Amy Tan Reflects on the Book and Film Anniversaries for “The Joy Luck Club”

A Chinese American woman with silver grey hair and red lipstick looks at the camera for her headshot. The person is author Amy Tan.
Amy Tan. Photo by Julian Johnson.
"When it was first published I thought [that] hardly anybody is going to read this book by an unknown Chinese American author about mothers and daughters who have misunderstandings. Who’s going to want to read that? And the answer, after 30 years, is a lot of people." - Amy Tan

When it comes to Asian Americans in the literary world, Amy Tan is a common name that comes to mind. From The Kitchen God’s Wife to The Valley of Amazement, she has become a renowned and respected author both domestically and all across the world.

But it’s her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, that she is best known for. The novel, originally published in 1989 and later adapted into a film by director Wayne Wang in 1993, explores four sets of Chinese immigrant mothers and their relationships with their American-born daughters.

In a phone interview, Tan reflects back on the 30 years since the book first hit the shelves and on the 25th anniversary of one of the most decorated Asian American films to be made.

In honor of its 25th anniversary, The Joy Luck Club will be having a special outdoor screening on Saturday May 18th at 8:00PM in San Francisco Chinatown’s Waverly Place for CAAMFest37. More information can be found on our festival website.

-Lauren Lola

First of all, what are your general thoughts about the fact that it’s been both 30 years since The Joy Luck Club was published and 25 years since the film adaptation was released?

It’s astonishing! I kind of don’t believe it. First, the fact that 30 years of my life has gone by, and the book has lasted this long is amazing. It was published 30 years ago, people are still reading it, and there’s a 30th anniversary edition.

When it was first published I thought [that] hardly anybody is going to read this book by an unknown Chinese American author about mothers and daughters who have misunderstandings. Who’s going to want to read that? And the answer, after 30 years, is a lot of people.

The movie was also a surprise and that’s been 25 years. As with the book, I am always heartened when I find that people really identify with it. So, it’s aged well. I like to think that we’ve all aged well.

How did you get the idea for the novel and what was it about it that compelled you to pursue writing it?

I was just starting out writing fiction, and with my earliest stories, I picked characters that were very far from my own reality: A girl whose father went to MIT (my father was accepted there but couldn’t attend), a girl whose family was very well to-do or upper-middle class, a mother who belongs to a country club instead of the Joy Luck Club. It was very different from my reality and that, to me, was fiction.

The stories absolutely failed because they were inauthentic. I didn’t have any genuine emotions attached to them. So one day, I decided, “Well, what the hell? I’ll just write something that’s a little closer to my life. No one has to read it.” The very first story I wrote was about a chess player – a champion little girl who had a very fierce mother.

I sent that to a writer’s conference. It was an imperfect story. I got a lot of advice, but what happened was the advice was so wonderful, it really motivated me to write. One of the people who looked at it said to me, “This is not one story. This is 12 different stories, and you have to pick them and start.”

I was a beginning fiction writer, so I just wrote stories without the idea that they were going to be cohesive, without thinking they would be in one book. They were short stories. When the concept was eventually bought, I had only three stories and I had to write the rest of them; 16 stories altogether. When the early reviews came out, they called it a novel. So that’s how it became a novel. Somebody deemed it a novel. I wrote a collection of short stories.

In the preface for the 30th anniversary edition of The Joy Luck Club, you wrote, “Fiction is a portal to a deeper understanding of myself, and when I went through it the first time, I knew I would write fiction for the rest of my life.” I was wondering if you can elaborate on how writing this novel specifically helped you understand yourself better.

There’s an aspect of writing fiction that is hard to explain because it has to be felt. It happens when you are writing and then suddenly, something clicks into place. It just aligns itself with a deeper understanding. It’s not a resolution in your mind saying, “Oh my God! This is the reason why I can’t move ahead and learn how to bicycle!” It really is a feeling of recognition, almost like having a double; somebody who understands you completely.

And there it is. It came out on the page. I now understand what I went through. It is such a high when that happens. It’s like the greatest high. Why wouldn’t you want to have that high again and again and again? Your whole mind and chest opens up. It’s exhilarating. So that’s what keeps one addicted to writing fiction.

