Comparisons: The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club, the debut novel of American author Amy Tan, was published in 1989. It has been adapted into a stage play that premiered at New York’s Pan Asian Repertory Theater, as well as the 1994 drama film “The Joy Luck Club” directed by Wayne Wang. The film’s screenplay was written by Amy Tan and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ronald Bass.

The Joy Luck Club follows the lives of two generations of women: four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American-born daughters in San Francisco. Throughout the narratives, the characters have difficulty translating a complex experience or cultural understanding from one to the other. The older generation has only known Chinese customs, but in the years following World War II, the women are uprooted in various ways and find each other in the same church in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They each go through the process of creating a new identity: how much to assimilate into this new culture? what parts of my past do I hide away forever? what do I consider my true self and what do I present to the world? “I wore American clothes. I did servant’s tasks. I learned the Western ways. I tried to speak with a thick tongue. I raised a daughter, watching her from another shore. I accepted her American ways.”

On the other hand, the four daughters have no reservations in their younger years about distancing themselves from their mothers’ Chinese heritage to fit into the culture to which they’re born: “Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions. Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better.” One mother says of her daughter, “Only her skin and her hair are Chinese. Inside – she is all American-made. It’s my fault she is this way. I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix?”

Only when the daughters have grown into adults do they become curious about their mothers and attempt to bridge the cultural, emotional and linguistic divide between their generations. The older generation is not accustomed to being vulnerable about themselves, often hiding their true feelings. “I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.” Each mother and daughter strive to find their own balance of cultural identity and individuality – although in one daughter’s case this understanding arrives too late, after her mother is already gone: “I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they still look familiar. And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood.”

Amy Tan was apprehensive about her first novel when The Joy Luck Club was first published in 1989. In a 2019 interview she said, “I was very afraid. I was afraid that I would create something that would be an embarrassment or a misrepresentation of Chinese people, of Asian people. So I just kept saying no at first.” It wasn’t until Tan was approached by Hong Kong-American director Wayne Wang about adapting her book into a film that she began to consider it. Wang is a leader in Asian-American cinema whose previous works are fully centered around Chinese American stories. “I didn’t even have to explain anything. He just knew.”

Tan, Wang and screenwriter Ron Bass were able to keep total creative control, and Tan was incredibly involved in the filmmaking process. She had absorbed and utilized a lot of constructive criticism when writing The Joy Luck Club and viewed this as another opportunity to learn as much as possible. “I had written the book. Now it’s being adapted and I did feel I had a responsibility to the audience. I think this medium, this form of storytelling has a very different impact. It’s wider, it has different expectations, so I had hesitations.”

At the time of filming, there were no known Hollywood movies set in the present day with an all-Asian cast; although The Joy Luck Club was a success with critics and audiences, as well as earning $32.9 million at the box office, there was not another major movie with an Eastern Asian cast until 25 years later with “Crazy Rich Asians” (which is also based on a best-selling novel). Amy Tan reflects, “It was surprising because [the movie] was fairly successful. We thought it would open some doors for for the actors who’re so talented. They did get opportunities in television, but nobody got the lead role in anything.”

The book has won the following awards:

The movie has won the following awards:

Click here for more books about the relationship between mothers and daughters

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