Mengyu Dong talks to Yi Chen about her documentary film First Vote
Yi Chen is an independent filmmaker who tells stories about Chinese American communities. In her most recent documentary, First Vote, she follows the journey of four Chinese Americans from the 2016 presidential election to the 2018 midterms. I spoke with Chen about the film’s behind-the-scenes stories as well as her own experience being a Chinese American filmmaker. She hopes her film can showcase political engagement in the Chinese American community and inspire people to vote in the upcoming presidential election. The film will be broadcast as part of the America ReFramed series on October 20, 2020. – Mengyu Dong
Mengyu Dong: Let’s start with the name of the film, First Vote. How did you come up with the title? What do you think it represents?
Yi Chen: It actually took me a while to come up with the title. There are several layers of meanings. I was interested in first-time voters. In 2016, it was the first time for Lance (Lijian) Chen’s (Assistant Professor in the School of Business Administration at the University of Dayton) to vote. And it was the first time for Sue Googe (former Republican candidate for the US Congress in North Carolina) to run for office. That was partly where the title came from. And, as I was becoming an American citizen, this is also my journey before I cast my first vote.
The story evolved to include Kaiser Kuo (of the Sinica podcast) and Jennifer Ho (Professor of Asian American Studies at University of Colorado, Boulder) who have voted before. But 2016 was Kaiser’s first vote in the United States after living in Beijing for 20 years. And for Jennifer, it was really the first time that she became actively involved in the election, doing doorknocking for local and presidential candidates. So in a way, First Vote documents the first time electoral organizing for the four of them. Now that the film is released and screening at film festivals, and will broadcast on PBS America ReFramed on October 20, we have an outreach campaign around it. So we came up with the hashtag #MyFirstVote to get audiences stories about their first vote. And of course, because of the pandemic, this year will be the first time for many people to vote by mail, and we are hoping First Vote can inspire more people to get their voices heard in this year’s election.
You mentioned a little about the four main characters in this film, Lance, Sue, Kaiser and Jennifer. But before we dive into their stories, I want to take a step back and ask why you decided to make this film.
I was looking for characters from both sides of the political aisle. And I was specifically looking for characters in battleground states. That was the goal I set for myself. Around the 2016 election, I read a lot of news about Chinese Americans casting their first votes. There was a PBS article about this group that called themselves “Chinese Americans for Trump.” They flew aerial banners in more than 30 cities. They had fundraisers for their candidate and donated to the campaign.
Since coming to the United States in 2003, it was the first time I ever saw so much passion from first-generation Chinese immigrants in the presidential election. That was really interesting to me because I have a similar background. I also immigrated from China and I was becoming a citizen and cast my first vote. So I was really curious about their passion. I wanted to learn as much as I could about voters in my own community — why they vote the way they do — so I can become more informed as a voter myself. I couldn’t find in-depth stories about Asian American voters to understand my own community. All these reasons kind of just came together, and I decided to make a film myself.
How did you find the people in the film?
It took me a long time. I started to develop the project in January 2017, and didn’t begin filming until summer of that year. It was most challenging to find characters on the Republican side. I had been living in DC since 2005. I actually didn’t know anyone who was part of the “Chinese Americans for Trump” movement. I started asking around and eventually I was introduced to some of them in Virginia. I talked to maybe ten or 20 of them, but none of them was willing to be in the documentary. But at one point, two people told me separately that they listened to this podcast, Mandarin GOP. They were both very excited about the podcast and were encouraging me to talk to the podcast host, who lives in Dayton, Ohio. That’s how I found Lance. I got in touch with him and told him that I was working on this documentary. I asked if I could go to Ohio and film him hosting his podcast. In August 2017, I went to film him, and he also arranged for both of us to attend the state GOP convention.
I got in touch with Kaiser because he wrote an article about why some first generation immigrant Chinese Americans were supporting Trump — it was exactly what I was looking for. I found Sue Googe because she ran for Congress in 2016, and some of my friends who were journalists in DC had interviewed her. Initially it was going to be these three characters. But in early 2018, I met Jennifer at an event where she gave a talk about Asian American identity in the South. The talk really resonated with me. At the time, the Asian American identity had emerged from the production, and it was always in my mind. I audited her class and asked her to be part of the film.
