Knife to the Heart: A Conversation with Wayne Wang on the Occasion of the Fortieth Anniversary of Chan Is Missing

From Film Quarterly, Spring 2022, Volume 75, Number 3

Getting fired from a soap opera may have been the turning point in Wayne Wang’s life and career. In 1974, Wang had returned to his native Hong Kong, armed with a graduate degree in film from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He landed a gig at Royal Television Hong Kong (RTHK), one of the city’s biggest studios, and found himself in the company of such fellow new wave filmmakers as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, and Allen Fong. Wang recalled: “We were all young with ‘We’re going to change the world’ attitudes.”

Wang took that attitude into an apprenticeship with Hong Kong’s hit show Below the Lion Rock. It didn’t go well. “I went a little too far. I was trying to change how they would [shoot scenes]. The main producer-director got so pissed off at me. I was there for roughly three to five months and then I was fired.”

Wang had originally thought his filmmaking future lay back where he grew up. However, after the abrupt end to his RTHK stint, he recalibrated his ambitions and returned to the Bay Area the same year. To make ends meet, Wang began teaching English at the Chinatown Language Center in San Francisco, a job-training nonprofit. The Chinatown community was undergoing a sea change, with newly arrived immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong working and living alongside long-standing, multigenerational Chinese American families. At the Language Center, Wang would encounter a diverse community of people and personalities, and he began to take notes on figurative characters that would turn literal once the notes congealed into Wang’s script for his debut feature film, Chan Is Missing, released in 1982.

Wang had landed a grant from the American Film Institute to make a semidocumentary about cab drivers, including two who were Chinese American. Though Wang ultimately abandoned that project, his fascination with the cabbies formed the inspiration for Chan’s two leads—Jo (played by Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi)—who spend the movie looking for their missing friend Chan Hung in different corners of San Francisco.

Upon release, Chan Is Missing became the first Asian American narrative feature to gain national distribution, crossover audiences, and critical acclaim. The success of the movie, made on a shoestring budget of barely $22,000, helped Wang stake his claim within a growing community of independent American filmmakers of color that included Charles Burnett (The Killer of Sheep, 1978), Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground, 1982), and Gregory Nava (El Norte, 1983). Within a nascent Asian American filmography, Chan Is Missing was an even greater landmark achievement. Creatively, it embodied new wave and experimental film ideas while also riffing on popular genre tropes found in film noir and mystery movies. On a cultural level, Chan came barely a decade into the birth of “Asian America” as a sociopolitical cultural construct, and it did a remarkable job of delving into the nuances of Chinese and Asian American identity with complexity, sensitivity, and humor. Notably, Wang managed to do this while seemingly unburdened by the politics of identity that often dogged later Asian American films, including Wang’s own later work, such as the studio adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club (1993).

Originally conceived as a more experimental film, Chan seemed to play against expectation whenever possible. Assisted by fellow Chinese American filmmakers Curtis Choy (sound) and Michael Chin (cinematography), Wang shot Chan in such a way that many of the dialogue lines and camera shots are hard to hear, see, or comprehend: a loud stereo makes a conversation nearly unintelligible, while the reflecting light off a windshield obscures a driver’s face. Also, for a film that deliberately riffs on the mystery/detective genre, Chan just as intentionally eschews a conventional narrative resolution by—spoiler alert—denying its audience any explanation as to the whereabouts of its title character. Later Asian American films may have been more polished in their production, more star-studded in their casting, but few—if any—have ever rivaled Chan’s creative eccentricities and artistic ambitions, or the simple joy of rewatching it, again and again, even four decades later.

A promotional image from Chan Is Missing’s original release.

Much of the latter is owed to the richness of the small but dense world of the San Francisco Chinatown of the late seventies that Chan portrays. Some characters feel true to life, such as George (played by George Woo), a language teacher who enjoys telling a story about apple pie as a metaphor for assimilation. Others feel more deliberately crafted, from the lawyer (Judi Nihei), whose use of legalese comically flummoxes Jo and Steve, to Henry (Peter Wang), a restaurant cook who works the wok while warbling some Sinatra. All these characters feel deeply grounded in a highly specific and personal set of experiences and encounters.

