Actor and Filmmaker Lawrence Chau Combats Asian American Xenophobia interviews with Hustle & Soul Magazine
By Celebrity Writer, Jules Lavallee
Photo Credit: Gene Silvers
You prophetically sounded the alarm of Asian xenophobia last year with your award-winning short film, “Justice for Vincent” (JFV). Why is this film so important?
Justice for Vincent is inspired by the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was allegedly mistaken for being Japanese and beaten to death by a pair of Caucasian autoworkers in Detroit 1982 when the so-called “Japanese Auto Invasion” was compromising the American automotive industry. The murderers were let off with a mere $3,000 fine and three-year probation. The murder and the injustice of the case sparked the largest Pan-Asian civil rights movement in America.
Racism, ethnic broad stroking, immigrant scapegoating, under-valuing the life of a person of color, second class citizen treatment — what happened then continues at an alarming level today, as seen with the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner, to name a few; same with the xenophobia directed at Asians because of the coronavirus pandemic. It feels as if the strides we have made in civil rights and diversity have given way to unabashed hatred and division, so from a sociocultural perspective, JFV is relevant.
When I embarked on writing and producing JFV, some questioned me for endeavoring to helm an Asian American social justice film because Hollywood doesn’t devote its resources to such projects. My response was: “That’s exactly why I’m doing it.”
Asian Americans have a wealth of great dramatic stories to tell, but we aren’t given a chance to tell them. That’s why we have to do them ourselves. In doing JFV, I assembled a diverse coalition of talent captained by director Andy Palmer, who shared my vision in creating a moving, high quality antihate film that spoke to people from all walks of life. Our message was universal: a mother’s loss is a mother’s loss; hate is hate; injustice is injustice. In addition to Chin, we pay tribute to victims of other hate crimes like Matthew Shepard, Trayvon Martin and Heather Heyer, and we cite the gospel of one of my heroes, the great Martin Luther King, Jr.
What have you seen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?
There is a persistent sense of unease every time you step out the door if you are Asian in America right now. “Is today going to be the day something bad happens?,” you ask yourself.
If you Google or YouTube “Asian coronavirus xenophobia,” you will be shocked to learn there are about 100 Asian hate crimes and bias-related incidents occurring daily across the country. Did we see such vitriol directed at other communities during Ebola, MERS, or AIDS? Asians have been spat at, verbally abused, attacked, and told to “go back to where they came from” whilst businesses have been vandalized and boycotted.
The New York Attorney General has had to launch a hotline to report such incidences and the FBI has issued alerts to law enforcement agencies across the country to brace for an ongoing surge of Asian hate crimes.
All it takes is one incident to spark a racist knee-jerk reaction. During these polarized times, people don’t hear geography; they hear ethnicity when you refer to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus.” With the irrational, they hear a dog whistle to enact hate and violence. These are the same people, who can’t tell the difference between a Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai or Filipino person, nor do they care to. A Burmese American family, including two children ages two and six, was stabbed by a man in Midland, Texas last April because he thought they were infecting America with the coronavirus. It’s utterly irrational and unnerving. It’s as if we have lost all sense of civility and cohesiveness as a society. Asian Americans, many of whom, were born here and have never set foot in Asia, are just as vulnerable to the virus as any demographic. Less we forget, a good percentage of health care workers on the frontlines battling the pandemic are Asian; sadly, they have to battle racism, too.
As a successful TV Host turned Actor and Filmmaker. What is the state of the media today?
It’s become very polarized and partisan. As a trained journalist, it’s upsetting to see some media outlets turn their noses at the pillars of ethical journalism: truth, facts, objectivity, fairness — but I understand why it’s happened. Credible media outlets now have the onus of countering lies, conspiracy theories and propaganda like never before.
Also, news outlets with pundits arguing against each other from the left and right is not objective reporting; it’s dramatic conflict for ratings. The danger here is people lose sight of the facts, or can’t decipher spin from truth. Journalists have also become commentators, injecting their personal opinions into the news, which further muddles things.
The public’s mistrust of sound, credible media is rather bewildering. Many would allow their political beliefs to override hard facts and science. Freedom of the press is also in danger, one of the cornerstones of a democracy, which is alarming. These are unprecedented times and I have no idea if we will ever return to a state of normalcy.
From an entertainment perspective, the industry has been transitioning to a more diverse and inclusive medium. I hope it continues, but I am worried because there is so much division right now.
What do you want to see happen?
Ain’t that the million-dollar question? You can balk at what I’m about to say, but I really think The Oprah Winfrey Show was a healing force in the country. Oprah brought people together from all corners of the country and inspired a sense of unity and compassion. She elevated our consciousness and enlivened our sprits. That’s a great template to follow if we are to move forward as a cohesive society.
You qualified for the Oscars this year and JFV has, to date, garnered about 30 accolades, including a prestigious industry Silver Telly Award for creative excellence. What are you most proud of?
The accolades, for an actor and first time filmmaker, are indeed gratifying. You feel validated because of all the rejection you experience in Hollywood. However, I am most proud of the impact our film has had on audiences. Our most diverse audience comprising Asians, African Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians, occurred at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Reaction to JFV was universal. It didn’t matter what color you were; people identified with the pain of racism and injustice. I have had people come up to me at numerous film festivals and tell me they had no idea Chinese Americans had modern social justice stories like the Vincent Chin case and thanked me for bringing it to their attention. The greatest compliment, however, came from a woman, who told me our film altered the somewhat racist views she harbored towards people of color. Wow, I know.
How are you setting the stage in Hollywood to combat Asian American xenophobia?
JFV is good start. I plan to write more scripts with similar anti-hate messages and champion characters that shy away from outdated stereotypes.
How can we change the current condition of xenophobia?
I’m going to be hopeful and say education is key, and to lead with compassion and kindness. We are one race: the human race.
What is your vision for the future? What projects are you working on?
I have a comedy, a horror and other dramatic screenplays floating in my head. I need to find the time and quiet to just write, which is hard when you are essentially a one-man band juggling multiple hats as an actor, TV host, producer and businessman. Distractions are the bane of every writer.