From BAMBOO RIDGE Issue Number 23, Summer 1984: Wayne Wang's CHAN IS MISSING

From the Introduction, by Diane Mark:

. . .
           With decades of demeaning portrayals of Asians in film and television, the tendency for contemporary Asian American filmmakers has been to earnestly counterbalance Asian media images by creating ultra-positive characters. Character faults are attributed less to individual deficiencies and inabilities than to the binds of history, racism, and tradition. In Chan Is Missing, the characters are everyday people who don't always keep their cool, stay on top of the situation, or find what they are looking for. Wang's characterizations show Asian Americans as human beings rather than dime-a-dozen stereotypes or do-no-wrong heroes, typical characterizations which are equally dehumanizing on either end of the scale. Chan Is Missing has demonstrated that it might not be necessary for Asians to kowtow, cater, or conquer though jeet kune do to assure box office viability.
. . .

From the movie script:


Jo and Steve sit at a table listening to a young Asian American woman lawyer. We cut back to their bemused looks as she rambles on in professionalese.


You see, I'm doing a paper on the legal implications of cross-cultural misunderstandings, and Mr. Chan's case is a perfect example of what I'm trying to expose here. You see, the policeman and Mr. Chan had completely different culturally-related assumptions about what kind of communications about communications each one was using. For instance, the policeman in an English-speaking mode asked a direct factual question. They're interested in facts and that's all. Asked, “Did you stop at the stop sign?” — expected a yes or no answer. Simple yes or no answer. Mr. Chan, however, rather than giving him a yes or no answer, began to go into his past driving record, how good it was, the number of years he'd been in the States, all the people that he knew, trying to relate different events or objects or situations to what was happening then, to the action at hand. Now this is very typical, as I'm sure you know, of most Chinese speakers. Trying to relate possibly unrelated objects or seemingly unrelated objects to the matter at hand. Chinese try to relate points, or events, or objects that they feel are pertinent to the situation which may not to anyone else seem directly relevant at the time. At any rate, at this the policeman became rather impatient, restated the question, “Did you or did you not stop at the stop sign?” in a rather hostile tone, which in turn flustered Mr. Chan, which caused him to hesitate answering the question, which further enraged the policeman so that he asked the question again. “You didn’t stop at the stop sign, did you?” in a negative tone, to which Mr. Chan automatically answered, “No.” Now, to any native speaker of English, “No” would mean, “No, I didn't stop at the stop sign.” However, to Mr. Chan, “No, I didn't stop at the stop sign,” wasn't “No, I didn't stop at the stop sign.” It was “No, I didn't not stop at the stop sign,” in other words, “Yes, I did stop at the stop sign.” You see what I'm saying? He was, um, correct in the Chinese because the answer has to match the truth of the action. However, English speakers, native American English speakers, tend to work more from a grammatical mode. To put it in layman's language, English language emphasizes the relationship between grammatical structures and the Chinese language tends to emphasize the relationship between the listener, the speaker, and the action involved. Well, at any rate, Mr. Chan has to appear in court so we can get this all straightened out so we can explain everything, and he missed his court date.

From Diane Mark's interview with Wayne Wang:

Diane Mark: The fact that there's no solution at the end of the film, and the summary, Jo's voiceover — can you discuss that a little?

Wayne Wang: Part of that came out of writing curriculum for kids. Writing science curriculum, which is very solution-bound. And at the time we were writing the curriculum, we were exploring the possibility of so-called more Asian-oriented science, and what that really means. Which led me to the idea that (this would cause a lot of discussion but I think it's an interesting starting point) Asians tend to have a much higher tolerance for ambiguity, and have always historically been able to deal with ambiguity a lot more than so-called Caucasian minds, or Western minds. And I think that the ability, the dual ability of being able to accept ambiguity, is very important for the future development of science and thinking. And that also stems back to this whole think about bilingual and bicultural thinking. So that's why the film really deals with being very specific, looking for solutions, looking for answers, and yet at the same time the acceptance of ambiguity. So at that level I think there were a lot of things going on there that, you know, some people got into, some people didn't. But I felt it was important that at the end of the film, you didn't find Chan, that you never see him. That's the only way I think the movie could.

Diane Mark: How did you choose the name Chan?

Wayne Wang: Because it's a common last name, and also because of Charlie Chan.

Diane Mark: And the no-solution thing also seems to be a direct contradiction to the Charlie Chan mode, where there's always a solution, and he ties it up real neatly.

Wayne Wang: Right. I think that people look for easy answers all the time, particularly in more commercial films. And I think that's a bad thing. I think films can be a lot more open-ended, that people can be more creative in their own ways of finding answers.

Mahalo for reading!

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