many recipes. In the meantime, Joan Chen takes us on a trip down memory lane, from her first American television roleMiss Taiwan on Simon & Simon—to Asian American films like Saving Face, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

—Ada Tseng

You first came to the US to study filmmaking. Why did you want to come to America to study film, instead of studying it in China?
Back then, the hottest thing to do was to go study in America. It was very new then. It was the dream of most Chinese students, and very few could actually do it. So I didn’t think carefully about what I would be doing in America. I just knew if I had an opportunity to go to the USA, that I would go. But obviously Hollywood has a long tradition of filmmaking in America, so it’d be a great place to study.

It was so strange back then though. I encountered some difficulties getting my passport from the Chinese government, so the goal was just to get there. Once I landed in New York, I was shocked. I knew nothing. “What do I do now?” I went to New York because my mom had arranged through a friend a tuition waiver for the New York State University at New Paltz, and we didn’t have any money so the tuition waiver was important. But then I got a call form Professor Paul Chow from California State University at Northridge. They were having a Chinese film festival and wanted to invite me. And that’s how I ended up finishing my studies there.

At that time, were there many Chinese students coming to study film?
Not really. People at Northridge all came because of Professor Paul Chow, and they were all physics majors, because he was a physics professor. Most Chinese students back then were science majors. Now, it’s different.

How did you get back into acting, once you were in the United States?
There was a student at Northridge who was a stuntwoman, and she found out I was an actress. She didn’t believe it. I said, “I actually won the Best Actress award in China before I came to the U.S.” She said, “What? Why are you waiting tables?” So she encouraged me to give it a try, and it beat working in a restaurant. And on an hourly basis, it paid much better. So that’s how I started. My very first job was a non-speaking part in the TV series Simon & Simon. It was the character of Miss Taiwan, and I was just walking across the street.

How did Tai-Pan come about?
I was auditioning for some other stuff, and they were looking for a Hawaiian person. I walked in, they asked if I was Hawaiian, and I said, “No, I’m Chinese,” and they said, “We’re looking for a Hawaiian,” so I walked out all disappointed. But I was walking to my car, and Dino De Laurentiis, who was the producer for Tai-Pan, pulled up in a big Cadillac and said, “Did you know that Lana Turner was discovered in a drug store?” I was like, “Who’s this dirty old man?” and I didn’t talk, I just kept walking. And he said, “I’m casting for this film. Do you want to come with your agent at 2pm today?” I got his card, called my agent, and he said, “I can’t believe this. It’s Dino De Laurentiis!” He was a big producer in Hollywood, and I had no idea. I don’t know why I missed all their auditions, because they had been casting for a long time, internationally too. Casting in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles. Somehow, I didn’t even know, but just through walking in the parking lot, I got cast.

Producer Janet Yang has said in interviews that she could tell in 1987, when she was working on Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun in Shanghai, while The Last Emperor was filming in Beijing, that it was a groundbreaking moment for Hollywood and China. When you were filming, did you get sense something big was happening?
I am in general a very naive person, and I wasn’t all that conscientious of a student or actress—all I would remember was [whether] I was having a very special time on the set. But The Last Emperor was the only project that pulled me in and made me pay attention. I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful everything was, how masterfully everything was done. Every department—costume, makeup, hair, production design, cinematography—had people who were really on top of their craft, and they were all the best at their fields at that time. It was an extremely long shoot, 8 months, and I was there for half a year. I didn’t know it was going to win so many Academy Awards, but I think that was the moment I fell in love with filmmaking itself.

Even nowadays, actors who want to direct can be met with skepticism. When you wanted to make your first film, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, were there people you had to convince, or did you just do it yourself?
It came from me. I didn’t have anything, so I had to raise the money, and I had to write the script. It wasn’t anything where I thought, “This will be a good career move.” I just wanted to tell a story, and I did it. I never plan, and I still don’t. I just go with the moment.

Did you learn from any particular directors that you had worked with?
I think everybody directs a different picture because we are all different. Of course I learned from Bernardo Bertolucci and David Lynch [who directed her in Twin Peaks], but you can’t emulate somebody. You’re attracted toward certain things, and it’s because that’s how your life has been lived. I also learned a lot from directors who I didn’t like, from what I wished they didn’t do. Those are also learning experiences.

SFIAAFF30 Saving Face Reunion Joan Chen, Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen (c) Jennifer Yin / CAAM
SFIAAFF 30 “Saving Face” Reunion with Joan Chen, Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen, March 2012. Photo by Jennifer Yin for CAAM.

Do you make a conscious effort to work in independent Asian American films [like Saving Face, Americanese, and White Frog], or does it just depend on which projects move you?
There are many reasons for me to work on a project, but in general, I do want to support new Asian American directors—especially if I like the script. Because we do want these stories to be told. I loved Saving Face. I think Alice [Wu] is a very good writer and very good director. She’s very honest and artful and has since become a very close friend.

Can you tell us about your role in Netflix’s original series Marco Polo?
I play Empress Chabi from the Yuan dynasty, Kublai Khan’s wife. It’s a historical fantasy—not fantasy in a way where it’s far out, but it’s somewhat fantastical because Marco Polo’s account was fantastical. But there is a close affinity to actual history. There’s a lot of action, sex and violence, but there are also family dynamics between father and son, husband and wife. There’s heroism, political intrigue, and court intrigue. It’s really well-made, and it’s almost entirely Asian actors. Other than Marco Polo, every important character is played by Asians or Asian Americans.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is crossposted at XFinity TV.

Main image: Marco Polo‘s Joan Chen. Photo by Don Flood for Netflix.