Born in Beijing, China in 1964 into an intellectual family, Joanne Cheng’s childhood is tinted with vivid memories of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Western thought was severely condemned. Nonetheless, Cheng received a private family education in English from age seven. As China started to reform itself in the 80s, Cheng studied English and journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, China’s best language/communications University, which earned her a prestigious career as an English-speaking journalist and anchor for China Central Television (CCTV), making and delivering news and in depth TV stories on China in the midst of historical transformation.
left China in the late 80s when China was just beginning to open up. I wanted to find out what had changed.
However, Cheng deeply believed that a real personal transformation of herself could best be achieved in America, where she immigrated to in 1988, and earned her Masters of Art in Film/TV Communication Arts from the University of Maryland. After a decade as a New York-based TV journalist and PR marketing consultant working with various TV networks, ad agencies and international corporations under the banner of her own company East-West Corridor Communications, the independent-spirited Cheng came back to what lies at her heart: the artist, the storyteller, the filmmaker. The concrete manifestation of her decision is her intercultural documentary trilogy- and intimate portrait of contemporary China: GOLDEN LOTUS, The Legacy of Bound Feet (59min,2006), MAMA’S GOLD, The Orphans of Shangri-La (92MIN, 2003). CHINA GOLD RUSH (52min, 2000). Asiance caught up with Joanne Cheng to ask about her film experience being an Asian woman.
ASIANCE: What are you most proud of?
Joanne: I am most proud of my Chinese cultural heritage, the source of my creative inspiration. I am also very proud of my parents who have lived through the changing times and allowed and supported me to be who I am today.
ASIANCE: Do you have a list of your proudest accomplishments?
Joanne: In addition to my decision to leave one of the best career jobs in China (anchor woman for CCTV), my proudest accomplishment is, of course, the documentary trilogy I created and financed against all odds. My dream is that I want to be remembered by history as some kind of source of inspiration, said Cheng. My personal inspiration comes from my pursuit of learning about the 5000-year-old Chinese cultural legacy, and the dynamics of the old and the new, east and west. At the age of 42, I can say that I have spent half of my life in China, half in the US, so I am in many ways very mixed, or divided emotionally and culturally, I want so much to make sense of the often conflicting two, to make harmony within chaos, beauty within ugliness, timelessness within the moment.”
ASIANCE: You’ve made three very successful movies. How has this changed your life? How have your films affected those who have seen them?
Joanne: The three films, especially the last two, are social issue documentaries presenting in depth looks on the suffering of children at the loss of parents, and women at the loss of their physical and emotional freedom. It was a great learning process for me to make these films; they taught me about the process of discovery of life, the essence of life — life is short and precious; we must be daring to pursue dreams of ours. Far beyond the goal of commercial success, I want most to reach out to people’s hearts. To see my audience still have tears in their eyes after the film at many Q & A sessions (from across 3 continents and 5 countries) is very rewarding to me. I feel embraced and supported by many souls I feel I touched.
ASIANCE: How did you choose the topics for your film? How personally connected are you to the film?
Joanne: I didn’t choose the topics of my films; the topics chose me. My heart was stolen when I saw the eyes of the orphans of Shangri-la; it was the same with GOLDEN LOTUS; I miss my grandmother who was a bound feet woman. I wasn’t able to attend her funeral when I had just moved to the US. To dedicate years of your life to make a film, I must have a personal connection with the subject, a deep emotional resonance with the characters of the films.
ASIANCE: Was that your intention when making the film?
Joanne: Documentary filmmaking is a process of discovery. I left China in the late 80s when China was just beginning to open up. I wanted to find out what had changed over the decade of my absence, and then report my findings to audiences in the west. There were a lot of misconceptions about China; there was a lack of current information or enough documentary films on China today in the US media at that time. I was very pleased that CHINA GOLD RUSH was presented on PBS/wlwi 21. With GOLDEN LOTUS, about the legacy of Bound Feet, I feel I was on the rescue team of preserving human memories of the 1000 year old tradition of female survival. The last survivors, including my grandmother, who was of the last generation of bound feet tradition, were about to die out swiftly. I just had to do something immediately for the Chinese women to make a record; so future generations would have something to reckon with. It’s easier to make a film on a forbidden subject matter if you are outside China’s censorship net, which I am, by being in the US.
ASIANCE: What is the longest it took you to complete a film?
Joanne: The longest was the making of MAMA’S GOLD, The Orphans of Shangri-la. It took me 3.5 years. This process of discovery had many unexpected turns, so I had to be open to the unknown and be completely devoted to the unfolding story.
ASIANCE: What part of the process of filmmaking do you enjoy the most, the least?
Joanne: From a documentary filmmaking point of view, the most rewarding is the final editing stage where you “find your story” or you shape your story. For a feature film, the joy – the hard work – begins with the creation of the characters, the script. I enjoy every stage of the filmmaking itself, from visiting the place and people for research to the final packaging of your DVD. The least enjoyable part is that at the very beginning, you have to spend your precious time “to sell” your films to either a distributor or network, or look for funding. It would be best if you had someone who believed in your work do all that for you.
ASIANCE: What are your current dreams & goals as a filmmaker? What’s your next project?
Joanne: My best accomplishments are, I hope, yet to come -to make a few very strong-themed feature films including PHOENIX DIARY, an intercultural drama/thriller based on my 16 years of New York -Beijing existence. I am working on two scripts right now. Of course, I am still editing a documentary now it’s about NYIT student’s first encounter with pre-Olympic Beijing.
ASIANCE: Talk about teaching.
Joanne: I never thought about teaching. I always had doubts about my patience. Then, I found that to enlighten someone, to see a smiling face, to see changes, are actually very rewarding. Isn’t inspiring people – and to be inspired, myself – what I want to achieve?
ASIANCE: Is teaching something you’ve always wanted to do? Or did it come from being a successful filmmaker? What are the differences in education in China, Poland & USA?
Joanne: I taught in Beijing, Poland (a workshop only) and presently teach Documentary Film Production and Video/Film editing in New York. The educational systems and quality of the students are different. Students in Beijing found it very liberating that I encouraged them to be more independent thinking and create personal stories, (Students from a country where this type of professional information is not readily available tend to be more eager to learn) while students here in New York need more discipline to learn more since the educational support systems here are much better.
ASIANCE: How do you see your role as educator/filmmaker? Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into filmmaking?
Joanne: First of all, develop a sense of responsibility to your audience on the issues of humanity. Then learn to truly transform yourself from literal thinking to visual thinking, master the art of visual storytelling, see a great film every day or week, and then pick up your own camera and just let the process begin today.
ASIANCE: What would you say to them?
Joanne: Define yourself, consciously find out who you are, what intrigues you, and make a difference in people’s lives through your work, whatever that is.
For more information on Joanne Cheng’s Documentary Trilogy: Intimate Portraits on Contemporary China , please visit:
For more information on Steven Speliotis photography http://www.speliotis.com/