© 1996-2013 Asian Media Group Inc
No part of the contents of this site may be reproduced without prior written permission.


Manifest Destiny

GS: One of the big movies you did with Oliver was Heaven & Earth.
JY: In fact I actually never did it. He talked about it as if I was a producer figure on this but I don't even have a credit on the movie. That movie was being made at the same time as Joy Luck Club. He says I helped him and I worked with him. Perhaps he felt I had a spirtual connection to that movie because of Asian content.
Janet Yang
Producer Janet Yang (left) on the set of Joy Luck Club (1993) with author Amy Tan.

GS: Everyone imagined that you had brought in Joan Chen. And possibly because it was partly shot in Vietnam.
JY: The Asian parts were primarily shot in Thailand. I did go to Thailand and I am a friend of Joan Chen. Actually, Joan wanted to option the book. She herself was going to option it with Ron Bass, the co-writer on Joy Luck Club. And they lost out to Oliver. I was not involved in the auctioning phase of it. When Joan wanted to option it, she planned on playing the lead that Hiep [Thi Le] ended up playing. And Joan being as unegotistical as she is, had no problem jumping in and playing the mother.

GS: It's ironic that she ended up playing the mother. What role did you play in making Joy Luck Club?
JY: I was probably one of the very first people in Hollywood to read Joy Luck Club because I read it while it was still being written. I happened to be in New York City at the time with Kathleen Kennedy, my pre-Oliver mentor. My first real job in Hollywood.

GS: That was in New York?
JY: I was in Los Angeles. My first job in films was in San Francisco. I was running a company, World Entertainment, which got rights to Chinese films for American distribution. I was very interested in China, had lived in China and was very interested in Chinese films. When I came back, I started putting together Chinese film festivals, getting films from the consulate, embassy and whatnot. I ended up talking to this fledgling company in San Francisco that had the rights to these films and they were looking for someone to run the company. I attended Columbia Business School for two years and when I came out of there, they offered me a job to run that company. I had been doing these various festivals with these Chinese films and they wanted to see me run the company which I did.
     I went back to China and got to know the fifth generation of filmmakers like Chen Kaige. I was meeting film studio officials to tell them what kinds of Chinese films would work well in America. There was very little knowledge or interest in Chinese cinema at the time. They were grateful for somebody expressing some interest. But I really did like the films. I thought they had a lot of potential here. At least they were my inspiration for the possibility of seeing more Asians on the screen.

GS: You had already majored in Chinese studies at Brown so you must have had a lot of interest in China.
JY: I had a lot of interest in China, but the idea of putting Asians on screen was new. It didn't occur to me until I was living in China, living in a place with an Asian majority culture.

GS: The price we pay for being members of a minority group.
JY: I think most children grow up thinking there must be a reason why we're not on the screen -- why there's not any resemblance, any reflection of ourselves. That's something that stayed with me a long time and today still propels me. I lived in China for about a year and a half and came back and went to business school. After that I went to run this company in San Francisco.

GS: When did your job as translator and editor for the Chinese Foreign Language Press come in?
JY: That was earlier, in 80-81.


GS: How did you come to work there after graduating from Brown?
JY: I was a visiting student at Harvard while officially studying at Brown. A Chinese language teacher at Harvard who was from the mainland knew of my interest in living in China, as did all my professors for that matter I think. After I graduated from college, she wrote me saying that the Foreign Languages Press was looking for someone just like me, meaning an overseas Chinese who wanted to work there. They had already for decades been hiring “foreign experts” -- “big noses” who didn't necessarily need any expertise other than speaking another language fluently. They decided it would be good to find people who had the foreign language expertise, but would also have some patriotic feelings, or at least real curiosity about China, and maybe willing to live more modestly than the foreign experts. That meant in a dorm as opposed to the Friendship Hotel, a salary in Chinese currency as opposed to the extremely valuable foreign currency, and generally closer to the Chinese standard of living and wages. I was the perfect target.

GS: So between Brown and Columbia. Was that the first time you had been to China?
JY: No, the first time I went was in 1972 as a teenager. We went back as one of the first families to be invited after Nixon and Kissinger came back from their historic trip in early '72. The Chinese government officially wanted Chinese Americans to go back. I suddenly became aware of this whole hemisphere that I had not thought too much about. It was a pretty powerful experience. It made me want to study Chinese in college. I saw that the change between '72 to '80 was very significant. It was just starting to open up in '80. It was a much grimmer place in '72. In 1980 there was at least fresh orange juice in the lobby of the Peking Hotel and all the expats would gather there.
     I started flying back and forth on behalf of World Entertainment in San Francisco. While I was doing that I was approached by someone who was hired by Universal Studios to open up the China business for MCA/Universal. He had read about me in a local paper in San Francisco and came to me and said he wanted to try to plant some seeds in China.

GS: What year was that?
JY: I started at World in 84 and that was in 85, about a year later.

GS: Was that how you got involved with Empire of the Sun?
JY: I was working at Universal and flying back and forth to China to meet essentially the same people, but this time selling movies to China. It was during this period that I was approached by Amblin Entertainment. I heard they were making a film in China and I went to meet them. One thing led to another and we ended up making Empire of the Sun in 1986.

GS: Had you had any prior experience producing films?
JY: I had made a documentary film with a friend of mine from mainland China called From East to West about Chinese man driving across this country. PAGE 3

Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

“I had a lot of interest in China, but the idea of putting Asians on screen was new. It didn't occur to me until I was living in China, living in a place with an Asian majority culture.”