Moreover, for all its exposition about the differences between mainland-Chinese and Taiwanese political allegiances or the challenges facing immigrants attempting to assimilate into American life, there is little about Chan that ever feels forced, let alone didactic. It may be that, by virtue of being “first,” Chan wasn’t constrained by the expectations of an Asian American community invested in a contentious politics of cultural representation. Or it may be that Wang, who immigrated to the United States as an adult, possessed a different perspective on identity than his Asian American–born-and-raised contemporaries. Whatever the reason, one of Chan’s greatest qualities is how thoroughly it is imbued with both an ethnographer’s curiosity and an insider’s knowledge of the Chinatown community.

Peter Wang as a Sinatra-loving cook in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The success of Chan Is Missing helped launch one of the most intriguing filmmaking careers of the past forty years. In the 1980s, Wang continued to explore aspects of Chinese American community life via what he now calls his “Chinatown Chronicles,” which comprise, along with Chan itself, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989). In the nineties, he began to toggle between mainstream studio films—The Joy Luck Club, Maid in Manhattan (2002)and eclectic, independent features, including Blue in the Face (1995) and The Center of the World (2001). Other American independent filmmakers, such as Steven Soderberg and Spike Lee, followed similar patterns in their own careers, yet Wang has rarely received the same levels of recognition. As part of an effort to rectify that, Strand Releasing and Criterion teamed up this year to produce a fortieth-anniversary Blu-ray edition of Chan Is Missing along with the other two films in his “Chinatown Chronicles.”

Oliver Wang: Wayne, you came of age in Hong Kong as a teenager in the sixties. How much of a film fan were you back then?

Wayne Wang: Growing up, my dad loved movies, and he took us to all kinds of movies, almost every week. I remember sitting in a theater with the lights dimming and going into darkness, almost like a dream, and I’ve always looked forward to that.

Oliver Wang: Had you contemplated going into the arts back then?

Wayne Wang: I had the interest, but I wasn’t encouraged to go in that direction. My father wanted me to be a doctor, but then, in 1967, there was a big riot in Hong Kong. 1 The trade unions organized a strike initially around the transportation industry, and then slowly, it became very political. My parents felt it wasn’t going to be safe. My brother was already in California, so they sent me to join him in Los Altos [in the Bay Area], where I went to Foothill College.

Oliver Wang: It feels ironic that your parents wanted you to avoid the political turmoil in Hong Kong and yet you arrived in the United States during an era defined by protests, assassinations, and general unrest. In particular, this was also the time of the Third World college strikes at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, which helped birth the Asian American Movement. Were you involved in any of this?

Wayne Wang: When I came over to Los Altos, I lived with a Quaker family and they were really antiwar. They harbored a lot of conscientious objectors, and I remember there were secret meetings with Joan Baez and David Harris and the Black Panthers that I sat in on. I learned a lot. My parents were very strict Chinese American Baptists and very conservative in their politics. Coming [from that] to a Quaker family in California in the late sixties was pretty amazing.

I wasn’t directly involved at the time [in the Third World strikes], but later I was working in Chinatown and many of my coworkers were coming out of that movement. We were all teaching English to new immigrants and educating them in more-leftist thinking. Looking back, it was kind of naive of us. There were heavy-duty arguments between the students and us. The students were mostly refugees from the Cultural Revolution who swam to Hong Kong to save themselves or find a better world. And they knew so much more about all these things that we were talking about and were much more realistic about it.

Oliver Wang: After Foothill, you ended up transferring to what was then known as the California College of Arts and Crafts [CCAC]. 2 That seems an unorthodox choice for someone who was supposed to be on a pre-med track.

