32-year-old Seoul-born, Denmark-raised, Thomas Yong is a businessman with a passion for film, specifically films that deal with under-represented aspects of Asian American culture. When not busy with his day job as an Account Manager at TDC Carrier Services USA, he spends almost every waking moment producing films through his production company Shouting Cow Productions. His past film credits have included the shorts Basic Emotions and Color of a Doubt. His current project, a Super16 feature film entitled Tie a Yellow Ribbon began shooting this past February and is about the troubled lives of three Asian American girls over the course of two decades.
[Ed. Note: The independent feature film Tie a Yellow Ribbon will be having a benefit party, "Unveiling the Butterfly: an evening of entertainment with Asian American women" next Thursday, October 27th at 8pm at 383 West Broadway on the 6th floor. Performing artists will include Jenny Choi, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Annie Lin, Yellow Rage, Florence Yoo and Wendy Ip. To purchase advance tickets, please go to www.yellowribbonparty.com. To learn more about the film, please visit www.yellowribbonmovie.com.]
In the producer notes for the film on your Shouting Cow website, you described Tie a Yellow Ribbon as the film that you had long been waiting for. How so?
I was very interested in [writer/director] Joy Dietrich's script because I find that Asian Americans and Asian American girls, specifically, have been very under-represented in the media. There really hasn't been much focus on Asian Americans. Every now and then we have the stereotypical representation of them as a guy who is a martial arts expert or a math geek or these women who are submissive sexual beings, but I've always just felt that there is so much more to it than that. Since the Asian American community is so large and comprises such a large segment of the population in the U.S., I feel that we should represent them and tell stories about them, real stories that, yes, confront specifically Asian issues, but that also deal with issues in general.
Could you be a bit more specific in terms of what kinds of issues the film deals with?
I mean, okay, Tie a Yellow Ribbon is about Asian American girls. One of the characters in the film has to deal with this perception of her as being this model citizen. Another is a Korean adoptee brought up in a white suburban milieu, sorting through identity issues. And a third deals with thoughts of suicide and an abusive white boyfriend with an Asian fetish.
But the themes and the story lines of the three main characters are pretty universal, not just for Asian American girls or for Asian Americans, but for people in general. Thoughts of suicide, issues of identity, depression, how to be a model citizen, loneliness, love etc. These are powerful issues with mass relevancy and broad appeal.
What is the genesis of the film's title?
Actually, it's very relevant to what we're talking about here. The title of the film was actually inspired by the unfortunate fact that Asian American girls are disproportionately represented in the suicide statistics here in the U.S. And nobody has really wanted to figure out: why is that?
Now, as many people know, the tradition of tying yellow ribbons around trees is a way to honor those at war and pray for their safe return. But what not as many people know is that countless Asian American girls are fighting an undeclared war against depression each day of their lives. It's a silent, quiet, desperate war that has taken literally thousands of lives to date. And the saddest part is that no one in mainstream culture even seems to know it's going on.
The issue of Asian American girls dealing with depression was much on Joy's mind during her writing of the script, and in researching the topic she came across the Yellow Ribbon International Suicide Prevention Program. At that point - and throw in the natural association of Asians with the color yellow - it all became so obvious that the project practically named itself.
You mentioned that one of the characters in Tie a Yellow Ribbon is a Korean adoptee. As a Korean adoptee yourself who also grew up with a white family, albeit in Denmark, was that an issue you were able to identify with?
Oh yes, very much. On very many occasions, the Korean adoptee character in Tie a Yellow Ribbon is very much a part of my life. And there are parts that are entirely fictional. For example, living in New York really gave me an opportunity to get to know Korean and Asian culture. Something I could never learn in Denmark.
Well first of all, there was a long period of my life where I almost thought I was white. I grew up in a white family and my friends were white. And, so, when you're not around other people of color, you start thinking that you are the same as anyone else. All my values come from my upbringing, being raised in the Danish way, the Western way, and I really don't have any link to Asian culture except for my looks.
So presumably, then, you've never met your birth parents. Do you know anything about them?
I was adopted when I was one year old and don't really know anything about my birth parents or even how I got to the orphanage. Growing up, it wasn't something my parents often discussed. And it wasn't something I ever really asked about. I didn't really care.
You never tried to find them?
No. I've been back to Korea since, but I didn't look for them. I wasn't ready for it.
Have there ever been times you've been made to feel like an outsider?
It's only later that I came to realize that certain experiences where I thought people were just ignorant or they were funny or whatever, that these were places where racism had just poked out it's ugly face.
Could you provide an example of a "racist poke" you've encountered?