You spoke to dozens of first-generation Chinese Americans. Do you think the political preferences of Lance and Sue are representative of the group in general?
Well, they do share things in common. For example, we know that messages on WeChat are often overwhelmingly conservative. But we don’t know how first-generation Chinese Americans voted. I wish I had that information. An AAPI survey found that 35% Chinese Americans voted for Trump in 2016, but there was no specific data on first-generation Chinese immigrants. And what I’ve learned is that how you vote has a lot to do with your personal experience and values. So in a way, I feel that everyone has their unique story. The fact that Lance and Sue ended up being the main characters in the film had a lot to do with access — they allowed me to follow them in a very involved process. I filmed with them from summer 2017 to November 2018, midterm election night.
In the film, all four of the people you followed seemed very relaxed and open about sharing their opinions. How did you gain their trust?
Lance actually joked about how he thought I was just going to come to Ohio once and interview him, and that was it. He didn’t know I was going to keep coming back. I was a complete stranger to them. Just like any kind of relationship, it takes a long time to form. I went to their houses and spent a lot of time with them both on- and off-camera.
The two first-generation Chinese immigrants in the film, Lance and Sue, are both very civically engaged and comfortable with the camera. They are also very charismatic and they have personalities that draw the audience into their world. This is not an interview-based film. There is a lot of action: doorknocking, speeches, podcasts, handing out ballots, going to the convention, etc. It was kind of like a casting process.
It was also about timing. When I was making the film, I was not a citizen yet. So I told my characters that I was not affiliated with either party and I really wanted to understand voters in my own community and make an informed decision after I became a citizen. If I were to make this film today, I would have become a citizen already and may have already voted. The whole process would have been different.
What do you hope the film can achieve?
I think the message I want to pass on is: no matter who you support, it is a good thing to vote and participate in the democratic process. I hope people can sit down with their friends and family to watch the film together, have a discussion and connect in a deeper way. I want people to see those who are different from you politically. I think it’s important to see voters who might not go the same way as you and understand where they’re coming from. The current political environment is very divisive. I hope my film can help bridge a conversation.
Let’s talk a little bit about yourself. You mentioned that you came to America in 2003 and you were becoming an American yourself throughout this filmmaking process. Would you like to share a little bit about how you got into documentary and what it means for you to be a filmmaker?
In 2003, I came to America to study linguistics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I took a class at the film department and fell in love with it. So I decided to switch majors. I moved to DC in 2005 and got into the MFA program at American University. For my thesis project, I made a short documentary called Chinatown, about gentrification in DC Chinatown and how local immigrants were organizing to keep their housing affordable. That was how I became a filmmaker.
How does your own identity affect your storytelling? What does it mean to be a Chinese American filmmaker who tells stories about your own community?
When I made Chinatown, it was not a conscious choice to focus on my own community. I was just really interested in knowing the history of DC Chinatown. And I guess part of me as an immigrant is having this curiosity of wanting to understand the history of immigration itself. I just followed my instincts.
Now I have a clearer vision of what stories I want to tell. David Henry Hwang, a playwright I love, said: “The thing that makes you different, and uniquely you, is your superpower as a dramatist, because it is the key to writing the play only you can write.” And creating things that only you can is very satisfying for an artist. Filmmaking and storytelling are personal to me. Being an independent filmmaker is different from working on commissioned projects. It’s me fundraising and spending three or four years on the project. I need to have something that keeps me going. I need to have a drive. So I look for stories that matter to me, stories that I want to tell.
I also think it’s important for me to tell stories about my own community because our voices are under-represented. Sometimes I feel that Asian Americans are invisible. So it’s important for me to tell stories about Asian American community, to show that we are not monolithic. To break the stereotypes of perpetual foreigners and the model minority. And I think it is a very empowering feeling to see ourselves on the screen.
What will you be up to next?
I recently moved from DC to California. But I’m still working full-time on the distribution of First Vote. In addition to film festivals and screening events, I am working to bring the film into classrooms. And this year, of course, because of COVID-19, most events are online, which actually allowed us to bypass geographical limitations and cover a wider range of audience. I hope we can provide opportunities for more people to see it leading up to the election in November. ∎