Wayne Wang: Well, at Foothill I was taking a lot of biology and general education classes. Then I took an art history class, and from there, I started taking some painting classes. I had a really, really influential teacher: Gordon Holler. 3 He inspired me to go into the arts, and I decided to be an art major and applied to CCAC to be a painter. My father got upset and stopped sending my school fees.

Wayne Wang in 1982. Courtesy of Nancy Wong.

Oliver Wang: How did you get from painting into filmmaking?

Wayne Wang: I love watching films, and when I started at CCAC, UC Berkeley had just started the Pacific Film Archive [PFA]. They did a lot of retrospectives: Ozu, Godard, the German new wave, and whatnot. I literally went three or four nights out of the week. At the same time, I started taking film history classes at CCAC and I became more and more absorbed in film. Just as I was getting into graduate school, CCAC started the film department.

Oliver Wang: I assume that most of the films that you watched as a child growing up in Hong Kong before its own new wave movement took off were mainstream fare, either produced locally or distributed internationally from Hollywood. In comparison, what the PFA was screening was far more avant-garde or, at the very least, less commercial. How did you process this difference in style and intent between the films of your youth and what you began watching in your twenties?

Wayne Wang: I was brought up on Hollywood films. That’s all I knew in Hong Kong. When I went to the PFA, things really were different. I remember seeing Sweet Movie [1974] by Dušan Makavejev, and it was out there: not only experimental, it was very psychological and verging on what people called “sick.” All those films were interesting to me because I was seeing something new, I was learning something new, especially from somebody like a Godard who was preaching a different kind of film language from Hollywood.

Oliver Wang: One of the things that stands out about your filmography is how you seem to alternate between studio movies and more art-house or experimental projects. I see a parallel between that and how you were exposed to both mainstream and art films in your formative years. Am I forcing too much of a connection?

Wayne Wang: No, but I think there’s also another way to look at it. I grew up in a very strict Chinese family in a city that was a British colony, very much influenced by British culture. I grew up with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Norman Wisdom. Then I was educated by Irish Jesuits and my parents were American Baptists. If you think of that mix, I’m pretty comfortable with moving between different cultures, different kinds of films.

Oliver Wang: When you returned to the Bay Area from Hong Kong in 1974, you began forging ties with the local Asian American filmmaking community, especially people like documentarians Loni Ding and Felicia Lowe, who were doing important work on Asian American history for public television, as well as two people who became part of your crew on Chan: sound mixer Curtis Choy and cinematographer Michael Chin. 4 All of these folks have been important contributors to the Asian American documentary tradition, and there were certainly parts of Chan that I thought were in dialogue with that tradition, however directly or indirectly. Did their work have any influence on yours?

Wayne Wang: They were very involved with what I would call “politicizing content,” like doing films about Angel Island. 5 I respected what they did and think it was very important to tell our history. But these were not my priorities. I was probably more influenced by the French new wave who took their cameras out into the streets, away from the studio, away from sets. CCAC also had a big influence on that. As a guest lecturer, Stan Brakhage came along, and I remember one of the films he made [The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, 1971] was basically shot inside a morgue. It showed people cutting up a body, over and over again, getting closer and closer. It was a very powerful film, both as a film and as a way of looking at a different language to communicate with.

Oliver Wang: Chan feels indebted to those influences, but I know it also drew on the experiences you had working in Chinatown. How did you end up at the Language Center?

Wayne Wang: I did some work for Loni and Felicia, but not enough to keep me going. Because of the trilingual capability [Cantonese, Mandarin, and English] that I had, and because there was a lot of money to train and educate new immigrants, I got a job with the Language Center, teaching English, helping new immigrants adjust to America—things that I knew very well. By that time, I was more educated about Asian Americanism and the politics of it. And I was interested in communicating with the new immigrants coming in. A lot of the younger teachers and people working in job placement also had the same intention. As I was working, on the job, I met a lot of people in Chinatown. I wrote notes to myself and even started writing a script. Those were all part of the process of making Chan Is Missing.

