william steig drawing

August 15, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Race in Film: The Joy Luck Club

I know The Joy Luck Club like the back of my hand…Unfortunately.

While I recite lines from The Thin Man Goes Home at the drop of a hat, I carry the script of The Joy Luck Club in my mind’s eye like the scene of a horrible crime.

I cannot shake it. It will not be shook.

It is not the film’s fault. It is a fine film. A moving film. A film about mothers and daughters. Chinese mothers and daughters. Asian mothers and Asian American daughters. About generational and cultural rifts in communication, and the importance of knowing one’s history.

Honoring the lives that have given you life.

Remembering who you are.

This is a story I should have felt some closeness to, but I didn’t. And that bothered me.

I am the daughter of a Malaysian woman. That Malaysian woman is the daughter of a Chinese woman. That Chinese woman was sold as a baby to Malays (as my mother says: It is the universal Chinese practice of not valuing your daughters as much as your sons). The stories of the women in the film are not my stories or even the stories of my mother, but they are the stories of the women in my grandmother’s family.

And I was clueless about it all. I was a stranger.

The extended family I grew up with was my father’s family. An African American family. “Grandma” was my father’s mother. I didn’t know my mother’s family, knew zilch about my Asian heritage and so felt little connection. I understood that I was Asian but my Asianness was just the way people saw me. Like a costume I wore.

I wore my Asian costume and watched my Asian mother watch depressing (to a child) Wayne Wang movies in the other room. I understood that in some vague way Eat a Bowl of Tea and Dim Sum were connected to who I was, but emotionally I experienced only hostility. Resentment born out of sadness that I felt no connection. My mother loved these movies. They moved her in an important way. I hated them. These films reminded me of the strangeness of my identity: “You are ‘mixed’ but you are also Asian. You look more Asian than African-American and everyone thinks you’re Asian yet you know nothing about Asianness and do not feel Asian at all. Weeeeird.”

I even feel uncomfortable writing this article in a way I do not when exploring African American issues. The Asian experience (in all its many forms) is not my experience, even though I am Asian. Hopefully I will feel differently one day, but this is how strong the current disconnect is.

I don’t know how I would react to the movie If I saw it now for the first time. My reaction was very much about being a daughter and the mystery of my mother’s culture. Like Hans Christian Andersen, it is a film that exists in my childhood. It’s difficult to even think of it as a film. It just was. I didn’t even really watch it. I watched my mother watch it. I watched her watching the movie about the pain and joys of immigration. Of raising a daughter in America. Of navigating two cultures. Embracing the present without forgetting the past. When you are a child you feel things. You might not know, but you know. You are aware of sadness and pain and why certain people’s mothers may watch certain movies over and over and over.

As a teenager struggling with identity issues of all kinds, I was angry that my mother didn’t teach us anything about her culture. My rage was a force. I kicked a hole in the wall when I was fourteen and covered it with a piece of white paper. But I understand things now. I better know the dynamics of vulnerability, isolation and power. It’s a complicated world. Things that seem simple never are. As Auntie Lindo says: “Not. So. Easy”

But oppressive depressingness aside, The Joy Luck Club is a a rarity. A non festishistic Hollywood movie about Chinese women. Not as slinky cheongsamed femme fatales, nerds, pedicurists, or nameless yellow people in straw paddy hats, but as real multi-dimensional humans with histories. Yes the stories are melodramatic at times but that’s part of the deal, like watching An Affair to Remember or Doctor Zhivago. It’s understood. You like when the music creeps in. When the mothers look earnestly at their American daughters and give them sage advise in their heavily accented English.

I have always remembered one such advise scene in particular. The mother in question is An Mei (Lisa Lu). The daughter is Rose (Rosalind Chao). Rose has married a white American man and has put his every need before hers. This strategy for love however has not worked out and Rose is in the midst of divorce. Concerned about her daughter’s lack of dignity An Mei tells Rose the story of her mother in China: Raped and impregnated by a wealthy man, becomes his concubine, disgraces her family and is forbidden to come home, lives a life of subservience as a fourth wife, and kills herself to give her daughter a better life.

“When the poison broke into her body she whispered to me that she would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one.”

“You’re just like my mother. You never know what you’re worth. Until too late. I tell you the story because I was raised the Chinese way. I was taught to desire nothing. To swallow other people’s misery and to eat my own bitterness. Even though I taught my daughter the opposite, she came out the same way.”

With a new understanding of her history, Rose confronts her soon to be ex husband. Drawing power from her Chinese heritage and the experiences of her mother and grandmother, she transforms herself into a strong, assertive woman. A Chinese American woman proud of her Chinese mother and her Chinese mother’s culture.

The lesson here isn’t nuanced. It’s blindingly bright: REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE.

Understanding your history is important. I am still working on half of it.

When you know where you have been, you know better where you are going.


Like Auntie Lindo says it’s “Not. So. Easy.”



The one part of the Joy Luck Club that I certainly did identify with is the Asian mother style of criticism. You must always be the best. No, no. Better than the best. Like this recent exchange illustrates:

Kartina: Why do you always say “Keep improving your writing” at the end of all your emails about my articles.

Mother: Even Dostoevsky kept on improving his writing. Dad continues to improve his writing. I continue to improve my writing. Roger Ebert continues to improve his writing…like that. Get it now?

Touché mother. Touché.

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  1. Fascinating read, as always.

