Though Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club was first released in 1993, I remember watching it maybe a year later. Not in a movie theatre, but with my family, on home VHS (DVDs were still five or six years away). My mother was a voracious reader of Amy Tan and the book had been in our house for years. Even though my parents had no daughters, they could still relate to the way Wang brought Chinese family dynamics to life from Tan’s printed pages.
My mother was born in Hong Kong, though she moved to Canada when she was very young. My mother was the first-born child, and unusually, was raised with all the privileges and responsibilities usually only afforded to a first-born son. Her mother, my grandmother, was already an old woman from my earliest memories of her. It was only when I was much older that I learned that my grandmother was actually born in Canada, and only went back to Hong Kong after being raised among Canadian ideas of female primogeniture. My mother’s father’s family were once wealthy landowners in Hong Kong, but lost most of it through gambling debts so my grandfather grew up in greatly reduced circumstances.
In 1995, I moved to San Francisco for work, and I remember being excited by seeing in real life the scenes of Chinatown that Tan had worked into her book. In those pre-smartphone days, all we had were digital cameras, and not even everyone had one. I remember taking a photo of myself (we didn’t even call them “selfies” then) at the corner of Clay & Waverly, and sending it to my family – just because I knew my mom would get a kick out of it.
I would eventually come to know many of the places mentioned in the book and depicted in the film. From North Beach, where Lena & Ying-Ying St. Clair live in their house on a hill (where the “bad wind blows all your strength back down the street”); to Pacifica, where Ted and Rose’s house (“with the slanted floors full of spiders”) is, my years in San Francisco are permeated with bits and pieces of the Joy Luck Club cosmology.
And it is in California where I would learn to play Mahjong – a game my mother’s parents knew, but never taught my mother. Because I was the Canadian transplant, I would always be seated in the North chair. My grandfather later told me that it was from the North chair that his family lost most of their land and properties when he was a boy. He told me that every game I won from there was winning back our family’s luck.
Reel Asian is playing The Joy Luck Club on July 27 at 5:45 pm @ Bell Lightbox as part of its Retro Summer Series. Buy tickets HERE.
Blog post by: Chris Chin, Festival & Operations Manager