Oliver Wang: After college, I went to work for a similar job-training center in both downtown Oakland and the Tenderloin in San Francisco. This was twenty years after your time, but when I saw Chan Is Missing, I thought your characters resonated with my own experiences within similar immigrant communities.

Wayne Wang: A lot came out of working in Chinatown, meeting people, and understanding what Chinatown is and the complexity of the people that lived and work there. For example, George Woo was teaching at San Francisco State and came around to the Language Center to give talks once in a while. We would go out to lunch at Sun Wah Kue, a Chinese restaurant serving Western food. That’s where the whole apple pie conversation came up. Other scenes came out of real events or people that I met. The guy who was on the phone as an insurance agent was my insurance guy. Every time I took a cab in those days, it was so interesting, and the cabbies knew the city really well. I was fascinated by that.

Oliver Wang: When I first saw Chan Is Missing, it felt so brilliantly put together that I was surprised to learn that the final version we saw was significantly different from the film you intended to make, which was even more radically experimental in form. Can you explain?

Wood Moy as the cab driver Jo in Chan Is Missing.

Wayne Wang: I got involved with understanding the evolution of the Chinese written word and how it influenced Sergei Eisenstein to create what he called “montage.” 6 Originally, the [written] character for a knife would literally be an image of a knife. That’s the first stage. The second stage was “pointing to the situation.” So if you want to talk about the edge of the knife, you can’t just draw the edge; it wouldn’t make sense. But if you drew the knife and then you put an indication on its edge, that’s pointing to the situation. The third stage was the “meeting of ideas,” which is putting two images together. In modern Chinese, combining the edge of the knife with the image of a heart means “patience.”

That’s where Eisenstein took off into his montage theory. If you put two images together, they form a new meaning. Then the fourth stage was the relationship between image and sound: one part of the Chinese character was based on the sound and the other part was based on the image. It’s a simple, parallel story of the evolution of filmmaking.

Oliver Wang: This is fascinating. I actually teach my sociology students about that evolution in the Chinese written language as a way of demonstrating the importance of symbolism in human communication. As you point out, understanding written Chinese means having to comprehend the representational relationship formed between different characters. But what does this have to do with your original vision for Chan?

Wayne Wang: It was actually shot with that “evolution of the Chinese written word” in mind, except I wasn’t good enough to make it all work. Or I didn’t think it out carefully enough.

Let’s go back to the concept of the image of a knife. In this case, I chose the image of a gun. So, in the beginning, there were only images of things. There are still remnants of that in the film: pictures of people, pictures of newspaper articles, cut-out pictures of empty rooms.

The first part of the film would be all that [only images], with no sound. For the second part, pointing to the situation, I would take these different images and maybe started putting them together so that they start meaning something a little different. It’s the picture of a gun contrasted with a picture of an old man in the newspaper, implying that he probably used that gun to kill his neighbor—things like that. There were moving shots or zooming in to some of the objects. And there were new situations and objects that I was pushing into it, and then indicating something within that shot—a lot of movement, with the camera going from something that was more complex to something that was more specific. That was pointing to the situation.

And then thirdly was the meeting of ideas, putting the images together more. But still, all of this has no sound. So in the fourth stage, sound came in and it became more of a normal movie. In the beginning, it was incidental sound from the scenes, not much dialogue. There was music and then slowly, dialogue and narration came in.

Oliver Wang: I am trying to imagine what that version of Chan would have looked like. It feels radically different from the film you ended up making. What happened to that original vision?

Wayne Wang: It was conceived like that, I shot it like that, I took it into the editing room, and I couldn’t make it work. I could put together a half-hour film. But I wanted to make a feature, and it just didn’t hang together for a feature. I showed it around to Michael [Chin] and Curtis [Choy] and other people. We talked about it as I was cutting it. I was also cutting the film at night in a place that was making pornographic films at the time. The owner of the place, Chris—I don’t remember his last name—was a classic sixties liberal who came out of Cine Manifest, a filmmaking collective that was quite political. He was also making porn films to make money. He was very smart; he helped me a lot.

