Reclaiming the Narrative is a Work in Progress

Writer-director Yen Tan on his how his cultural identity has shifted since coming to the U.S., and what it means for him to make Asian-American films.

My name is Chiun Yen Tan.

I was born and raised in Malaysia, where a stern censorship board determines what we see and hear. I grew up watching films that were unintentionally different from their original versions. When it was incoherent, it could be frustrating. Try splicing every cuss word from Die Hard and see the results: “Yipee ki-yay motherfucker!” doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? When it accidentally made the film better, it could be magical. Pretty in Pink didn’t end with Andie and Blaine kissing passionately in the parking lot; it ended with her rushing out from prom and calling out his name, before it cut to black and cued The Psychedelic Furs track, therefore creating a subtle but punchy effect to an otherwise predictable conclusion.

No cussing, no kissing: (left) Bruce Willis in John McTiernan’s Die Hard; (right) Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald in Howard Deutch’s Pretty in Pink.

Over the years, I’d also learn how to censor myself. It started with the gay part.


The 8.5×11 that welcomed me to America. (Image provided by Yen Tan.)

Do you have an English name?

The international students liaison asked me this on our way to campus, having held up my printed name at the Des Moines airport. Back in Malaysia, I was known as Chiun Yen and never adopted a Christian name. “Tan would be good. Tan’s easy,” she suggested. I would tell people, so that they’d remember me, “You know, Tan, like in sun tan.” I got so sick of saying that, by the time I graduated I went by Yen instead. This prompted people asking me if I was Japanese.


Rice queen movie date: Gong Li in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad.

Some of them are into Asians. They’re called rice queens.

I came out as a senior and hit the gay bars soon after. I quickly learned from a friend who’s been around the block that someone like me was very low in the rank of desirability, and the key was to look for men who found me “exotic.” I’m like the calligraphy hanging on their walls. The Thai cookbook sitting on top of the fridge. The date who could give them cultural insights on the latest Zhang Yimou film.

One way or another, it got into my head that proximity to whiteness was a way to be accepted. If I always hung out with the white kids, I’d be seen as no different from them.


Never listened to this album the same since.

These are days you’ll remember. Never before and never since

I spent my last semester working on a class project with a blonde Delta Gamma. The type who drove a new Ford Explorer, ordered cashmere from the J.Crew catalog, and hosted Friends-watching parties. We received kudos for our presentation and celebrated with drinks at a bar on campus. She invited some of her sorority sisters along. I went to the jukebox and picked 10,000 Maniacs’ These Are Days. She yelped: “I love this song!” I was now one of them.

I stopped at two Buds. She goaded me to have one more. I was starting to feel sick. Then she made a buck-tooth face and said the words I’ll never forget: “Me can’t dlink! Me too dlunk!” I smiled despite my confusion, wondering how four months of “friendship” led to this moment of betrayal. You take this in. You internalize it. Then maybe it’ll go away someday.


Why do Asians have flat faces?

Sometimes, well-meaning white friends ask the darndest questions. Even when it’s not meant to be offensive, it makes you wonder how many of them truly see you that way.

When I was going through puberty, my very Chinese aunt advised, “If you routinely press your nose, it won’t get any wider.” Like doing push-ups, I pressed my nose daily with my thumb and index finger. To this day, I still catch myself doing it.


Yen Tan introducing Pit Stop at SXSW 2013. (Image by John Merriman.)

Why are your characters not Asians?

An audience member asked me this at a film festival Q&A. I simply expressed that it was not the story I wanted to tell, that putting Asians in this particular context just didn’t make sense to me.

Some time after, I spoke to a class of film students. They wanted to engage me on what to expect in the industry. I talked about a project I was developing which later fell through, a story based on a recent experience of loss, and how we were attempting to attach certain actors. A Chinese student promptly inquired: “So you wrote something personal, but you were gonna put white people in it?” I tried to explain the woes of casting and financing, how “names” were the key to secure money, etc. While I was doing that, the conflict of not shaking up the status quo while unfairly pressured to tell Asian stories was lingering in my mind. If I was white, I wouldn’t have to think about these things.


If I may be blunt: it’s ’cause you’re gay and Asian.

