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Yung Chang – Up the Yangtze
By Caroline Planque
Posted June 28, 2008

     Exploring the seldom told human toll caused by the Three Gorges Dam, Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang embarks on one of the cruise ships offering farewell tours of the Yangtze River. While western tourists on the main deck comfortably observe and photograph the riverbanks soon to be engulfed by the flood waters, Chang walks the lower deck and connects with two of the younger employees whose lives are being changed, for better or for worse, by the pharaonic project.  Yung Chang presented this moving documentary, one that makes us ponder about the consequences of “progress”, at the Seattle International Film Festival, a few weeks prior to its general release in theaters.


     -Your parents are first generation immigrants, is that right?

     Y.C.: That’s right. My mother is from Beijing. My father is from Shanghai. I am their first child born outside the mainland.

     - So how do you position yourself? Do you feel more Chinese or more Canadian?

     Y.C.: That’s an interesting question, because I think I fall in the middle. I really don’t feel I am Canadian, nor do I feel Chinese. I am in this middle ground and I think that really helped me to make this film, to be in a position where I could see both sides of the story: to be able to speak the language, Chinese Mandarin, and then offer in the film these different perspectives, different point of views. It was really important for me to capture something that at least was open, in the sense that it was 360 degrees. It was important not to label things in black and white terms, which is easy to do as a Westerner. That’s a major mistake.  Being Chinese “Canadian” put me in a position where I could feel those conflicts in trying to understand a complex society.

     -Have you traveled often to China?

     Y.C.: My grandfather, who is from Beijing, moved to Taiwan in 1949. So I used to go to Taipei a lot. It’s an amazing place. It is also a culture that is full of different cultures, since it once was Japanese. So I used to go to Taiwan and study Mandarin in the summer. My first trip to mainland China was in 1997. Consequently, I lived in Hong Kong and travelled a lot in China. Now, I have family there. For me, it is a place of constant discovery. I think many people say there are 1.3 billion stories to tell in China.

     -Do you think that the fact that you were born in Canada affected your relationship to your parents in any particular way?

     Y.C.: I was born in 1977 in a small town east of Toronto. At that time, we were the only Chinese family in that small town environment. I was somewhat isolated in that I was somehow able to retain a certain amount of my Chinese upbringing. I grew up in a Chinese family, so there is this interesting contrast going on. At that time, it was important to leave everything aside, focus on being English, speaking English, and assimilate.  And I think that was valuable, because there was a process of self discovery along the way where both my brother, who now leaves in Beijing, and I fell into a very sincere and important process of speaking Mandarin and reading Chinese literature. That was an important step. What was interesting is that my parents were not dogmatic about it. They allowed us the space to explore. I think that’s important.

     -How was the cultural shock for your parents when they immigrated to Canada?

     Y.C.: I think it was similar to many immigrant stories. There was a real sense of displacement, but there was comfortableness in their own skin, having grown up with a very clear cut identity. They were Chinese. So the process for them was not what my brother and I went through. It was a different experience. For them it was the immigrant story.

     -You went back to China with your parents and grandfather to take a farewell cruise on the Yangtze and that’s how you stumbled on the story, is that right?

      Y.C.:  That’s right. In 2002, they invited me on a trip. I had never been on a cruise boat before, so I had conjured up the images of some sort of romantic river boat journey along the lines of, maybe, Herzog or Fitzgerald, and I had this feeling that there would be this sort of irony: the fact that it is called a farewell cruise. I went onto this trip knowing that there would be these disparities. I brought a camera and filmed the experience of that first trip. The very first time, it was much more about exploring the culture of tourism and the tourism of culture. But one moment really changed everything for me: a conversation with one of the employees on the boat. His grandmother had told him that she’d rather be drowned by the flooding waters than have to leave her home. And that was in the environment of this luxury cruise ship.

     -And that’s not the type of stories you hear on those cruise ships…
Y.C.:  Exactly. So that was a very stark reality for me. It made me realize that this cruise ship could become a microcosm to explore, in a sense, contemporary
China.  That on these boats, you have this upstairs/downstairs world. I thought this was a fascinating way to talk about China.