Oliver Wang: That feels like such a “San Francisco in the seventies” encounter. How did he help you?

Wayne Wang: I would often show him different cuts of my film, and he could tell me what he thought: “Do you need this?” or “Do you need that?” or “You might want to try this.”

Oliver Wang: Around this same time, one of your side jobs was helping to develop the science curriculum at SF State, and you once said that your immersion in thinking about pedagogy influenced some of the ideas that you worked into Chan Is Missing.

Wayne Wang: Amazing that you found out about that! Even I forgot about it. I mentioned George Woo earlier. George got funding to start developing science material focusing on Asian culture for junior high school kids. We were working with the Lawrence Hall of Science, and I was very much influenced by their thinking. The teachers never gave the kids any answers. They would present a problem to the students, and then they would have them do activities where they would arrive at the answer. It was very smart and ahead of its time.

That whole mentality influenced me. It was consistent with what Godard was saying. Why should we spoon-feed an audience? Why should we make it so obvious for an audience? Why not show them something and lead them through an activity, so to speak, and then they would find their own answer? And that’s really what Chan Is Missing became in the editing room. You never found Chan; we never gave you answers.

There was actually a scene I shot where they found Chan and he gave them answers to what happened to him and things like that—but the science materials changed my attitude. I decided that maybe we shouldn’t find Chan. That’s when Chan Is Missing became what it is.

Oliver Wang: So was there a moment during the editing process where you felt “Aha, this is what Chan should be”?

Wayne Wang: It took a long time to edit: two years. I don’t know if I had a moment where I said, “This works.” I was running out of steam, basically. I got to a point where I felt there wasn’t anything more I could do, so I just stopped, because otherwise, I’d keep sinking money into it, which I didn’t have.

Oliver Wang: That reminds me of the old writer’s adage: one doesn’t reach an end to a piece of writing, you just reach deadlines you can’t extend. Speaking of writers, there are three credited for the screenplay: you, Isaac Cronin, and Terrel Seltzer, whom you were married to at the time. 7 How did the three of you cowrite the film?

Word and image in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Wayne Wang: Terrel met Isaac, who I think was in at Berkeley at the time, and he was a really smart film guy and a writer, too. He actually wrote a lot of cookbooks, including one about cooking squid [The International Squid Cookbook, 1981]. Anyway, they helped me think through some of the stuff structurally. And there was narration that he and Terrel helped with.

Oliver Wang: Your use of narration in the film is substantial. Some of it is expository, some of it feels like riffing on the tradition of voice-over in film noir. Did you intend to use so much narration at the beginning?

Wayne Wang: I kept cutting the film, I started putting some narration in, and that started to make things hang together. I realized I needed more. Then Isaac, Terrel, and I started sitting down and writing the rest of the narration. They never wrote any dialogue, though.

Oliver Wang: How much of that dialogue had you already scripted?

Wayne Wang: I would say maybe 30 percent of the dialogue was written as I was taking notes and meeting people. For example, Peter Wang [who played the cook, Henry] knew all these students who came over and worked in restaurants, and he was always telling stories about some cooks he’d work with, and I would write down some of those things. 8

Oliver Wang: Was any of it improvised? It really has that feeling.

Film noir visuals in Chan Is Missing.

Wayne Wang: During filming, I gave Peter a structure and some ideas, and he went off from there. Marc Hayashi and Wood Moy actually improvised quite a bit of their dialogue. I saw them as actors in the Asian American Theater Company in those days. They were both so accomplished, and we talked about their characters, who they were, and what they might say.

Oliver Wang: I can imagine how great a resource the Asian American Theater Company must have been for you back then. What was the casting process like? Did you already have Wood and Marc in mind to play Jo and Steve?

Wayne Wang: Wood, I saw a few of his plays and I liked him; there was something that was really right for that character, so I cast him in my mind already. Marc, we may have done an improv on the whole Richard Pryor scene [in the film], and that was what sold me on him.

