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Interview with Filmmaker Yung Chang: Up the Yangtze On Slow Boat to China

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What happens when a government decides a great river must be harnessed to provide electricity for a fast-growing nation? The short answer is: People must move and life must change. The long answer would fill volumes, telling the story of the millions affected by this government project — how the rich and the poor fare differently.

Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze attempts to encapsulate these stories by following two employees on a pleasure cruise. The so-called farewell cruise itself is part sentimental journey, part modern anthropological study, and part culture clash. There are privileged foreigners coming to see a curiosity, observe people they don't understand while disappointed that the old China no longer exists. These foreign tourists have come to say farewell to a life they never knew and are served by locals whose families must say good-bye to a life they've known for centuries. Yet for many, their opportunity to be in the tourist industry is based on their pending displacement.

In 2002, Chang joined his parents and his grandfather on one of the farewell cruises. A Canadian of Chinese descent, Chang speaks Chinese and also remembers hearing his grandfather telling about old China. He was struck by the irony of the situation and as a resulted decided to make his own farewell project.

"I think my grandfather and his sentiments are representative of many who have since left the Mainland. Like I say in my film: My grandfather no longer recognizes the China he once knew."

This wasn't Chang's first trip to China. Via email, he explained, "First time I traveled to the mainland was in 1997 to visit my grandfather in Beijing. He brought me to his old home which was in a hutong. In 2002, I went back to Beijing and also to take the cruise. Much had changed. The hutong was gone and in its place a giant skyscraper. I've also traveled extensively throughout China and lived in Hong Kong."

For those who are geographically challenged, the Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world and the longest river in Asia. It has, at times, served as the dividing line between North and South China. The river has two dams, including the Three Gorges Dam, and many more are planned.

Yet the Yangtze is more than just a river according to Chang.

"To travel to the Three Gorges region is a very important trip for many Chinese people. It's almost like a pilgrimage. The Yangtze river or Chang Jiang (Long River) as it's known in Chinese is steeped in mythology and history. It's considered the lifeline of China. So you can imagine that for my grandfather it was an emotional trip."

The Three Gorges Dam project began in 1994 and isn't expected to be finished until 2011. The projected benefits will be the control of periodic flooding and a reduction of air pollution via the production of electricity from the water current thereby replacing the burning of coal. The rising waters will consume houses, villages, and towns. For this project, over two million people will be displaced.

Not only were people displaced; native animals were as well. The 2006 declaration of the baiji, the Yangze River freshwater dolphin, as functionally extinct was one of the environmental effects of this project and more animals are threatened. Yet the project moves on without environmental impact reports hindering the projected completion dates. This is China moving toward a greener future. Chang isn't concerned with this paradox, but the surreal human dramas on the farewell cruises.

The film really leaves it up to you decide the 'message'. It's not my job as a director to be heavy-handed. I want the audience to be provoked, to ask more questions. So there's been different opinions from all different perspectives, much like the different perspectives explored in the film. Westerners, Chinese Nationals, and the Chinese diaspora all have different sentiments. And just like a traveller who visits another culture in another country, one is always taking from a personal experience, a personal perspective, and I think that's important to note.

Going back in 2004 and 2005 and finally between May and December of 2006, Chang built up a story of opportunity and loss. This is part upstairs-downstairs story contrasting between the native servants who see their way of life vanishing and the foreign customers who are a bit disappointed that the old China has already disappeared. From the boat, both watch the last views of what has been the landscape of the Yangtze.

Of the many people he met, Chang chose two: Yu Shui who is re-christened as Cindy and Chen Bo Yu or Jerry. Both are given names that are easier for the foreigners to remember.

Chen Bo Yu is the spoiled only child of a middle class family. As one of many "little emperors" created under the one-child-only policy, he has a hard time adjusting to being a servant among privileged Western clientele.

Yu Shui is the eldest of three children of an impoverished peasant family who live in a shack near the edge of the river. With no rent to pay and growing their own vegetables, they barely get by. In order to have a son, the family paid fines for having more than one child. Yu Shui wants to go to college, but where will the money come from? To pay the bills from her only brother's illness, Yu Shui must work on the boat as a dishwasher.

