Interview with Janet Yang '78

During the September visit of Janet Yang '78, Jocelyn Richards '12 interviewed the Hollywood producer about her experience at Brown, her thoughts on China, and her work bridging cultural divides.  Their interview follows below.

Q: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on all of the attention Americans have given to China in the past few years. As you know, Brown has dubbed this the “Year of China”, but the entire country has recently placed immense emphasis on China, something that was certainly not the case when you concentrated in East Asian Studies at Brown. How does it feel to have been on the front end of this wave?

JY: I started studying Chinese for no reason that I could articulate; I was just following my nose, my heart. I dare say 40 years ago no one could have predicted this was going to happen—it just didn’t seem possible. China was not a popular subject at the time and people did not understand or feel the relevance of China; it was still a dark mysterious place in most peoples’ minds. Even my parents were not pleased when I decided to major in Chinese studies. They kept questioning where it would lead. But the great thing about Brown is that you don’t have to have a specific agenda— it’s a time just to explore your interests.

Q: You were among the first Chinese Americans invited to visit China after Nixon and Kissinger’s visit in ‘72. How did that experience contribute to your decision to concentrate in Chinese studies at Brown?

JY: When I visited China for the first time in high school during the Cultural Revolution, it was very much of a jolt to my consciousness. I had grown up in a Jewish community on Long Island and had little awareness of my Chinese identity and heritage.  Going to China was a life-changer for me. I remember being fascinated with the communist system, with a civilization that was so ancient, and with the opportunity to explore my own personal connection to it. Perhaps I also absorbed some of my parents yearning— they came to America as graduate students with the intention of going back to China in the ‘40s, but after the Hundred Flowers Campaign that specifically targeted intellectuals and foreigners, they realized that perhaps they should never go back. Suddenly their focus was completely on America, so I grew up as an American kid as opposed to a Chinese American. When I finally went to China, I could only imagine what it would have been like if they’d moved back there. I would have probably been a Red Guard—criticizing my parents and teachers and marching through the countryside. It was fascinating; I couldn’t stop thinking about how delicate fate is.

I used my time at Brown to explore my parents’ culture and what the society they’d grown up in was like. I suddenly wanted to know about Chinese philosophy and history—it was a whole new path that I’d previously never explored.

Q: You have been called a “pioneer in introducing Asian culture to the West and representing American cinema to China.”  When you first graduated from Brown, did you foresee using film to help bridge Chinese and American culture?

JY: When I moved to China in the ‘80s and saw the first movies made after the Cultural Revolution, I was very inspired. It was then that I had the epiphany about being able to put Asians in front of the camera. In America there were few portrayals of Asians in film and the few that did exist were very unflattering. So living in China gave me the experience of seeing many different Chinese characters in front of the camera and I thought, oh— it is possible—they don’t need to be cut out of the public image completely. I went to business school at Columbia and afterwards developed an idea of how to integrate more realistic images of Asians for a Western audience. I got a job with a company that had a theater in San Francisco, where I helped bring in Chinese film delegations, which worked to promote not just Chinese cinema but China in general. I see films as being a very important part in how perceptions are shaped- American perceptions of China, Chinese perceptions of America.

Q:  When did you first bring American films to China? 

JY: While working in California, an executive at Universal hired me to sell American films abroad. Since the Chinese hadn’t seen any American films in decades, we had to be very careful about which films we were choosing. “Star Wars,” for example, was coming out at that time, along with movies like “Back to the Future.” But we couldn’t show those because it would have been too much, too fast—society had been closed off for so long, the pace of life was much slower and there was still a political agenda.

Q: I recently watched “High School Musical: China,” and was intrigued with the lyrics of one song, which sound like the epitome of Chinese youth confronting both their traditional culture and that of the West: “The book of medical herbs is in our hearts, Modern medicine beats disease. Popular music is so carefree, Melding the wind and rain of great dynasties. Stories of the emperors are like dreams- let me be the hero of the future.” What changes have you witnessed recently in Chinese youths’ receptiveness and interest in American culture?