     -In your documentary, it seems that the suffering of common Chinese people is a bit trivialized by enterprises like the cruise ships because they tend to mask everything in favor of progress…

     Y.C.:  True and I would say that is similar to any tourist destination around the world. For me, as a jaded traveler, it is much more about peeling back the surface and seeing what is really going on. But the juxtaposition of the perspective of a Westerner versus the Chinese underbelly experience is also very important.  And I think that, from that experience, we can see and get a sense of the complex layers and not trivialize anything.

     -So do you view mass tourism as having a bad influence?

     Y.C.: Well, there often is the debate between tourism versus the travelers, and I would say that both have an impact on a culture. In some ways, tourism is superficial, but it could be the safest way not to infiltrate a culture, a community, and not affect that culture. When I was backpacking through Southern China, we went to a small village that has become a backpacker destination. It used to be a farmers village but over the years, it has become… well… now, there is a Starbucks, the environment where all the backpackers stop, and from there, they have their little hotels and it’s very “authentic”. From there, they backpack through the countryside, and I think the impact of a traveler, in that sense, can be much more detrimental to the local community.  So there is this debate: perhaps a tourist is much less of an explorer, in the sense of changing the culture. And then again, these are government sanctioned trips, with a Disney aspect to them. I think there could be a whole other film about that aspect of tourism.

     -Do you feel that, in a way, China is selling its soul to the devil by incorporating some of the worst aspects of capitalism?

     Y.C.: Well, I think progress is always a questionable venture. But you can look at it from the other side and see that the Western World spent 270 years industrializing, ravishing their environment, and that process of industrialization, that process of progress was also into question. I never forget. You see the paintings by Manet of the Thames and there is this smog, in a similar way to what is happening in China. I always like to try to see the other aspect. We can say that progress is an evil thing and China is selling its soul, but we can also look at it from the Chinese perspective, having an understanding of their culture, especially in the last 50 years, having gone through communism, the Cultural Revolution, the great famine, all these movements that caused so much trauma to the people of China. 

     -But do you think progress benefits the majority of Chinese people or that more people actually suffer because of it?

     Y.C.:  That’s the ultimate question mark. In my film, you see that happen.  There are people that are able to climb the ladder and become successful. In China, as I say in my film, it’s true that peasants can become millionaires.  I don’t want to see short the impact of the film, but my ancestors through my grandfather’s family were themselves, at some point, in the city of Shanghai, migrant workers. My great grandfather used to be a farmer and a gardener in the city of Shanghai and he, like many people at the time, paid a few dollars to learn a word of English everyday and, through that process, became a landowner and a very wealthy person. In China, in this sort of futile society - dare I say that it has always been this sort of futile society - some people make it, some people don’t.  And my film does want to focus on the people that fall through the cracks in the name of progress. I think it is important to see that side, only to know where we are going.

     -Are you taking a political stance with your film?

      Y.C.: I think no matter what kind of film you make, whether you try to be as apolitical as possible or not, you always have a political standpoint, and I think that may sip trough in my film. I would say that my story, through focusing on human lives and emotions, is a humanist story, but it does touch on the complications and complexities of Chinese society in regards to the relationship between the local government and the common people versus the central government. There are a lot of barriers.

      -Have you been able to release the film in China?

     Y.C.:  This is really great news: we just heard from the Guangzhou International Film Festival that they would like to have our film on a double bill with Manufacturing Landscapes.  We’ve shown the film in Beijing because my crew was a Chinese film crew. I worked with a lot of Chinese filmmakers and producers in making my movie. I would say that there is a real tradition of documentary filmmaking coming out of China since the mid 90’s and even earlier. These films are seen by and audience and there are also often seen in China, through other means like downloading, or pirated DVDs.

     -How was it to make a documentary in China about a subject that has the potential to be very controversial?

     Y.C.: For me, it was very easy. It was also unusual, it was an eye opener for me to, first of all, realize that the Three Gorges Dam is not an illegal subject. You can criticize it. The Central Government has now admitted that there could be a catastrophe in the Three Gorges region. I think this has really become a very “platform” kind if issue. It is not like making a film about Tibet, it is about an environmental issue, hand-made by humans. Working with a Chinese crew, traveling the country side and shooting this film revealed to me that is was a very easy process.  People would think that we were actually from the local media. They thought we were from the TV station. And that revealed to me the importance of the media with common people and the structure of the media and the government, because it is very allowing.  Because of the corruption that’s involved at the local level, media is a good way to, in a sense, petition, to the central government. That’s what many people thought we were doing. 