Oliver Wang: The scene reminded me of some of the comedy albums by Bob Matsueda, a Japanese American stand-up in the Bay Area from the early eighties. He would do these bits about race and identity that clearly felt influenced by Pryor. I think people forget that Pryor was already legendary in the comedy community before he became a movie star later in the eighties.

Wayne Wang: I wanted to share the idea that the Black and Chinese communities were intermingling and dealing with each other, cross-culturally, communicating that way.

Oliver Wang: Marc and Wood had to have good chemistry for their characters to work in the film. Did they already have that going in, or was it developed during production?

Casting chemistry between Marc Hayashi (Steve) and Wood Moy (Jo).

Wayne Wang: I would say a little of both. I think once they got into their characters, it became easy for them to rag on each other. Wood was always saying to Marc, even in real life, “You don’t know anything, man”—that sort of attitude. And Marc was pretty aggressive and self-assured about himself and felt that Wood didn’t understand him. So those [dynamics] were built into the characters naturally. I’ve always believed that if you cast the right person, your job is 80 percent done. The rest of it is more polishing than anything else, and trying to bring out the conflicts and the differences more.

Oliver Wang: I wanted to ask about your use of language in the film because, like yourself, it’s trilingual: Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. When I first saw Chan Is Missing in the nineties, on a VHS tape, there was a scene toward the end where Jo is talking with an acquaintance who speaks in Cantonese—but it plays without any subtitles. For a non–Cantonese speaker, it’s nearly impossible to know what’s going on. I assumed that was a deliberate choice on your part, perhaps to put the audience into the shoes of an immigrant who doesn’t have a working knowledge of English. However, I noticed that in the DVD versions, including the new Strand/Criterion restoration, that scene now has subtitles. Why the switch?

Wayne Wang: I didn’t care whether people understood the specifics of what they were saying; I just wanted them to hear the music of the language. I consciously did not subtitle it. I had a big fight with New Yorker Films, who was distributing the film, about it. I finally was able to get my way. But over the years, I got bored with that idea and I felt that there were some interesting things that they were saying. When I made my own DVD and Blu-ray, I started subtitling the scene. The version that has no subtitles still exists. Maybe we can release both.

Oliver Wang: I like what you’re saying about the musicality of the language. There’s so much music in the film, too. You open with Sam Hui’s Cantorock version of “Rock around the Clock” and end with “Grant Avenue,” from the soundtrack of Flower Drum Song. And my favorite musical scene is when Jo and Steve visit the Manilatown Senior Center and it’s the Los Lobos cover of the classic bolero “Sabor a Mí” that’s playing. What motivated your musical choices and placements?

Wayne Wang: It came from the idea of hearing these songs as you walk through Chinatown. In those days, Sam Hui was playing everywhere. Latino or Filipino songs were always in the air, too, because I was hanging out with some of the people who volunteered and worked at the Senior Center. We played “Sabor a Mí” a lot and then we danced to it.

“Grant Avenue” was more tongue-in-cheek, because Flower Drum Song is such a big influence for me, whether good or bad or whatever. That song really represented an American interpretation of Chinatown. I never thought I could clear the rights to it, but at the time there was a Chinese American woman in charge of the copyright for that song and she loved the film, loved the idea, and I was able to get it.

Oliver Wang: How much did you and Michael Chin discuss how you wanted the film to look?

Wayne Wang: We may have looked at some examples of film noir, but we never storyboarded anything, never got too much into specifics. Oftentimes, even locations were last-minute. A lot happened on the set. We would play out the scene and Michael would show me what he would frame, and then we would talk about it and work from there.

Oliver Wang: I was wondering about one of the shots near the end: it is just rippling water. As a viewer, there’s something very mesmerizing about it, but it’s also symbolically meaningful: water is fluid, ever-changing, just like people’s identities can be. How did you two come up with that shot?

