Q&A Series – Women’s History Month: Janet Yang

In 1987, the United States Congress passed a proclamation declaring the month of March to be Women’s History Month. To celebrate this year, the staff at Committee of 100 sat down virtually with a few of our amazing female Committee of 100 Members for a blog series called Chinese American Women Shaping the World: A Special Q&A Series. In these interviews, Committee of 100 members will talk about their career paths, the challenges – and opportunities – in being a successful Chinese American woman in today’s society, as well as their hopes for the next generation of Chinese American women.

Committee of 100 recently spoke with Janet Yang, the Founder and President of Janet Yang Productions. Janet is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning Hollywood producer, a member of the Board of Governors of the Motion Picture Academy, as well as a Board Officer chairing its Membership Committee. Janet has been named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Hollywood” by The Hollywood Reporter and has been a Member of Committee of 100 since 1998.

Committee of 100: What is one of your achievements that you are most proud of, which helped dictate the course of your career?

Janet: My parents left China in the 1940’s to study in the U.S., and then got stranded when the new government cut off their funds. China was so isolated for the next few decades that my parents eventually assumed they would never again be able to visit in their lifetimes. But suddenly and unexpectedly in the summer of 1972, (thank you President Nixon, and Happy 50th on your historic visit!) we were granted visas, boarded a plane to Hong Kong, and walked across the rickety wooden bridge to enter the mainland.  I met my dozens of relatives for the first time, but I couldn’t really talk to them as I only spoke baby Chinese. Later in college, I took as many Chinese studies classes as I could, and a bee became permanently lodged in my bonnet.  I was determined to go back to live in China, learn Mandarin thoroughly, and understand China’s history, society and culture.

In March of 1980, after graduating from college, I was off to Beijing on my own, to live and work at the Foreign Languages Press, (thank you to Chuan Ju-Hsiang, my Chinese language teacher at Harvard who helped secure the position!) Most people thought I was out of my mind, and even my parents had doubts about my purpose. I didn’t know a soul, nor what to expect.

That year and a half I spent in Beijing changed my life forever. I connected with my ancestry, and learned how a country so thoroughly different in every way from the one I grew up in could thrive; most of all, I became enamored of the many brave and talented writers, artists, and filmmakers I met. In particular, watching Chinese movies and TV shows opened up my eyes to what I was missing, and the deep racial biases that existed within everyone – including me – due to our lack of representation on American screens. I was thrilled and moved to see a full gamut of characters portrayed in Chinese shows and films, and I was inspired to imagine what I and others in our community could do with greater opportunities for creative expression.

My mission became clear then, and to this day still drives me:  to humanize our race through entertainment and media.

I’ve had the opportunity to do so in several respects: through bringing Chinese cinema to North America, through the making of such movies as “The Joy Luck Club”, “Dark Matter”, “High School Musical: China”, “Shanghai Calling”, and “Over The Moon”, through co-founding organizations such as Gold House, and through numerous cross-cultural initiatives and programs.

I like to think I have helped move the needle toward achieving my original mission.

Committee of 100: What is a major lesson you learned from a failure or setback in your career, which also helped dictate the course of your career?

Janet: I have suffered two major heartbreaks because of my dedicated (or perhaps a better word is “stubborn”?)  attempts to bridge the cultural gap between the U.S. and China.  In the 1980’s, I was on cloud nine working with Steven Spielberg in Shanghai on the movie, “Empire of the Sun.” What could be better than observing a world-class director use the talent and resources in China to make a big international movie? Bernardo Bertolucci was making “The Last Emperor” in Beijing around the same time, and also had a fabulous time. It seemed there was no limit to what was possible between these two countries.

The rise in Sino-American cultural interaction came to a crashing halt in 1989, for reasons we all know. We then saw a spate of American movies unfriendly to China in the 1990’s. However, sometime around the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Pacific waters warmed and we were once again able to speak openly about cooperation between the two countries.

By 2012, China had achieved an extremely impressive box office, and was able to raise vast amounts of entertainment-driven capital as a result; and now there was more of an even playing ground between the two countries. As Chair of Asia Society’s U.S. – ASIA ENTERTAINMENT SUMMIT, there was a period of five or six years when we were able to bring top directors and studio heads from China and the U.S. together. They were meeting, courting, engaging, and even marrying, metaphorically speaking.  This exciting period of flourishing interaction came to an abrupt end several years ago – without much warning. It was time again to pivot.

I can also cite a few times when the outcome of specific projects simply devastated me. In 2013, Jack Ma gave me permission to follow him around for a period of about two years to make a movie about him.  I met most of the co-founders of Alibaba, went to the spectacular 10th anniversary of Taobao where Jack performed, and absorbed so much of what made Jack a true rags-to-riches hero. His story exemplified the spectacular rise of China’s innovation.  I easily raised money to get a great screenplay commissioned. Just as we were about to go to market, I was suddenly stopped dead in my tracks.

