When Janet Yang first read The Joy Luck Club, it was not yet the seminal work of Asian-American literature it’s regarded as today. But after poring over a partially completed manuscript of Amy Tan’s debut novel in 1988 — then only three chapters — the Hollywood producer was forever changed. “I remember reading it and crying and thinking, Oh my god,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Like many Chinese-Americans, Yang lived what she called a “bifurcated” life. “If you’re growing up watching I Dream of Jeannie or Mod Squad or whatever, you never see your life on television, you never see your life in movies, and you start to inhabit this kind of feeling that [your identity] is not allowed,” Yang said over lunch in May 2016. “Nothing that I encountered in school, nothing that I encountered in my work life ever reflected back to me that life that I led.”
Janet Yang in 2002.
BEI / Shutterstock
But then Yang read The Joy Luck Club, an intricate and poignant story about the cultural divide between four Chinese-American daughters and their immigrant mothers. Moved by Tan’s portrayal of women who shared her struggle, the then-budding producer met with the author soon afterward, in March 1988, determined to bring the book to the big screen. “I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen in my life, per se. I didn’t really know how to navigate the industry very well … I just knew that I really wanted to do The Joy Luck Club.”
But she knew it would be a hard sell. In the late ’80s and decades prior, the very identity “Asian-American” was largely unheard of in mainstream America. In the rare moments when Hollywood showed Asian faces onscreen, the characters were more often written as demeaning stereotypes and relegated to bit or supporting characters, secondary to their white counterparts — roles like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or the characters that pioneering Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong was afforded throughout her career. So to pitch Hollywood a film that centers not just on women but on Asian-American women? And one that portrays them as complex human beings with turbulent interior lives, at that? It was a bold ask.
That’s why for an entire year, nearly everyone in the industry passed on adapting The Joy Luck Club. Even after Tan’s debut novel became a best-seller, moving 275,000 copies upon its first publication, studio executives argued that no one would want to see a movie about Chinese-American women, especially since no stars were attached to it.
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In other words, The Joy Luck Club was a movie that might never have been made. Yet, against all odds, it was not only produced, but also went on to rake in $33 million at the box office after it was released in 1993 — a significant profit for that time, considering that it was only screened in about 600 theaters across the country (compare that figure to Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, which played in 1,600 some theaters later that year and earned $36 million at the box office).
Although the film is somewhat divisive among Asian-Americans, The Joy Luck Club proved that a movie with a majority Asian-American cast could sell tickets, and that one about the struggles of Chinese women could transcend racial boundaries. Yet in the two decades since its release, there has been no other film like The Joy Luck Club, though Tan and Ellen DeGeneres are developing a television series based on the novel.
While Asian actors continue to be largely excluded from mainstream narratives — brushed aside and told that “non-white stars aren’t bankable” — The Joy Luck Club remains the only Hollywood film to have accomplished what most studios are still afraid to try today. Of course, making The Joy Luck Club during a time when Hollywood was even less inclusive than it is now was a daunting task. This is the story of how Asian-Americans pulled off a movie those in the industry never thought possible and proved Hollywood wrong.
Brought up on her mothers' dreams of becoming a doctor and prodigy pianist, Amy Tan never thought she’d sell a book, let alone make a movie based on it. Tan had spent most of her professional life churning out copy as a freelancer, writing fiction in her spare time. It wasn’t until 1987, when her mother was hospitalized for chest pains, that Tan set out to write a book: “I decided that if my mother was okay, I’d get to know her, I’d take her to China, and I’d write a book,” she told People in 1989. Tan, who was then in her late thirties, stuck to her word, completing a collection of stories inspired by the ones her mother told about her life in China. Much to her surprise, The Joy Luck Club turned out to be an instant hit, landing on the New York Times best-seller list in April 1989, and ultimately peaking at the No. 1 spot.
By then, a handful of Hollywood producers had already met with Tan to discuss optioning the novel for film adaptation, but Tan refused every offer. “I had this little worry running through my head: What if the movie was made and it was a terrible depiction of Asian-Americans? What if the movie showed women wearing coolie hats and tight dresses slit up their thighs?” she told the LA Times in 1993.
Author Amy Tan (left) with actor Annette Bening and director Wayne Wang, after a screening of The Joy Luck Club in Los Angeles, 1993.
