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Alan Yang: Shining Light on Taiwan and Asian-American Representation in Hollywood

June 5, 2020
Alan Yang. (Photo credit): Asia Society

With the debut of his new film, “Tigertail,” Yang discusses immigration, representation and hope.

Alan Yang 楊維榕 is an American director, producer, actor and screenwriter. Known mostly as a writer and producer for NBC’s Emmy-nominated sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” as well as co-creator for the Netflix series “Master of None,” Yang has been rising quickly through the ranks of Hollywood.

Most recently, Yang directed his first feature film, “Tigertail,” which was inspired by his father. The film follows the life of Pin-Jui, a Taiwanese immigrant in the U.S., and his journey from childhood, to leaving everything behind—including the woman he loved—to start a new life with a woman he hardly knows. Alan Yang was recently interviewed by Emmy-award winning producer Janet Yang through the Asia Society to talk about his film experience, the topic of immigration and his hope for Asian-American representation in Hollywood. “Tigertail” is now streaming on Netflix.

You started your career in the writing room afraid to write about Asian characters, and now you’re able to create a character based on yourself. Tell me what it was like to make that transition.

The times have changed a lot! It was interesting, you know, as far as writing lead Asian male characters because it didn’t even occur to me that it would be possible back then, which sounds crazy to say today, given that in the last few years, and certainly in the movie I just directed, there are many Asians. But it didn’t seem possible. It didn’t seem possible because it had been 25 years since, Janet, your movie “The Joy Luck Club” came out, and it had been years since Margaret Cho’s show, “All American Girl,” came out, and Hollywood just wasn’t making more of these shows and movies. But when we started writing “Master of None,” the lead, Aziz Ansari, was of Asian descent, but was still an American guy. And we wanted the show to be personal and relatable, because we felt like our favorite stuff in comedy originates from real experiences. So, we had the lead character based on Aziz and a character based on me, and by the second episode of the show, we were able to share our personal experiences about our fathers.

What was it like going from being a veteran comedy writer to writing a feature film that wasn’t comedy at all?

A lot of people have asked me that and what it was like going from comedy to drama. Doing press for the movie, a lot of people say things like, “wow it’s so crazy because it’s totally different,” and “they’re different skill sets and different parts of your brain and different parts of the ocean,” and I was like, man, if I knew all this going in, I probably would have just stuck to comedy!

But in all honesty, I just felt like the idea of the story told me what genre the film was going to end up. I turned to works I really love for inspiration, and I think that really helped. If you want to make great comedy, watch comedy and learn from the best, then develop your own voice. I feel like the same thing applied here too.

I certainly watched some Taiwanese American and Taiwanese films, from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Edward Yang. There are so many great directors, and I learned subtle things like how to use quiet moments to tell a story, because our culture’s different from American culture, and I wanted to make something that was uniquely Taiwanese American. I mean, you can watch a beautiful Edward Yang movie, but what if halfway through, the characters in that movie suddenly moved to the Bronx and started speaking English, and then raised their children in America? What would that movie look like? So that was one of my inspiration points for making “Tigertail.”

How difficult was it to approach your father about his immigration story?

This is definitely not something that Asian families are usually comfortable talking about, especially their emotional and personal lives from the past. I didn’t even know how much my parents had been through coming from China until I actively dug and insisted that they tell me more.

For me, the process of unfolding the relationship between myself and my father had been ongoing for years and years. And I have to say, the relationship the movie portrays between Pin-Jui and Angela is a bit more based on the relationship between my father and my sister, who have always been a little more at odds because their personalities are similar and they’re both stubborn. I’m more of a people pleaser, so I always occupied that position in our family of being the diplomat and bringing people together. That being said, it’s not like he was telling us stories and regaling us with tales from his youth, so I first started asking questions as his son, which then later evolved to as a filmmaker, writer and a director.

One of the seminal moments was a trip that we both took together to Taiwan. I happened to have some work there in the food business lined up, and my father was retired, so we were able to meet up there. I’d already started percolating the idea for “Tigertail” and was working on vague ideas of what the story might be, but that trip was really important in terms of getting me to ask him questions because they arose naturally just from being where we were. We took the train, and he showed me around his hometown. He showed me where he worked, and where Grandma lived and was laid to rest. So, all of those locations actually make an appearance in the movie, like the sugar factory that my grandma worked in and the mausoleum where she’s laid to rest. My father essentially helped us by location scouting, and I learned so much more about him and want to continue learning.