"Because Yu Shui is the eldest daughter she is responsible for taking care of her family," Chang explained. "Yu Shui cares deeply for her brother's well-being. I think it goes beyond the only son situation. Although I believe the family has a lot of expectations of the younger brother, Yu Deng Feng. "

Up the Yangtze is Chang's second documentary. His first documentary, Earth to Mouth, was about migrant farm labor and Canada's Chinese community.

Earth to Mouth was to me a romantic, poetic, meditative film. I wanted to depict the immigrant experience and to have found this Chinese-operated farm in Eastern Ontario was very unique. The film is entirely in Chinese and Spanish. I wanted to capture the beauty of living on a farm, and to me, in a way, this very naive, romantic perspective. And having found the character of the Chinese immigrant grandmother was fascinating, the fact that she ran this farm and worked with Mexican migrant workers.

There is something also, I think, melancholic about it. The fact that she was a recent immigrant from China, isolated on this farm. When I showed the film at a festival in Toronto, there’s been people who’ve seen the film who are immigrants of other countries, and when they see the movie it resonates very deeply with them because they can relate to this kind of displacement, uprootedness, loneliness that one feels when adjusting to a new culture. I think perhaps there was something that just seeped through the film when I was shooting the movie.

Canada and America are different countries with different though linked histories. When asked how he'd compare Canada's Chinese community to the US Chinese community, Chang said:

I think there's one essential difference between immigrants from Canada and from the US. In Canada there's this idea of a multi-cultural society. In the US, it's a melting pot. In Canada, it's much more important to maintain your cultural identity and language. I think the US has a policy based on assimilation. It's a mass generalization, but I would say that the Chinese-Canadian community is much smaller than in the US and is not as connected. In the US, there's a community of filmmaking by Asian-Americans, that in my opinion, is very unified. But then again, there are great festivals in Canada, including Toronto's ReelAsian Film Festival, that bring together filmmakers from the Asian diaspora throughout Canada. But we have a deep history of Chinese-Canadians who helped to build the national railway, who have lived in Canada for many generations. There's a very good documentary by Karen Cho called In the Shadow of Gold Mountain which is about the last living survivors of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. From 1885 until 1947, this racist act plunged the Chinese community in Canada into decades of debt and family separation.

Chang wants to continue looking at China in future documentaries.

I'm working on various projects. I'm working on a production about the opium trade from production to consumption. I'm helping to produce a film by my collaborator on Up The Yangtze. Fan Lixin's film about the Spring Festival in China when hundreds of millions of migrant workers try to leave the city for five days back to their homes in the countryside – it's absolute chaos. He's followed a migrant family for two years and it's a very dramatic documentary. I am helping him to finish this film. I also expect to make more documentaries and fiction films in China.

If you can't see his first documentary and his second documentary isn't showing locally, Up the Yangtze will eventually be available on DVD and will include a more complete perspective of the people around the Yangtze.

Chang explained, "I shot over 200 hours of footage during the four years it took to make the film. Unfortunately, I could not make the 10 hour version. Additional storylines that are not in the film will be available on our DVD release."

If you do see the Up the Yangtze and want to help the Yu family, Chang mentioned that you can do that with the click of a mouse.

EyeSteelFilm helped to pay for her tuition. I've since begun a fund through a great site called GiveMeaning to help the Yu family for the next 5 years to cover medical/health, food and supplies as well as to pay for the children's school education. Most importantly, I found out that Mr. Yu desperately requires an eye operation or he will not be able to find employment. We've managed to raise a bit of money through the site. Audiences can leave a movie feeling moved to action and this fund is a great way for people to channel the hardship chronicled in the film into something positive.

Yung Chang's documentary, Up the Yangtze is a slow boat to China, a China that doesn't exist, a China that will stop existing, and a China that will exist in the future.

Chang replied to my questions before the 12 May earthquake. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake was centered 60 miles northwest of Chengdu and caused deaths in the city of Chongqing, one of the main cities on the Yangtze river.

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