I love the craft of it. I know a lot of people may hate revision. I love revision. I love playing with the sentences. I love words. That was an early love of mine when I was just a child growing up. I used to read the thesaurus. So all of the craft part of it is wonderful to me.

What is it about the novel do you think that has had such an appeal to readers?

Well shockingly, it seems that many mothers and daughters have huge misunderstandings and things unsaid that need to be said. It creates a gap or a breech and an ongoing misunderstanding. There’s an urgency. As the mother gets older, you suddenly realize there isn’t a lot of time left to see if you can fix it.

I think a lot of people have pretty good relationships with their families, with their mothers and daughters, but there are areas in their family history or obsessions that need to be explored.   So often these secrets or obsessions end up being passed down deliberately or inadvertently to daughters and sons.

To me, it’s about continuity; the family story that started generations ago and is passed down, the thread of history that continues and informs the present. Now, it may not be identical. You could have, for example, in my family’s story, the thread of suicide. My grandmother committed suicide and my mother was suicidal, but I’m not. So fortunately, the way the family history of suicide affected me was the opposite. It created in me an absolute commitment to myself. I never felt regret, and did everything with the belief that, “This is my choice, and if it turns out badly, so be it. I can learn something from it.” This attitude made me feel I had some control over my circumstances and helped me avoid what happened to my grandmother and my mother – their feeling that the only way to escape was to kill themselves.

I write for myself. I have to admit, I do not write to help other people, I do not write to repair relationships, I don’t write to help others understand Chinese culture better. I do it for me, and that fact makes me grateful. If people say, “Thank you for saving my relationship with my mother” I can’t take credit. I’m thrilled, but because it wasn’t my intention, I feel like I can’t take credit for it.

How did you approach adapting the book into a screenplay?

I was very afraid. I was afraid that I would create something that would be an embarrassment or a misrepresentation of Chinese people, of Asian people.

So I just kept saying no at first, until somebody came to me – it was Wayne Wang. He wanted to do the movie and I thought, “Great! Here’s a guy who does understand!” We talked and I didn’t even have to explain anything. He just knew.

So that made me feel there was a chance, but I was still uncomfortable about having a studio or a producer or somebody who’d say, “No, let’s do this instead. Let’s put in certain stereotypical scenes.” So I was still a little nervous because film, to me, is different. I had written the book. Now it’s being adapted and I did feel I had a responsibility to the audience. I think this medium, this form of storytelling has a very different impact. It’s wider, it has different expectations, so I had hesitations.

The screenwriter, Ron Bass, came to us. He thought that we wanted to work with him. We thought that he wanted to work with us, because the agents kind of set us up, like on a blind date. He had broken down everything; all those stories into three acts and he explained what they were. I thought, “This guy’s a genius!” So we talked about the heart of the book and how we had to invent a completely different way of showing these stories, but to keep the soul of it, keep the emotions of it. I think we succeeded in that.

One of the ways we were able to do that is to keep total creative control, which is almost impossible, and it made me feel, “Good! Do this thing, I’ll learn a lot.” I ended up being part of that film because [Wang] and [Bass] said, “I think you can learn a lot about earning the emotions of a scene.”

What was it like for you to see your story come to life? 

You have to keep in mind that I saw it in so many different ways. One was meeting the actors for the first time. I think they treated me like I was their auntie. They would say, “Oh, I’m playing Amy Tan,” and I’d say, “No, you’re playing June. You’re playing Rose.” It was like a family.

I would see them doing their scenes and it was very emotional. I would often cry seeing what they were doing. They were so good.

The first cut we had was three and a half hours long and we had to get it down to two hours max. So we’re going through the whole thing, cutting a footstep or a little wink. My scene ended up on the cutting room floor. So, that was interesting, seeing what was essential and what was not.

I probably saw 20 screenings, but the most emotional screening was when I saw it with my mother sitting next to me. There were about 20 scenes that made people cry, and those are scenes that actually have happened in her life. I kept thinking, “She’s just going to break down.” I’m looking at her and she has this very erect, stoic posture. At the end, when it was over, I turned to her and said, “Well, what do you think?” She said, “Oh, things in China were so much worse. This is already better!”