In fact, the whole experience from the trip and the film motivated me to learn Mandarin Chinese. I’m terrible, but am getting a tiny bit better, especially because some of our actors didn’t speak English and I don’t speak any Chinese, so we did the best we could. Now, I try to talk to my niece and nephew and am texting my dad in Mandarin.

What was the reaction of your father and other family members and people in Taiwan who saw the film?

I was nervous, man. You make a movie about your father’s life, and you work on it for about four years—I really was nervous when the film went into screening. Obviously, the virus changed everything, but I got a link to the movie, and I sent it to my dad, and he said, “Great, I’ll watch it tonight.” So I waited and waited and didn’t hear anything for 48 hours.

Finally, I texted him to ask what he thought, and he wrote back immediately and said ,“Oh my god, I’ve seen it three times, I love it so much and wanted to watch it 10 more times. I’m so proud of you.” I mean, instead of making me sweat bullets for two days, he could have just said that in the first place! But yeah, to me, his view was the one that mattered most, so the fact that he really loved it and watches it all the time made me feel happy and relieved. Oh, and people may not know this, but he does the voiceover at the beginning and at the end of the movie himself.

The movie is available in Taiwan, and that’s one of the beautiful things about Netflix—they’re able to stream things around the world. I had a call with them a couple of days ago, and they already had all the data about where it’s performing well, big cities in the U.S., Asia and typically Taiwan. And I was like yeah, that makes sense. I was talking to people in Taiwan, and they’re saying there’s just a lot of pride there because this is a larger scale American movie featuring Taiwanese cities and the beautiful countryside, so yeah, I think the response from Taiwan has been great. I’ve also been doing press there, and those have been overwhelmingly positive. I think people are excited that the movie was made and shot on location in Taiwan and is an authentic story.

I’m reminded of the speech you gave at the 2016 Emmys when you picked up your statue and talked about how there was a pantheon of movies about Italian Americans, like “The Godfather,” “Rocky,” and “The Sopranos,” but with Asians, we had Long Duk Dong. And 2016 was really the turning point, because we then had films like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell” and “Parasite” winning the Academy, so a lot has changed since then. Could you tell me what you’re going through personally and professionally with these ups and downs, and how it’s changed your approach to work?

It’s incredible that was only four years ago, and it’s been eye-opening how fast some things have changed. Obviously, not everything has changed, and the real question is, why did it take so long? Why didn’t it happen 10 or 15 years ago? Because clearly the demand is there, and audiences are not averse to seeing Asian American faces on the screen.

It’s been really cool to personally meet some of these filmmakers, from Jon Chu to Lulu Wang, and we can come together, create together, and cast people who are in each other’s films and figure out all of the amazing possibilities that will lead to future films and shows. I’m really excited about all of it. We’ve gotten a lot done, but it’s just the beginning and it’s time to see a take on the mantle for different kinds of roles. For example, we’ve emerged in areas of drama, but what about more comedies? What about horror movies? So yeah, I’m glad that speech was a small moment along the way, but we’ve got a long way to go.

Do you feel at all disillusioned or more fortified by these anti-Asian racist outbursts that we’ve been experiencing because of COVID-19?

Well, it was incredibly disappointing because you think we’ve come pretty far and look back to all the successes in terms of cultural awareness leading up to 2020, and then suddenly, there’s overt racism like it’s the 1940s again. But I’m an optimist, so I do feel like the good outweighs the bad, and we just need to keep creating awareness. It’s just so jarring and crazy to see in this day and age the same stuff that you think died during your grandparents’ or even your parents’ generation. There are stereotypes that we need to overcome that have been perpetuated in this culture over and over again. But it just means you have to keep representing on the screen and educating people that an Asian American face isn’t a foreign, inhuman or an alien face.

Is there anything you can discuss about what’s in store for us from you in the future?

I have a couple of things that are exciting that I wish I could tell you about, including one that has a very Asian American focus. What I can say right now, too, is that we’re doing a second season of “Little America,” which is a show that I produce on Apple TV. It’s an anthology show, and each episode chronicles a different true-life immigrant story. There are definitely more imminent things to come that run the gamut from comedy to drama that I can’t say anything about yet, but look out for them because I’ll be announcing soon. I’m excited, and we’re still working, plugging away and writing. So, there will be stuff on the other side of this pandemic, and we’ll be shooting as soon as things open up.

Click here to watch the full interview with the Asia Society