May Tchao wasn't always an aspiring filmmaker, but after working in the advertising industry for years, the Chinese-American Evanston, Ill. resident knew she had a story she needed to tell.
After quitting her day job in 2009, Tchao enrolled in several filmmaking classes and took up the craft with one primary focus: To return to the country where she was born not only to document how Chinese women today are faring in the vastly changing Eastern nation, but also to delve into what could have been if she stayed in China, rather than uprooting her life and moving to the United States many years ago.
In order to fund her upcoming film, which she has titled "Rise of the Phoenix," Tchao has, like many up-and-coming filmmakers, turned to Kickstarter. This month, she launched her fundraising campaign, which will support the costs of her return trip to China and continue speaking with the women through which she aims to share a holistic and accurate portrayal of the current state of gender equality in the rapidly progressing world power.
(Scroll down to watch a preview of Tchao's film.)
The Huffington Post recently spoke with Tchao to learn more about her adventure.
HP: What inspired you to begin work on this project, the film "Rise of the Phoenix"?
MT: Gender issues seem not to be a big thing nowadays, I think -- especially in the west and in China too, to a certain extent -- because the awareness is not so prevalent. But when you dig deeper, you discover lots of interesting things. So I thought, as a woman who was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong and has lived in this country for many years, I knew the two cultures and was interested to do some exploration into this.
What specifically are some of the themes you wanted to explore as you delve into the topic of women in China today?
Had I stayed in China, I would have been there during the generation of cultural revolution. I'm always curious to think how I would have fared had I stayed there. My mother in her experience as a little girl growing up was in a very big Chinese family where her dad really looked down upon her as a second class citizen, as inferior to a boy. That really made an impression. With that background, I am curious to see how women are faring now. Chairman Mao promised equality long ago, after liberation in 1959 I think, and it seems like women are more liberated -- that piqued my curiosity. Finally, we hear a lot about the one-child policy as it is implemented and a lot of girls -- or female fetuses -- are aborted and little girls are often orphaned and abandoned. I am really, really curious why a mother would be a part of that act? It is so severe that the gender balance in China has become a bit of a problem. I'd like to explore why the mothers themselves do this -- is it ignorance or pragmatism or a lack of self-worth? It's really the futile traditions of gender bias, I think.
I understand you've already interviewed three of the five sources you wanted to include as profiles of women that make up the bulk of the film. How did you go about choosing and finding these women? What types of sources were you hoping to profile?
China is a very big country and very complex society. I remember Hu Jintao saying that there are essentially two Chinas -- a rural China that is still developing and faces many challenges and the other is the developed China which is urban and industrialized along the coastal cities. I used that idea as the guideline to find my subjects, because the rural female experience is very different from the urban experience. The women I have chosen include a very successful lawyer in urban China, a peasant girl in the far western province of Ningxia who pulled herself up, did well for herself and became educated and a divorced woman who became a maid in Beijing from Sichuan.
Tchao's Ningxia interview subject Pui Ruixia (right). Image courtesy of Tchao.
What was it like to go there to begin filming? When was the last time you had been there previously and what differences did you notice?
China is really changing at breakneck speed. I took my daughter back to China in 2004 for her high school graduation gift and it was already changing then. When I went back in 2009, it was even more dramatic. I think because the pace of change is so fast that people over there really just keep kind of reacting to things versus really rationalizing why they do what they do. But I thought the people were very open.
The women didn't seem to feel like they were in a disadvantaged position. They just feel like they are striving, striving very hard. But then I ask them why little girls are being abandoned, why men sometimes get the job first before women even if they're equally qualified and why women don't always get land rights -- such as the divorcee in Sichuan who really had to fight for it. They've accepted it. But when you really point it out, they ask, "How would I know we were not being treated fairly because nobody ever told us?" That brings home the issue of self-worth. To think, hey, I am as good as my brother. But I find it interesting that the women themselves do not think so much about it, because they are busy trying to struggle.
On the other hand, there are also a lot of very successful women, like the lawyer I interviewed who is a partner in an international law firm. I also talked with some of the Chinese students at Northwestern here in Evanston and they are very intelligent, hard-working and ambitious and want to be professors or doctors. It is really a different scene. I think it's really based on socioeconomic background -- some people get opportunities and some people don't.
I'm curious how working on this project has impacted how you look back on your time spent living in the part of the world you are telling this story about?
I feel very fortunate to have spent most of my adult life in the U.S. and to basically be a part of the American fabric. Democracy and equality are very important to me. I have very mixed feelings about China, though. I would say I am proud of China and how far it has come -- and China is going to be a big, influential power in the 21st Century, no question about it. But I'm also still appalled at some of the traditions holding it back, especially for women.
What is your timeline looking like going forward with completing the filming and then releasing it to the public?
I started the production in November 2010 and spent five weeks there. It was wonderful and really opened my eyes. I hope to raise enough money through Kickstarter to go back sometime this year and tell two more stories I'd like to explore -- one of migrant works, who are such an integral part to China's progress and power and are these rural women who made a lot of sacrifices and the other is to look into the kidnapping and trafficking of women in the far northern provinces to be married off to men who would never be able to find wives on their own. It's an issue that is very sensitive because it is a bad reflection to the government and may cause problems to the women, so I'm not sure. From there, I'd like to put all the stories together to present a more holistic view of the situation of women in China -- a rough cut together by the end of the year and hopefully I'll finish early next year.
And how do you hope people who see the film will react to it?
My ultimate hope is that this film might inspire these women -- across all cultural and social boundaries, including in India, the Middle East and Africa -- to take charge of their destiny, reassess their own worth and then assert their independence and break with the oppression traditions. The traditions are the baggage that promote this continuation of bias.
As of Jan. 31, with over a month to go, Tchao's "Rise of the Phoenix" film campaign has raised nearly $2,500 of its $8,500 fundraising goal. Click here to learn more and help this important film become a reality.
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