Well, for example, I had applied for a couple of jobs and I remember this one job where I got an interview - I mean, I have a Danish name but obviously I look Korean - so when I applied for the job, the employer, he was interested in me, but then I came in and when he saw me he was, like, "Well, we're actually quite full now, but if something else comes up we'll be happy to hire you and blah, blah, blah." And then a few days later a friend of mine heard about the same job opportunity and he got it.
How did that make you feel?
I didn't really think about it at the time really. I thought, oh, well, maybe I didn't have the qualifications or maybe at that particular time when I had the interview it was true that he wasn't looking for anyone.
Now I think, well, that was clearly discrimination. But I didn't realize it at the time. I didn't understand then as clearly as I do now that looks are very much put in to play in terms of how other people perceive you, and that, in turn, is very much put in to play when you think about how you see yourself. I realize now that I will always be different. And there were times, not that long ago actually, where I was unhappy about that.
In order to come to terms with that difference you have to embrace both sides of the fact. I do have some Korean in me, if not my cultural background, then at least my looks, but also you have to come to terms with that you are at least 98 or 99 percent "white," having grown up in the Western culture.
And yet the films you produce deal primarily with Asian issues. Is there a bit of a "going home" going on at all there?
Yes. It's a big thing to make a film. It's such a powerful medium. This gives you a good opportunity to take something that is important to you and tell the rest of the world. So, yes, these issues have been on my mind and that's also part of the reason I am producing Tie a Yellow Ribbon.
Tie a Yellow Ribbon, for all its universal thematic appeal, can hardly be termed a "commercial" film. Do you worry that the film will disappear into Asian niche film territory?
We recently signed a development deal with ITVS with an option agreement. Joy is reworking the script as we speak. Should ITVS follow its option, then there's a possibility that the film will be shown nationally on PBS. That will be a great way of reaching a broader audience. Beyond that, we hope to get the film into several of the prestigious film festivals such as Sundance Film Festival etc. and eventually parlay that into a theatrical release.
Given that you have already shot some of the film, obviously there have been other sources of financing. What have some of those sources been?
We have received a couple of grants here and there. Joy received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. And my company Shouting Cow Productions has also invested some money in the project because we believe it's an interesting story that needs to be told. Additionally, we're looking for private investors and raising funds via a series of benefit parties.
In fact, next week you'll be having a benefit party for the film?
Yes. We're holding a benefit, an evening of entertainment with Asian American women, for the film this coming Thursday, October 27th at 8pm at 383 West Broadway on the 6th floor.
The event is being promoted as "Unveiling the Butterfly"? Any specific allusions you're going for?
Well, a lot of the ways of looking at Asian American women have been connected to the symbol of the butterfly. For instance, there was a movie Madame Butterfly that brought that issue up. But we wanted to take the event a step further, and focus on the positive and lyrical aspect of the butterfly. The butterfly goes through all these various transformations in order to develop into this fantastic beautiful creature. Only by spending time observing that will you be able to see and appreciate its beauty.
For us it's sort of the same frustration with both Asian Americans and Asian American girls. We want to break away from all these preconceived notions about who we are; to actually to come out of this cocoon, and to show that Asian Americans are very diverse, different and represent a lot of things that, once you get to know about them, your understanding, like the butterfly, blossoms and transcends what it was before.
So the benefit itself, in a way, could be viewed as a microcosm of the film itself, no? Enhancing and broadening perceptions of Asian American Women?
Sure. Raising money aside, on one hand we see it simply as an opportunity to just have fun and meet some interesting people, but on the other hand we also want people to see and experience the very talented and multi-dimensional Asian American performers we have lined up, performers such as Jenny Choi, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Annie Lin, Yellow Rage, Florence Yoo, Wendy Ip and many others. It's an opportunity to present Asian American issues in the down to earth, pleasant environment of a party. There'll be performances, singing, poetry slams, DJ's, some drinks and what not. We're looking for a great turnout.
Having had the opportunity to read the script, all this talk of transformation brings to mind a sequence in the film, a tableau inspired by an Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina's World. The painting is this seemingly laconic, idealized portrait of a woman lying in a field staring toward a farm house in the distance. I remember how radically my view of the piece shifted once I learned she was disabled.
Yes. Absolutely. Because if you don't know the story behind the story you see things one way, but if you know the history behind it, that this woman is paralyzed and can't really move very well, your whole perception actually changes almost 180 degrees about what this painting is about.
And I think the same thing applies to Tie a Yellow Ribbon. You see these characters, Asian American girls, and you have this one perception of them, but as you get to know them and see them interact with one another and everybody else, it all changes right in front of you. In a way I guess you could say you're unveiling the flip side of the butterfly. Because in the context of Tie a Yellow Ribbon, the cocoon spirals apart to reveal not just the hidden beauty residing within, but also the underlying pain and dysfunction.