Alibaba was on the verge of going IPO, and there were other extenuating circumstances that prevented the film from getting made. Given the current state of affairs, I will never know whether NOT making the film ended up being a curse or a blessing.

So the lesson here is that we are all subject to headwinds, and we simply must not get too attached to anyone’s path forward. Buddhist philosophy reminds us that we live in a state of constant impermanence.  We filmmakers certainly live with great uncertainty.  And I am forever picking myself off the ground to find new inspiration.

Committee of 100: What topic/s do you feel are not being talked about enough when it comes to the advancement of women as leaders?

Janet: I feel that women are more selfless, pragmatic, and just want to get sh-t done. Rarely do we get bogged down with matters of ego.  We are naturally collaborative, our voices tend to meld together well, and we often share a strong humanistic approach.

What this means though is that it may be harder for women to get individual credit for achievements. We tend not to beat our chests loudly and given that most institutions are still somewhat hierarchical in nature, highlighting our leadership positions doesn’t come naturally.

Add to that the Asian sensibility which traditionally values modesty, and it becomes doubly hard for Asian women to be seen and heard as leaders. I long for a time when institutions value our native female instincts and preternatural resources.

Committee of 100: What qualities do you see in the next generation of Chinese American women that brings you hope and joy for the future?

Janet: I have recently read a number of English-language books written by authors who are either born in China or have spent a great deal of time there, and the level of sensitivity and authenticity with which they describe very complex situations and experiences is inspiring to me.  I think these voices, which are an inevitable outgrowth of the growing diaspora, contribute tremendously to a deepened understanding of China and Chinese that is largely obscured by newspaper headlines. The following books and films to me are brilliant because there is no attempt to declare who or what is right or wrong, good or bad, but rather underscore the emotional paradoxes and ambivalence of migratory cultures in a fast-changing world.

BOOKS:

“The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

“Beautiful Country” by Qian Julie Wong

“Tomorrow in Shanghai” and “Useful Phrases for Immigrants” by May-Lee Chai

“The Girl at the Baggage Claim” and “Thank You Mr. Nixon” by Gish Jen

“Land of Big Numbers” by Te-Ping Chen

FILMS:

“American Factory” by Julie Reichert and Steven Bognar (won Oscar for best doc)

“Ascension” by Jessica Kingdon (daughter of Anla Cheng, nominated for Oscar for best doc this year)

 Committee of 100: If you could go back in time and give advice to your 20-year-old self, what would you say to the younger version of you?

Janet: I would say something that I tell a lot of actual 20-year-olds today.  Do not be too concerned with status, with who’s up and who’s down, who’s above you, who’s below you. When I first arrived in Hollywood, I was extremely aware of being an outsider, and I felt I needed to know who and where were the pillars of established power. In the end, I found much more gratification working with people who are like-minded and whose company I truly enjoy.  The environment today is fortunately much more accepting of unique and underrepresented voices. This is so good for emerging talent!

So I also say to them, and the younger me: Rather than look up to people or down on people, look everyone straight in the eye. We’re all the same, living somewhat in confusion, and somewhat in confidence.  Speak your truth firmly and loudly.  Do not be intimidated. Do not think you need to acquiesce to a higher order.  Find your voice. Find your tribe. Find your platform. Lead with your heart.

Committee of 100: Who is your inspiration and why?

My mother passed away this past January, and I realize with ever more clarity how deep and abiding her influence on me has been.  She worked for over three decades at the United Nations, so I was very much enamored by the idea of a global community and global peace.

At the same time, I loved to visit knowing that each person was encouraged to wear their native garb and heritage proudly, just as she did with her colorful silk qipaos.

Despite her grueling commutes from the suburbs of New York to the city, she managed to find time for an active social and family life – weekly mahjong games, or dance parties, or tennis games. For several years, we had little money, but she and my Dad always made time for travel and adventures.  How she juggled three kids, plenty of entertaining, and multiple hobbies, I will never know.

I learned at her memorial service how many more family members and friends she helped than I even knew.  She gave of herself so fully.

She remained a spirited, dynamic, optimistic person until the last of her 104 years.  She kept saying what a good life she had – even though she lived through war, long separations from family, and the hardships of immigrant life, heightened by America’s Red Scare.  In the end, she died extremely peacefully, with no regrets and no complaints, surrounded by people she loved and who loved her.

My mother is whom I most admire and emulate. There is nothing more beautiful than to die peacefully. I hope I am granted the same gift.

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