JY: We found a great lyricist for the film; I thought a lot of the songs turned out well.  In terms of Chinese youth- I’ve seen some very interesting trends over the decades. When I visited China for the first time in 1972, I remember helping my cousins with their English homework and when I opened up the textbook it said, “Down with American imperialists!  Down with American paper tigers!” I was sitting there thinking, okay, guess I’m a paper tiger! Haha. Everything was completely politicized then and they had a very specific ideological agenda.  When I worked in the publishing arm of the government in the ‘80s, it was the beginning of China’s “opening up” reform and the Party line was still apparent but there was also an effort to publish works that were appealing to the West. I remember the youth at that time would keep the tag on their sunglasses showing if it had any English or a Western brand name on it. This was a big deal—there was an intense curiosity with Western culture and also fear, because they still had a sense that “America is bad.” There was this constant push-pull while the Chinese started to shed their Mao suits.

When I was invited back to China in November 2001, two months after 9/11, my jaw was open the whole time. China had turned a corner. In the 90s there had been a lot of construction and had still felt closer to the old China, but when I arrived in 2001 it was the new China—there were clubs, bars, and restaurants everywhere. The generation that was born after the Cultural Revolution—who had no experience of that level of suffering—they were coming of age in this time. It was as though a cloud had lifted—the cautiousness about making sure you said the right thing and conformed suddenly didn’t seem to exist anymore. And the youth were like youth anywhere—they wanted to have fun! That’s when I started to think, okay, there is a real audience here. A lot of popular culture was coming in from abroad, they could talk freely about the “Lady Gaga” of the time—everything had changed.

When I was filming “High School Musical: China”, I asked the cast who they aspired to be and they all said, “Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga.”  A few cast members even introduced me to American pop songs I’d never heard of—it was fascinating. It would have been considered spiritual pollution twenty years ago to be caught up in Lady Gaga.

Q: China’s economy is significantly more open to foreign influence than it was in the past, yet the government still only allows 20 foreign films to be imported each year. What effect does the commercial market have on today’s US-China collaborations in filmmaking?

JY: Yes, 20 foreign films per year, but 10 of those can be American. That’s the number of movies that can come in officially under the revenue sharing system.  If you make a deal with a company and just sell a film outright, you can also come in. But most studios rely heavily on hits and can’t afford to sell things on a one-off basis— because it’s impossible to predict which movies will become hits—so they must rely on the revenue sharing system. Now, unfortunately, the box office revenue share that the Chinese government is willing to share with an American film is much lower than if it were a Chinese film. A Chinese film you can get close to the 50% that you get in the US, but on a foreign film the revenue share is only about 17%. That’s why a lot of American studios now want to make co-productions, where they work with a Chinese production company so that the film can be considered a Chinese film. “High School Musical: China” was a co-production; it was also one of the only franchises to date that was recreated and tailored for a Chinese audience.

Q: Is it getting any easier to present American films to the Chinese audience and vise-versa?

JY: I’d like to think it’s getting easier; you go in knowing the risks. You have to always do reality checks when making films because they are a cross between art and commerce. You cannot ignore one or the other completely but must constantly blend the two, assess your audience, and determine how much investment should be made.

I view film as a very powerful medium, because I know these images get embedded in peoples’ minds and can change their perceptions in subconscious ways. Therefore, I always strive for a level of authenticity and I like exploring topics and characters that are underrepresented.

Q: As a very distinguished Brown alumna, what words of advise do you have for Brown students today?

JY: This is the irony, you know—I started studying Chinese for no reason that I could articulate, but now I’m so thankful that I was able to! Nothing led to anything—it all just happened, it wasn’t planned. I was lucky to have the desire and resources to continue in one direction as opportunities unfolded. I’m not telling people not to plan—it’s a very different time, things are much more competitive today and good jobs are hard to come by. But I do know one thing: if you do what you love then all the other things will be easier. If you’re unemployed and doing what you love—it’ll be easier. If you’re employed and doing what you love—things will be easier. Whatever it is, if you love what you’re doing then you can’t go too wrong.