     -Are most people suspicious of the government?

     Y.C.: No, I would say that many people are very proud of the central government and what’s happening in China. The irony is, you can talk to the poorest peasant and he will say wonderful things about the country, and really mean it, because in China, there is that sense of sacrifice to the bigger family. There is a real recognition of the nation and I think that is driven home by this sort of communist idealism. You can talk to the taxi drivers and they will expand on the beauty of the country, and how everyone is making a lot of money, and progress is great. Generally, many people are very proud, but I would say that there are the people that sip through that, and are upset about corruption, on a local level. It really does happen on a local level. And they will voice their opinion, as you see in my film.

     -You were very persistent in making this film. It took you over 4 years?

     Y.C.: It took 4 years to make the film. Most of that time was spent trying to convince the funding agencies and the broadcasters that I had an idea for a story.  We spent four years on researching and development. And during that very solid one year of 2006, when I moved to China, I shot the film and made the movie.

     -What kept you going for so long?

     Y.C.: You always want to give up, especially after four years of the same thing.  But what kept me going was to come upon my subjects and really know that it was out of my hands at that point. It was much more the stories of their lives. When I looked at them in the eyes, I had no excuse not to want to finish my story.

     -Are you still in touch with them?

     Y.C.: It was really important to me, once finishing the film, to show it to everyone involved. It’s the first thing I did, actually. I went back in the fall of 2007 and showed it to everyone. Yu Shui saw it and she was very moved by it. In fact, she wrote to me a couple weeks later and told me that through the film, she was able to see her destiny and her fate and that she had decided to leave the boat and go back to high school. And our production helped pay for the rest of her high school tuition and since then, we’ve begun a fund on our website to help the family. So it is a way for our audiences and ourselves to give back to a family that went through so much. I think it was important to establish the relationship with the subjects, just so that they knew that I wasn’t just going to walk away at the end of the day. As a documentary film maker, you have a responsibility, I think, to be connected through life. You do engage in this relationship.  In fact, I was just chatting with Yu Shui online on the internet yesterday. I think it is great to keep in touch with her.

     -Have any of the tourists pictured in the film seen it and what do they think?

     Y.C.: What seems to be interesting is the demographic for the film. We released the film in Canada, in New York, and L.A., and the general reaction has been that the demographics have been tourists, people who will be going to China, who are fascinated by China, who have been or will be going on the Yangtze cruise. It’s not my position to say: “Oh, you’re a tourist” or to make a comment about that aspect. And even people who have been in the film have come to see the film. For them, it is like reliving the experience, but exposing a little more of what was happening in front of them. There is an aspect of tragicomedy and I could have gone to the extreme of mocking the tourists, but for me it was not about that. It was much more about these perspectives and I think that, in many ways, the tourists were innocent to the experience, in a sense. They were there to have fun and vacation, for many people, is a way to gain access and to learn about a culture. Of course, on the other side, it is also about the Chinese way of giving them what they expect and it becomes unauthentic; it becomes “exotified”. It’s very weird.

     -How about your parents and grandfather? When they saw the movie or took the cruise, were they nostalgic?

     Y.C.: Very nostalgic. Even my father… it was his dream to go to this Yangtze River Three Gorges. For many people, it is a privilege, because it is so steeped in history and mythology. For them and for many tourists, including Chinese tourists, the idea that it is actually disappearing is actually a tragic thing. But I think in their opinion, it is always going to be there, the Three Gorges is always going to be the Three Gorges fifty years down the road. But there was sentimentality, nostalgia about the history of the past.

     -And for you, has making this documentary changed your perspective on China?

     Y.C.: Yes, it was a very steep learning curve for me to be able to make a film working with a Chinese crew. Communicating and living in China was very important. I learned a lot from it. You learn to be humble.

     -Are you working on another documentary project?

     Y.C.: Yes, I am currently producing a documentary that my collaborator has made. He shot for two years a migrant family during the Spring Festival, which is basically Chinese New Year. It is the most important holiday of the year. And for more than 100 million people, it is the only opportunity to go back to their home town from the city, and it is absolute chaos. So he has followed a migrant family working in the South of China, who is trying to get home for 5 days by train. It is crazy and there is real drama in the relationship between the mother and father and their daughter, who is trying to break away from the family. It is very intense.

Now playing at the Varsity Theatre



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