Wayne Wang: When we were filming the scene at Ghirardelli Square between Marc and Wood, arguing by the pier, it took so long because their improvisation was really hard to do. I was looking at the water and Michael was looking for something to shoot. We said, “Let’s just shoot water here, it’s so abstract.” I didn’t know how to use it until I was editing the film. I kept looking at it and thought “This could work,” because you can’t tell what’s right side up or what’s right or wrong, like the film. It’s almost like looking into the puddle.

Oliver Wang: You made a film about Chinatown and its Chinese community, but in 2022 Chinatowns have become very different neighborhoods. The suburbanization of the Chinese American community has shifted things geographically. If you were to make Chan Is Missing today, I would expect it to be set in the Richmond District in San Francisco or the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles or in Flushing, Queens, because that’s where the bulk of the Chinese American community live and work now.

Wayne Wang: Yeah, I think Chan Is Missing couldn’t exist today in San Francisco Chinatown. Maybe New York Chinatown: there are aspects of it where you can still find that diasporic quality. But you are absolutely right about the San Gabriel Valley and Flushing. Those are the places where I would go [today] to explore and try to find the so-called New Chinatown and a new Chinese American community. The last time I was in the San Gabriel Valley, the mix between the older Chinese, the young, this new generation of Chinese Americans, and then the immigrants from China, all trying to survive together, was quite interesting.

Oliver Wang: In 1990, you gave an interview to Janice Sakamoto that was published in the anthology Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts. Janice asked if you felt there was a growing recognition by Hollywood of Asian American films. Your reply then was “The industry doesn’t give a fuck.” Thirty-two years later, do you still think that?

Wayne Wang: Well, it has gotten better in the sense that there are there are a lot of younger, aggressive Asian Americans that are working in the industry as executives. But in another sense, the industry still doesn’t give a fuck unless you start making money. Until Crazy Rich Asians [Jon M. Chu, 2018] came along and made a shitload of money, no studio executives thought of making Chinese American or Asian American films. Until Parasite [Bong Joon-ho, 2019] won the Oscar, they weren’t interested in Korean films. I think there’s going to be more Chinese American or Asian American films being made with more money. But the question is, What is going to come out of these films?

I think back on Crazy Rich Asians. What I liked about the book was that it opened up to so many different kinds of Asian and Asian American characters, and it was very authentic with its humor. When I read the script, I thought those were missing. I actually knew the people doing the film because I was developing another script with them. That’s why I called them up and said, “You have this project, Crazy Rich Asians, and I read the script and I’d love to talk to you guys about it.” By the time I talked to them, they were very polite and nice, but that was about it. I had a feeling they had already picked Jon Chu.

Jo (Wood Moy) standing in front of a Chinatown movie theater.

Oliver Wang: I was talking about you with [Film Quarterly editor] B. Ruby Rich, and she pointed out that you have this remarkable filmography that includes creatively significant films of a more experimental nature alongside successful studio films, yet your name is rarely included in the canon of important American independent filmmakers—unlike, say, Steven Soderbergh or David Lynch. Do you think of yourself as being overlooked within those conversations?

Wayne Wang: I agree with her. I don’t understand why that happened—mostly because Chan Is Missing came out before the Spike Lee films, before the Jim Jarmusch films. I’m not angry about it, I don’t really give a fuck. But maybe it comes from an inherent racism—that I don’t “count” because I’m Chinese. I don’t know.

Oliver Wang: With Chan, you are riffing on cinematic traditions like film noir and cinema verité, but the one tradition that you couldn’t really “respond” to was Asian American feature filmmaking—because before Chan, there wasn’t any! How intentional were you in wanting to create something that hadn’t been seen before?

Wayne Wang: I was very conscious of the fact that we come from a history of racist stereotypes of the Chinese, from Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan to Suzie Wong. The characters in Chan were intended to create a complexity out of all the different characters that exist in Chinatown, and not only complexity, but trying to get at something authentic about these people. All the way down through the years, including Crazy Rich Asians, we still don’t really have a palette of authentic, calm, complex Asian American characters on-screen, right? We’re still struggling to deal with that.

