2008.041.002 Oral History Interview with Emily Chang
Emily Chang is a performer, writer, filmmaker, and musician based in New York City. She is a founding member of the renowned pan-Asian spoken word group, I Was Born With Two Tongues, and Mango Tribe, a Pan-Asian performance collective for women. Growing up, Chang had to learn to play the piano, take voice lessons, dance lessons, and play sports. At the same time, she was expected to excel in academics. When Chang started listening to Thelonious Monk, jazz, and Miles Davis, she realized that she could take the skills she learned from her upbringing and make her own music and write her own songs. Chang went on to graduate from the University of Chicago with a liberal arts education. Together with a diverse group of Asian American artists, she became a founding member of the Pan-Asian spoken word collective, I Was Born with Two Tongues. Chang decided to try out acting in a group called Mango Tribe, an all-women’s performing arts collective where she felt herself. Chang believes that Asian actresses are too often cast in stereotypical roles. Therefore, instead of waiting for the industry to offer her a role without stereotypes, she wants to create her own films and write characters she would want to portray.


Of course, since I was Chinese American--young kid--I naturally had to play the piano, and do voice lessons, and luckily I never had to do the violin. Well, it wasn't just music, you know; I was also forced to go to dance lessons, and I took ballet and tap. I had to do sports--you know, it was like I was forced to excel in every possible extra-curricular field as well as academics. When I was in high school, was the first time I was like, "Oh, cool, I have, you know, twelve years of piano behind me." While that's classical, on the other hand, I started listening to Thelonious Monk and jazz and Miles Davis, so I realized that, oh, I can actually take this part of my upbringing that I understood as very much, like, created by my parents and was very Chinese and then I had the other side of me that was something that I had chosen for myself that was very American. I started realizing, like, "Okay, cool, I can take this skill that I learned and then apply it to making my own music and writing my own songs."

I went to the University of Chicago, which has virtually no arts program whatsoever, it's just like a very rounded liberal arts education, which actually, I think, ended up being the best thing for me. A lot of people say that the first poetry slam began at the Green Mill in Chicago, and back then it was such a diverse crowd; I had never seen anything like it. It was black people, white people, Latin people, and then a few of us Asians in there.

So I ended up becoming a member of I Was Born with Two Tongues, which was this Pan-Asian spoken word group. So it was pretty funny for the four of us to come together and say, "Oh, you know what? Emily's Taiwanese-Chinese American, Dennis is Korean American, Marlon is Filipino American, and Anida is Cambodian-Malaysian American. Between the four of us, we've pretty much got the continent covered. Why don't we get together and do something about it?"

First and foremost, I got up there the first thing because I was a writer, you know, I go up there because I want to bear my soul, whether it's a process of catharsis or what--there's some reason that keeps bringing me back up to the stage, to the microphone. But in that act, it was kind of a community-making. We all kind of, came together at this time, bumped heads and realized, "Oh my god, this movement is happening all over the country. There are other Asian Americans out there like me who feel the same way about our experiences here in America, and I'm not alone in this."

Well, the reason why I eventually shifted over from spoken word into acting was because, as a genre, spoken word ended up becoming a little bit confined for me. So Anida and I ended up founding a group called Mango Tribe, which was an all women's performing arts collective, and that was probably my first foray into really feeling the experience as a character rather than just being me--Emily Chang--on stage as myself.

And in acting, you're completely inhabiting somebody else's existence and somebody else's body--not only that, the type of person I am is, I don't always relinquish power; it's very hard for me to relinquish power, and it was frustrating to constantly come to these roles that were like, you know, this sort of stereotype, as this oversexualized, mean, and competitive, bitchy woman out there.

Historically, there have been actresses who are Asian or Asian American who have come up in Hollywood. They've fallen to the same sort of stereotypes and had the same struggles that I feel like I'm facing now, even, you know, fifty, sixty, seventy years later. I mean, I have said no to certain things; I have said no to even auditioning for something, 'cause I read the script and I'm like, "There's no way in hell I would ever do this role." It dawned upon me, like, why wait for the rest of the industry to offer me this role that I want? Why not just produce it myself? And that's how I got into producing as well. Since I have a background in producing and writing, I thought, "Well, why not just put it all together and make my own film so that I can write the role that I actually want to do?"

My name is Emily Chang, and I am the ultimate hyphenate.

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