She did not cry, she was fascinated, she knew these were things from her life, but it wasn’t tragic. It wasn’t as sad because now she was out of it. She felt she was being witnessed and honored, and she was glad. 

What are your thoughts about the fact that this was the last contemporary Hollywood film featuring an all-Asian cast until Crazy Rich Asians came out last year?

I was trying to think if there had been others. I would say there have been others if you include India, for example, as part of Asian culture. There was Monsoon Wedding, and there were some others.

But The Joy Luck Club was 25 years ago, and it was surprising because it was fairly successful. We thought it would open some doors for people, open doors for the actors who’re so talented. They did get opportunities in television, but nobody got the lead role in anything.

Crazy Rich Asians comes along 25 years later. I do have to say I saw Crazy Rich Asians not once, not twice, but three times, because I really loved it. I was glad that it was a movie a lot of people wanted to watch. It was funny, there was a lot of satire, there were things that were kind of real regarding mother-in-laws, and crazy wealthy people whom I’ve met before who do astonishing things beyond what was shown in the movie, so that made me laugh a lot.

But it was something that appealed to a lot of people, and I think that movie is going to open more doors. I think it already has opened more doors; for further movies, for having the actors in it become more prominent and be given more prominent roles. I think that Henry Golding is so handsome and Constance Wu is just so delightful and vulnerable and strong. I just love that aspect of it. 

We’ve seen an increase of Asian Americans in books, film, and television within recent years. What do you make of this ongoing change?

I think, in part, it’s the demographics of the United States. When I was born, there were so few Asians. In my high school, I think there was one other Asian. Same in my first year of college – maybe two Asians. Now, it’s such a different demographic.

People have been exposed more to Chinese culture. They know colleagues, they know students they’ve become friends with, and so there is a greater interest. People are traveling more. There is an interest in going to China, whereas that was not possible until 1977 or 1978 when the U.S. and China re-established diplomatic relations. People would never even think about vacationing in China then, but now they love it.

I think that we have many more second generation Asians in this country now whose parents are a little bit more open to their kids doing things other than the traditional jobs that make parents proud in former generations. My mother and father wanted me to be a doctor. I have friends now and their kids want to be filmmakers and they’re fine with that, even though it’s going to be a very hard road.

The word “Asian” is good because it reflects a coalition of who we are. Sometimes it’s a little confusing because I do think that there are Asian cultures that are very different from one another. There‘s a lot we share – Chinese, Japanese – we share a lot, but there’s a lot that’s different as well. So when I say “Asian mothers and fathers,” I’m trying to think very quickly in my head, “Well is that true with other ethnicities? Is that true among Indonesians?”

What do you hope for the future of both the novel and film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club?

I know people who’ve used it in their classrooms when they’re talking about everything from different cultures to relationships with families. People becoming therapists will do a course on family relationships and this is a film or book they’ve read for that.

It’s wonderful. Even though I didn’t intend for the story to be educational, we make connections through the stories we read, we derive experiences that are felt, that are very heartfelt, emotional, and moving, and that makes us feel we have actually experienced something.

People continue to read The Joy Luck Club or watch the movie, and that’s fantastic. For so many years, I kept saying, “It’s over. It’s going to die. That’s the way it is.” I think it’s not going to happen and then it continues to happen. People continue to be moved by the stories.

My main hope is that people will start giving Asian American actors more roles and there will be more Asian American executives, Asian American producers. I’ve talked to a number of Asian American producers and creative executives, so I know they’re out there now. That’s how it’s going to be different, how it’s going to change. That’s why you’ll have movies coming out that never would have been considered before. I’m confident there’s going to be more, because the gatekeepers finally include Asians. We need that.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


In honor of its 25th anniversary, The Joy Luck Club will be having a special outdoor screening on Saturday May 18th at 8:00PM in San Francisco Chinatown’s Waverly Place for CAAMFest37. More information can be found on our festival website.