Oliver Wang: This calls to mind the concepts of narrative plentitude and scarcity that novelist and scholar Viet Nguyen came up in his 2016 book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. By “narrative plentitude,” he was referring to how “dominant Americans” enjoy a “surfeit of stories” about themselves, in all their complexity. In contrast, the problem facing Asian Americans is “narrative scarcity.” The issue isn’t just that there are too few positive depictions, or too many negative ones, but that there’s just too few depictions, period, and that, in turn, raises the stakes on the few films that actually do come out.

Wayne Wang: That absolutely rings true to me: plentitude is lacking. If we could make ten different films a year about different Asian American characters, that would really challenge people’s perception of us. They don’t have to be expensive. I just wish there were different investors that would invest in these young talents who could tell a different kind of story.

Actually, there is a novel by Charlie Yu called Interior Chinatown. When I read it, I felt that it was a little bit like Chan Is Missing. It’s about cops, it’s about a Chinese American actor playing different, nonstereotypical roles. There’s a story within a story. So that’s come closest to breaking the rules.

Oliver Wang: I just read that Hulu is developing it into a series.

Wayne Wang: I hope they don’t ruin it, which is not hard to do. (Laughs)

Oliver Wang: Maybe they should hire you to direct it then.

Note: The author’s interview with Wayne Wang was conducted through a series of phone calls in the summer of 2021, preceding the rerelease of Chan Is Missing. It was edited for clarity and length.


  1. The Hong Kong riots of 1967 took place against the larger backdrop of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China. Smaller labor disputes in Hong Kong led the unions with ties to the Chinese Communist Party to begin agitating for larger social reforms, including an end to British colonial rule. Those initial strikes turned into more violent clashes, with both protesters and police officers being killed over the course of the summer.
  2. It has since changed its name to the California College of the Arts (CCA).
  3. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Holler became a noted artist in his own right, primarily in figure drawing and painting.
  4. The late Loni Ding was a longtime professor at UC Berkeley who spent most of her career creating series for PBS that focused on community histories, including Bean Sprouts (1980), The Color of Honor: The Japanese American Soldier in WWII (1987), Ancestors in the Americas: Coolies, Sailors, Settlers (1996), and Ancestors in the Americas, Part II (1998). Felicia Lowe was involved in similar documentaries, including China: Land of My Father (1979) and Chinatown: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco (1996). Though Curtis Choy has worked primarily in sound recording and mixing, he is also a lauded documentarian, especially known for The Fall of the I-Hotel (1983). Michael Chin has had a prolific career as a director of photography for documentaries, including Eyes on the Prize (1990) and Simple As Water (2021).
  5. See Ding’s Island of Secret Memories: Angel Island Immigration Station (1988) and Lowe’s Carved in Silence (1988).
  6. In “The Cinematic Principle and the Ideogram” (1929), included in the collection Film Form: Essays in Film Theory and the Film Sense (ed. Sergei Eisenstein and Jay Leyda), Eisenstein wrote that the montage shares key ideas with “Japanese representational culture,” which he in turn traces back to the evolution of the Chinese written language, beginning in the eighth century BCE. Then, characters were what Eisenstein called “hieroglyphs”—i.e., literal pictographs that depicted the object they represented. The key evolution came when those hieroglyphs began to be placed in relation to one another and “their combination correspond[ed] to a concept”—i.e., an ideogram. And it is the ideogram that Eisenstein sees as parallel to cinematic montage: “combining shots that are depictive, single in meaning, neutral in content—into intellectual contexts and series.”
  7. Terrel Seltzer also helped write Wang’s Dim Sum and worked on the screenplays for One Fine Day (Michael Hoffman, 1996) and The Rendezvous (Amin Matalqa, 2016).
  8. Peter Wang also directed another important Asian American film of that era, A Great Wall (1986), which told the story of a Chinese American family traveling to Beijing to be reunited with relatives they hadn’t seen in decades. It was the first American production allowed to film in communist China.

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