by Joan Chen
I am on the board of the 1990 Institute, a charitable organization whose mission is to promote a better relationship and greater understanding between the peoples of the United States and China. In October 2014, we launched a new initiative called Youth Voices on China, soliciting short video submissions from students in American middle schools, high schools and colleges to discuss what China means to them, and why understanding China is important to their futures.
Our goal for this national video contest is to encourage students to think more deeply about modern China, a country whose role on the world stage has become increasingly important and yet remains as mysterious to most Americans as ever. Our future global citizens and leaders need to be China-savvy, but disappointingly, we have two major challenges. First, curriculum-wise, the China content in most U.S. high schools ceases at Mao’s death, essentially 1976. China’s rapid rise to a global economic power constitutes one of the great historical events of our time, and it’s not part of today’s standard curriculum. Secondly, our news sources do not present the most balanced viewpoints—today’s media often focuses on the simplistic and sensational angles, so we miss a more nuanced, complex perspective on important issues which might more strongly influence our perception of China.
After 6 months of exhilarating hard work, anxious anticipation, and critical evaluation by over 25 judges from Hollywood to education, banking and venture capital circles, we are finally at the finish line. On March 14th, we will be screening our winners’ videos at the Center for Asian American Media’s prestigious CAAMFest, the largest festival of Asian American movies in North America. We’re looking forward to awarding and recognizing our winning students and the teachers who supported their submissions.
In less than 6 months, we received over 80 films from 19 different states, with a wide range of styles and narratives. There were memorable films from a group of African American students from East Oakland sharing their experience of visiting China for the first time. They spent two weeks discovering China by tasting the cuisine, seeing the sights and engaging with the locals, and realizing that despite the vast geographic distance, they share the same dreams and aspirations.
To me, the key to understanding China is through its history and culture. And these students’ mini-adventure in that faraway land will likely have an indelible impact in their world views as they enter adulthood. I was impressed that these students made genuine contact with a culture and a people that previously they knew very little about.
Another powerfully touching film came from a speaking- and hearing-impaired orphan from Shanghai, sharing his deeply complex and personal feelings about what China meant to him. He was adopted by an American family at the age 14 and learned American sign language quickly. He has recently been accepted by Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He submitted his film in hopes of winning the prize to pay for his tuition. I was moved when I saw his completely silent film as a part of our Youth “Voices” on China—his film spoke volumes.
There were also many well-researched films about China’s growing economic power and political influences. One of them was a film about the phenomenal impact of the Chinese social media, which is less known in the United States.
So, what have we learned thus far? We have learned that our younger generation is definitely interested in knowing more about China. It was a happy surprise for us to discover that so many students are learning Mandarin, given many of their contest entries were co-sponsored by Chinese language teachers. However, we have a long way to go to ensure our next generation of leaders will be as China-savvy as the Chinese are about America. Film is a powerful medium, and I hope our project Youth Voices on China will help promote and accelerate this movement for global fluency.
March 14, 2015; 12 pm. New People Cinema, 1746 Post St, SF. caamfest.com.
Joan Chen, who most recently finished the Netflix original series Marco Polo, is one of the most widely recognized and respected Asian stars in the international film industry. She began her movie career at the age of 14 in Shanghai. Her performances in the films Youth and Little Flower catapulted her to fame in China. Chen garnered the Best Actress Award in China in 1980 when she was 19 for Little Flower. In 1981, Chen left China for the United States to study film at California State University, Northridge, where she graduated with honors. Chen has appeared in more then 50 US and international film and television roles. The most notable were Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning The Last Emperor, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series, and Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth. At the same time, Chen continued to make films for Asian audiences. Her memorable performance in the Chinese language film Red Rose and White Rose won her Best Actress in the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards and the Hong Kong Critics Awards in 1994. In 1997, Chen made her directorial debut with the critically acclaimed Xiu Xiu, The Sent-down Girl (1999). The film has received numerous awards internationally, including 7 Golden Horse Awards. In 2000, Chen was honored by the National Board of Review with the International Freedom of Expression Award for the making of Xiu Xiu. Chen’s second effort behind the camera was MGM’s Autumn In New York (Indiebound) starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder in 2000. Between 2003 and 2006, Chen returned to China to star in the Chinese films Jasmine, Sunflower, and The Sun Also Rises. Chen also played a crucial supporting role in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which won the Golden Lion award in the 2007 Venice Film Festival. The Home Song Stories from Australia premiered in the Berlin Film Festival in 2007. Chen won Best Actress award in the Australian Film Institute Awards, the Inside Film Awards and the Australian Critics Awards in 2007. She also won Best Actress award for the same role in the Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards and in the Torino Film Festival. In the Asian Film Awards 2008, she was honored with a dual nomination, Best Actress for The Home Song Stories and Best Supporting Actress for The Sun Also Rises, the latter of which she won. In the past few years, Chen played various roles in many films, including Oscar nominee Bruce Beresford’s film Mao’s Last Dancer; the Chinese films Love in Disguise, Color Me Love, Passion Island, 1911 Revolution, Double Xposure, and HBO Asia/ABC Australia co-production series Serangoon Road, for which Joan was nominated for Best Actress in Australia.
Joan Chen lives in San Francisco with her husband, Dr. Peter Hui and their daughters, Angela and Audrey. Joan serves on the board of directors of the 1990 Institute, a U.S.-China not-for-profit focused on improving the trust and understanding between the people of the United States and China. For the Institute, she is a co-founder and head of the jury for the $30K “Youth Voices on China” national online video contest, where American students from middle school through college are invited to submit videos on what China means to them and why understanding China is important to their future. For 2015, Joan will be returning to the role of Empress Chabi in the 2nd season of Marco Polo.