Tweed / AP / REX / Shutterstock
Enter Wayne Wang, the man behind the indie film Chan Is Missing, a mystery about two Chinese-American cab drivers running amok in San Francisco in search of a man who owes them money. Made on a tiny $22,000 budget, the 1982 dramedy brilliantly depicted the multifaceted, often contradictory nature of the Chinese-American identity; it’s still regarded today as “the pinnacle of Asian-American filmmaking,” and it helped Wang establish a name for himself.
Wang read and “fell in love with” The Joy Luck Club, and had tea with Tan shortly thereafter, in August 1989, to discuss the book and their shared struggle as Asian-American creatives. Their conversation eased Tan’s trepidation about the prospect of making a movie and helped convince her that Wang should be the person to direct the film adaptation of her book — should that come to fruition.
“At that time, there were still almost no Chinese-American stories being told, and I really believed that stories about Chinese-Americans should be onscreen.”
“At that time, there were still almost no Chinese-American stories being told, and I really believed that stories about Chinese-Americans should be onscreen,” Wang told BuzzFeed News in February. “Although I’m not a woman — and I don’t know some of those stories personally — they just read very authentic because they came from Amy’s mother.” A universal theme in the book also struck a chord with him: “The whole thing about finding your worth was something I could identify with, especially as a Chinese-American during that time.” By then the director had helmed a handful of films, including the critically acclaimed Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989), so he knew better than most how draining it can be to constantly have to remind the world that such stories were worth telling.
“If you look at all the films I made before then, other than Slam Dance, they were all Chinese-American films, and I really believed in carrying that torch. But it was getting to me because it was so hard,” Wang said. He’d learn that The Joy Luck Club was no different. Even in January 1990, after Tan and Wang linked up with Ron Bass, the seasoned screenwriter behind Rain Man, the task still seemed utterly impossible at times.
Bass, a lawyer turned screenwriter, discovered The Joy Luck Club through his former colleague Barry Hirsch, currently one of Hollywood’s most powerful attorneys today, who represented Tan back in the day. Hirsch, who knew that Tan and Wang were looking for someone to write the movie, set up the first meeting between the three in Los Angeles.
Ron Bass at a screening of The Joy Luck Club, 1993.
Ron Galella / WireImage
Upon meeting Bass, Tan immediately brought up one major challenge in adapting her convoluted novel: How does one adapt 16 chapters of a book about three generations of Chinese women into a concise yet compelling narrative for the big screen? The first chapter alone, for instance, begins with Jing-mei “June” Woo, who has reluctantly taken over the seat of her recently deceased mother, Suyuan, at the mahjong table; the narrative then plunges into a flashback recounting Suyuan’s harrowing exodus from Kweilin during wartime, before returning to the present day, where June contends with her mother’s death. These are gripping stories about complex lives which Tan painstakingly details, a process she somehow manages to repeat in every subsequent chapter.
“Wayne and I mentioned the problem of so many stories, so many characters, how everyone thought it impossible to make a coherent movie out of the whole book,” Tan explained.
But Bass had a plan. “The first thing [Tan] said to me was, ‘How many of my characters do you want to throw out?’” Bass recalled, his eyes twinkling as he sat outside of a Beverly Hills hotel in March. “I said, ‘None,’ and she was stunned. Everyone else had told her if you’re going to make a movie, you can’t have eight people as stars.”
The screenwriter, however, saw it differently. “That’s the whole point of it: You have all these people, and their stories interlock … It makes a tapestry of all human nature.” Together, Bass and Tan pored over and annotated her book, the former guiding the latter: “I said, ‘We are going to figure out what is the core emotional transaction that's going on in [each] moment.’”
With eight main characters and multiple time periods, The Joy Luck Club posed a challenge to screenwriters Amy Tan and Ron Bass.
Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
But even with the “two-billion-dollar man” enlisted to help write the screenplay, no studio wanted the adaptation. “We could not get a deal from anyone,” Wang said. That’s why the pair ultimately wrote the script on speculation. “That was kind of depressing … The characters are so great, the stories are so powerful, [yet] nobody wanted to make the movie because it was about Chinese-Americans.”