    You and I have had similar yet different experiences dealing with our Asianness – I’ve only got the one heritage to deal with but grew up with a chip on my shoulder from it, which I never quite knew how to handle. And I must admit, I never quite loved The Joy Luck Club – something about it representing a definitive statement on what being Asian American and female meant rubbed me the wrong way – but I do, for whatever reasons, LOVE ladies like old school ’70s Hong Kong action star Angela Mao.

    Maybe because despite being nicknamed “Lady Kung Fu” and cultivating an ethnocentric public image, she just plain kicked ass. Some things transcend labels and superficial categorization…

    Thanks, as always, for the food for thought!

  2. It’s ok to hate that movie. It’s too commercial: just an adaptation of Amy Tan’s best-selling book. Waaaaay too melodramatic. Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart is a much better film back when Wayne Wang still had some freshness.

  3. Oh Katrina: I am such a new fan! found this post via your twitter account. I loved “The Joy Luck club” I did not know you were of Asian descent as well as the other one (Me too) what a lovely landscape you get to draw upon! keep it coming girl… Both of your folks are writers?

  4. Michael Bell

    Thank you for putting into words some of the same feelings I’ve had for most of my life.

    I’m neither Asian nor African American, but I do come from a very mixed lineage. I grew up never really knowing who or what I am, and I haven’t figured out how to fill that void in my identity. Your article has given me much to think about.

    My favorite line: “When you know where you have been, you know better where you are going.”

    I’d be willing to give up so much to know where I’m going. Perhaps one day I’ll find out.

    Thank you again.

  5. Great post! I remember this movie all too well. Even though it’s not my favorite, I watched it over and over just because it centered on Asian American woman and it was one of the few times I could see that in a film.

    I’m a transracial Korean adoptee, and even though our experiences aren’t exactly alike, I can relate to the disconnect you feel. Rose, her mother, and her grandmother’s story always made me think about my birthmother and her reasons for adoption.

    This post comes at a poignant time because remembering who I am isn’t going to be so easy.

    Thanks and I love your blog!

  6. I never watched the Joy Luck Club until I was in my 20s and had lived in Canada for a while. I was moved by it, but I’m weepy and sentimental, and although I was born and bred in Malaysia, I never quite identified as Asian until I wasn’t in Asia anymore. And even though I thought the movie was wonderful, I still couldn’t find a connection to Chinese-ness through it. I think it’s because it’s a movie for Chinese-Americans, but I’m not certain.

  7. I’m so glad I stumbled across this blog post!

    My mother urged me when I was a teenager to watch this film with her. Of course, being the rebellious teen spirit at the time, I declined numerous times. Those were the rockiest years of my relationship with my mother.

    Until one day, I sat down and read the book. I didn’t put the book down until I finished it cover to cover. Throughout the entire time, there were bursts of emotions surging in me. Unlike you, I connected with the book (and later the film) on so many levels. My relationship with my mother was like a collective of all the relationships depicted in the film. Suddenly all the misunderstandings and rockiness of my own relationship with my mother became a little clearer.

    So I guess, thanks to Amy Tan and The Joy Luck Club, I understood where I came from a little better and finally understood how my mother’s psyche worked as well.

  8. Hello Kitty

    Well, it’s enlightening and comforting to read other people’s reactions to this film.

    I have a like-dislike relationship with this film. I’ve watched it many times since it was first released. Overall the film was very well crafted and I loved it for its aesthetics and for bringing Amy Tan’s book to life and all that other good film stuff. Yay for good representation–finally. Woot for the showcase of terrific East Asian talent.

    On a personal level I’ve struggled with the film. I’ve relied on it as a guidebook, an instruction manual for mother-daughter relationships among Chinese women. (For the record I identify as “ABC MIT”, that is American Born Chinese but was actually Made in Taiwan.) I wanted to discuss this film with my mother and aunts, to use it as a catalyst for discussion, as if it were a skeleton key that would unlock the myriad doors of family secrets. Enh, didn’t happen. I rattled many door knobs and peeked through some keyholes.

    Then as I grew older, moving from the 30’s into my 40’s, I would periodically return to this film to help me answer questions about race, culture, gender issues among Chinese and Chinese-Americans. Maybe there were clues that I had missed. What I found was an instruction manual with many words and pictures, but no appendices, bibliography, or even footnotes to explain the meaning behind the rules. Silly me thinking one film could be the Holy Bible. And I am Buddhist.

    Most of all I was confused and somewhat annoyed at the ending, that three of the women ended up with husbands, and the fourth independent and single one had a bittersweet reunion with her two sisters. Ungh, the feminist in me sighed. Yes, it was an affirmation about family and family ties, but geez louise I really wanted one of them to break free from the chains of the past.

  9. Man this movie was so wonderful to me because my media role models were, Mrs. Livingston, of Eddies father, or The world of susie wong, or Hop Sing of Bananza. I remember forcing my mom to watch Joy luck club with me, and she said , ” It’s ok”. Mom was the same personality as the mother , daughter in the salon shop scene. Since my mom was from San Francisco I really could relate to the movie. Watching the women have depressive moments in the film made me want to know my own mother’s hidden feelings. My mom unfortunately kept all feelings inside. Since Asian American women have the highest suicide rates in the U.S. I hope more movies like Joy luck are developed. Asian women have a lot to say yet keep it all in.



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