A talent manager offered me this deflating take on why I was unable to secure representation after a premiere. I’d had that inclination, and appreciated that he was willing to acknowledge my suspicion. By then it was already a very familiar feeling, a sense that you’re not really in the club because you don’t check all the right boxes, but you’ve learned to keep that to yourself because it makes you look weak. Or paranoid. Or tagged as that easily triggered minority who likes to pull the race card instead of working twice as hard. So you cope with it the same way you always have: you take it in. You internalize it. You wish it’ll go away. You’ve done this so many times, you now know that it doesn’t really go away. The tumor only keeps growing and begins to consume you. Then you start to blame yourself for allowing this shit into your life.


No! You’re just not meeting the right people!

Thank God for the Asian friend who can kick some sense into you. It’s taken several years to get her debut feature off the ground, where it made a nice festival splash. She is finally at a place where opportunities are available to her like never before. And she’s right. After meeting so many wrong people, I finally met the right reps. These are the ones who say: We embrace who you are. Let’s cultivate that voice.


You’re not directing!

Apparently, I was not assertive enough. And I was too nice. And I needed to learn about the process of this (white, straight, cis) director infamous for his toxicity but celebrated for his beloved films. When a seasoned actor offers you this version of “tough love,” you wonder if you’ve been doing this wrong all this while. Can I be a grounded artist who doesn’t lose my cool on the set, works well with others, and is not perceived as an Asian doormat? If I try to be an asshole, how much is too much before I misrepresent my entire race in their eyes?


I don’t know if I’m playing into the model minority myth.

I made that confession on the first day of a recent workshop in front of a large group of peers, many of them POCs. I wanted to have an ongoing conversation with them, because I often find myself at a loss in situations where my looks are in sync with my modesty and it’s not helping me out. Especially in show biz, where being “tough” is often rewarded with respect and compliance. I never thought after all these decades of seemingly successful assimilation, I’m having some sort of cultural identity crisis. As much as I try to keep my head up to Sandra Oh’s “It’s an honor just to be Asian,” this post-2016 climate has forced me to confront the idea that awareness and empowerment can also stir up a lot of self-doubt and unsettling notions about the intention of others. I used to think I was that Asian who’s managed to avoid having minority stress. Now, I’m triggered regularly.


Robyn live at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. (Image by Yen Tan.)

I keep dancing on my own.

I went to see my Indonesian college buddy in San Francisco. The plan was to catch Robyn’s Honey Tour with his friends. They were all gaysians. Even though I just met them, the sense of belonging was immediately felt. I was reminded of the ending of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, when Takeshi Kaneshiro gives Michelle Reis a ride home. As they speed through a lonely highway tunnel in Hong Kong, her voiceover drifts in: “I haven’t ridden a motorcycle for a long time. Actually, I haven’t been so close to a man for a while. The road isn’t that long, and I know I’m getting off soon. But I’m feeling such warmth this very moment.”

Robyn made the crowd sing Dancing On My Own. The song is almost a decade old, but tonight, the lyrics resonated differently, chanted by thousands of misfits. I choked up when we got to this part: I’m right over here. Why can’t you see me? Ohhh…


A silhouetted figure, snoring lightly. He abruptly draws his breath, awakened from a lucid dream. This is PAT BAILEY YEUNG (40s, White Chinese). He sees that his arm is reached out to the other side of the king-sized bed, where an empty pillow lies. He gets up, ready for another day.

Writer-director Yen Tan‘s latest film is the poignant AIDS drama 1985, starring Corey Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis; it was inspired by Tan’s Short of the Week of the same title, which won a Special Jury Award at SXSW 2016. Tan’s previous feature, the critically acclaimed Pit Stop, premiered at Sundance 2013 and was nominated for a John Cassavetes Awards at the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards. His 2008 feature, Ciao, was a Queer Lion contender at Venice Film Festival. Yen also co-directed Until We Could (2014) with David Lowery, an Addy-winning PSA for Freedom to Marry that was narrated by Robin Wright and Ben Foster. He was born and raised in Malaysia and now lives in Austin, where he also works as an award-winning key art designer for independent films and documentaries. (Image by HutcH.)