Eventually Yang, the producer who’d been in touch with Tan, stepped in. She’d recently established a production company, Ixtlan, with filmmaker Oliver Stone, the renowned director behind Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK.
“Oliver looked at [the script] and said, ‘I don’t have time to work on it, but I’ll be glad to put my name on it as an executive producer if that will help you,’” Bass remembered. “We all said, ‘Oh, it ain’t gonna hurt.’” (A spokesperson for Stone told BuzzFeed News, “He’s very proud of the film and glad they got it made. It was a hard one, and one of the few in the American-Asian genre.")
“That’s the whole point of it: You have all these people, and their stories interlock … It makes a tapestry of all human nature.”
In the end, every studio they talked to turned them down — except one. Hollywood Pictures, a division of the Walt Disney Company, was run then by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the “unsung hero” behind the project, according to Bass. “In those days, he was legendary … Other people think he’s tough to work for; I thought he was fabulous to work for: to the point but very generous and understanding.” (Katzenberg declined to comment for this story.)
As Yang recalled it, “Jeffrey basically bought the project in the room,” agreeing to finance it with $10.5 million. It was a moderate budget, but it was enough to consider the funding secured. The quartet then shifted their focus to finding their massive cast.
“I remember a lot of people, when they read the script, they said to us, ‘This is a wonderful, terrific script, but I don’t think you can cast four mothers and four daughters who are good enough to carry this script,’” Wang said, disbelief still lingering in his voice. (Perhaps even more offensive, some people wondered how Wang expected the audience to be able to tell the Asian actors apart.)
Although casting the film did require months of searching, it was less challenging than their naysayers had anticipated — and it certainly wasn’t impossible.
Heidi Levitt, the casting director of The Joy Luck Club, dug through talent agencies, reached out to Asian-American theater groups in various cities across the country, and set up open casting calls in New York City and San Francisco where anyone in the public could audition for a part.
And a lot of people did go out for parts in Wang’s film. At the open casting call that took place in Flushing, Queens, for example, 2,000 Asian women — many of whom came in pairs of mothers and daughters — showed up to audition.
“I told them, unless you’re an Asian-American who had gone through this type of experience, I really don’t feel an actor ... could really portray that kind of displacement and sense of lacking that an Asian-American often feels.”
From the get-go, Levitt and Wang decided they would cast Asians of any ethnicity, “as long as they didn’t look obviously like they were Japanese or Vietnamese.” Wang set that stipulation — deciding not to limit his cast to solely actors of Chinese descent — because for years, he had observed the dearth of substantial roles for all Asians in Hollywood and wanted to grant them the opportunity to be in his movie.
Wang personally sought actors who could embody the characters from Tan’s novel without leaning into stereotypes, which Wang said actors at the time tended to do. For him, it was important that they were not “overacting” but that they “believed in the part, in the character, and what they were saying.” “Because there are so few roles to begin with — and the roles generally are stereotypes … they tend to kind of overdo it,” Wang said of some of the actors he saw.
Makeup tests photographed during the filming of The Joy Luck Club. Clockwise from top left: Ming-Na Wen (June), Lauren Tom (Lena), Tamlyn Tomita (Waverly), and Rosalind Chao (Rose).
Courtesy of Valli O'Reilly, "The Joy Luck Club" makeup artist
The filmmakers found their June — one of the principal characters, the daughter with the “best quality heart” — in actor Ming-Na Wen. At that time, Wen had recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and had never worked on a film before. “I just felt like, ‘This is my destiny!’” she told BuzzFeed News with a big laugh. During her audition, she opened up about her experience growing up Asian-American in a predominantly white town and how much certain elements of Tan’s novel resonated with her. “I told them, unless you’re an Asian-American who had gone through this type of experience, I really don’t feel an actor who, let’s say, was very secure in their ethnicity of being Chinese could really portray that kind of displacement and sense of lacking that an Asian-American often feels.”
Soon after, Wang cast Lauren Tom as the meek Lena St. Clair, Rosalind Chao as the equally self-sacrificing Rose Hsu Jordan, and Tamlyn Tomita as the snobbish and headstrong chess whiz Waverly Jong.
“You must be very passionate, very patient, and very sacrificing to stay as an Asian actor in Hollywood.”