Asian Heritage Month: Karen Lam on how 2020 was the year she became an Asian filmmaker

Karen Lam

In honour and celebration of Asian Heritage Month we invited filmmaker and alumna Karen Lam to share her perspective on the changes and challenges of the past year.

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What a difference a year makes. 2020 was quite the year: for some, it was a cataclysmic pause in their life. It was all about shutting down and locking up. For me, it marked the year I became an Asian filmmaker.

I know this sounds odd. I’ve always been Chinese, and being asked how it feels to be a BIPOC woman directing is one of the strangest questions I get asked. It’s not like I have experience directing as a white dude so it’s seems more a Zen riddle than an actual question. But the Chinese-ness of my work as a producer, director or writer was never up for discussion — because it wasn’t. That is, until 2020.

I’ve always lived in a kind of duality. I’m the direct product of my parents’ experimental philosophies and life choices. I was born in Toronto, moved to Hong Kong briefly as an infant but grew up largely in Brandon, Manitoba during my formative years. I felt more Mennonite than Chinese based on what I ate, my crafting hobbies, my beliefs — although I do dance (badly and regularly).

My parents were incredibly proud of being Chinese: my father came from an academic family and taught education at Brandon University. My mother came from a wealthy business-class family, the sixteenth child of seventeen. The driving force of moving us to Brandon was that I could assimilate more easily into white, Canadian society if we were far enough away from our own.

Yes, they wanted me to be proud of my Chinese heritage but they didn’t want me so burdened by cultural baggage that I ended up somewhere in-between. As my mom would say: “Not mountains, not water.” Pick a lane and do it well.

We always spoke English at home. I don’t recall ever speaking to my father in Cantonese. My mother would sigh about the pronunciation skills of other Canadian-born Chinese: “If you’re going to mangle our language, don’t do it at all.”

But their stance went far beyond language and cabbage rolls.

My late father was (and is) a huge influence on my career, my career choices, potential for career success — did I mention my career? And he issued frequent warnings about the potential pitfalls. Success in this white-dominated world means not leaving any room for doubt. I’ve heard fellow Asians joke about the “Asian fail” which is anything less than an A or 80%.

I’ve heard white parents complaining that this Asian pressure to succeed has ruined the joy of school for their offspring. But for my father, academic success was practical. The reality is that I would always need to hit 90% just to receive 75%. Of course it isn’t fair, but good Asian upbringing isn’t about complaining about what’s fair. It’s about reality and survival.

People in this world are looking for excuses not to promote you, to find excuses for your success. The teacher likes you better, there’s an affirmation action program in place, they feel sorry for you. To combat this, my life’s mission would be to leave no doubt as to why I was good enough, capable enough, white enough. Don’t give them an excuse to keep you in a box. Making films about the Chinese immigrant experience, writing stories about convenience stores or Chinatown or restaurant ownership not only limits your opportunities, it’s an insult to the complexity of our culture. Encouraging us to tell these same stories is an easy way to keeping us in a box, to make us “safe” so we’re no threat to anyone.

All this advice was doled out to me over a shared packet of pepperoni sticks while watching Charles Bronson revenge films. My father had a penchant for action and gory deaths. My mother loved true crime and macabre books. This apple clearly did not fall far from the tree.

But all this changed in 2020. BLM, the George Floyd protests, the cesspool of bigotry rearing its ugly head around the world, all heightened by a worldwide pandemic that could trace its roots to my ancestral country. To a lesser degree, the release of my feature film, The Curse of Willow Song, which is my third feature but the first to be set in the Asian community, with an almost all-Asian cast, with its underlying theme of systemic racism.

Which brings me to now.

I realize I don’t have the luxury or privilege of being neutral, of being that model minority. Because not telling the stories, not sharing my perspective, is an abdication of responsibility. It allows others to tell me what my perspective is, to create characters and interpret my experiences in ways that suit their needs. It’s allowing myself to become a token.

In the course of a year, the world changed, whether we were ready or not. And if there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s that silence is acquiescence, and acquiescence is no longer an option.

Karen Lam has worked full-time in the film and television industry since 2000. Starting her career as a producer and entertainment lawyer, Karen has since written and directed eight short films, two music videos, series directed a true-crime documentary series for Investigation Discovery (US), web series Mythos (2015) for TELUS, and three feature films Stained (2010), Evangeline (2013) and The Curse of Willow Song (2020), which premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival in September 2020. The film won best British Columbia feature film and Karen received a best director award at the British Columbia Leo Awards for her work. Karen has also written television scripts for SYFY and Netflix on the series Van Helsing and Ghost Wars. She is an alumna of NSI Drama Prize and NSI Totally Television


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