Amy Tan didn’t set out to write a bestseller. In fact, she found solace in the fact that she was able to write The Joy Luck Club with “no expectations.” “I had been told that the typical first book by an unknown writer might sell five thousand copies — if you were lucky,” she told Penguin Random House. “I heard that it might last on the bookstore shelves six weeks — if you were lucky.”
But Tan got more than lucky. Her 1989 book ended up on The New York Times bestseller list for more than six months and spawned a 1993 movie — which Tan co-wrote — that brought in $32 million worldwide. “I wrote The Joy Luck Club without the self-consciousness I would later feel when the book landed on the bestseller list,” she continued. “No one had predicted the book’s trajectory, and I was stunned, as if I had won the lottery without having ever bought a ticket.”
Not only was the book a personal achievement for Tan as an author, but it also was seen as a watershed moment, proving that a fictional book featuring intertwined multigenerational stories about Asian Americans could find mainstream success both on bookshelves and the silver screen.
Tan calls the book her 'intimate diary'
Tan was a freelance business writer working 90 hours a week when she decided to bring balance into her life by channeling a more creative form of writing in 1985. “I decided to attend a writers’ workshop, read certain books, and write a short story within the next year,” she told Publishers Weekly in 1989. To apply for the program, she wrote a short story about a girl who was a chess champion and her Chinese mother.
That got her wheels turning in the fiction world. But it was a very real event that launched her journey toward The Joy Luck Club. One day, she had to suddenly go to the hospital since her mother was thought to have had a heart attack. It was on the way there that she realized how little she knew about her family’s Chinese roots, and promised to herself that if her mom survived, she’d go with her to China and soak everything up, Publishers Weekly explained. While her mom’s diagnosis turned out not to be a heart attack, Tan did go with her mother to China in 1987.
Soon she had penned the book about a group of Chinese American women who play together in a mahjong group and their Americanized daughters. “The book exists for me in its own time capsule,” she told Penguin Random House. “It contains the circumstances that led me to write it. In many ways, it is an intimate diary of my ordinary thoughts and strange obsessions, all of which were absorbed into the writing of the book.”
For audiences, there was the relatability of family love and drama woven into the multiple perspectives of different generations throughout time. But for Asian Americans, it was a breakthrough. An actual story about the culture that was so rare on American bookshelves. “When I read the book, it was the first time I felt someone was writing about my life,” actress Ming-Na Wen, who later starred in the films, told The New York Times.
Many studios passed on turning the book into a movie
Despite the success in its written pages, the book didn’t find a quick road into the film world. At the time, Asian American roles largely succumbed to stereotypes, be it martial arts action stars or those with exaggerated characteristics. Some of the actresses who were later in The Joy Luck Club described their acting experiences before the movie as being stereotypes without any real depth. “Asian American women were objectified,” Rosalind Chao, who had played a Korean bride in M*A*S*H and laundry man's daughter on a Lucille Ball series, told The New York Times. “Pretty was really all that they cared about.” The last major film that had Asian American characters in the lead was way back in 1961 with Flower Drum Song, but that also had the music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II behind it.
Most studios quickly passed on the project. “There was a perception that Americans — and that especially Americans in movies — had to be white,” Janet Yang, who was an executive producer for the film, told NPR. “But the selling point was the script… If you put aside the biases about it being an all-Asian cast...it was hard not to be moved. Many other studio executives — in fact, all the other studios that we approached could not put aside those concerns. But it took somebody who was willing to take a leap of faith.”
Finally, they found that somebody in Walt Disney Studios’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, who offered a $10 million budget and full creative control, The New York Times reported.
Yang says the studio was 'nervous' to put the all-Asian cast on display in promotions
Though they got the green light, it didn’t mean that it was smooth sailing. Yang recalled to NPR an incident where director Wanye Wang realized that despite the movie being a completely Asian American story, that very fact was going to be swept under the rug. “I do remember Wayne, who has the most lovely personality… he lost his temper one day in a marketing meeting,” she said. “We were going there to look at posters that they were going to consider for marketing Joy Luck Club and each and every one somehow managed to avoid showing full-on an Asian face.”
She believes that one was a woodcut and very abstract and angular, while another only used the backs of the women. “They clearly were nervous about showing an Asian face in, you know, a larger-than-life image,” Yang continued. “And it was ironic because we thought, well, they went and greenlit this movie. We just shot the whole thing. They say they love the movie, and now they're afraid to sell it.”
Ultimately, the box office success spoke for itself, as the film found success among a broad range of American audiences.
As further proof, some of the actors were quickly cast in big studio and mainstream roles, like Lauren Tom playing Ross Geller’s love interest Julie on Friends and Wen voicing the title character in the animated version of Mulan. Director Wang also got his next film Smoke financed quickly. “I always say that The Joy Luck Club was my green card to Hollywood,” Wen told The New York Times.
'Crazy Rich Asians' helped put the cultural impact of 'The Joy Luck Club' back on people's radar
However, what seemed to be a shift in Hollywood standards, was short-lived. It took a shockingly long 25 years before another Asian American major studio film was made — Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh, in 2018. That, also, translated into big bucks in its time, bringing in $238.5 million worldwide.
That gap in the timeline was noticeable. “It took a really long time before another feature film came out with characters in the United States by a writer in the United States,” Tan told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The difference between what happened then and what’s happening now — it’s money, it’s money, and it has to make a ton of money at the box office.”
But the author is also a fan of the film that found success thanks to the road her film paved. “I loved Crazy Rich Asians and laughed like crazy!” she added. “It’s over the top, but that’s the point, it’s meant to be funny. The part that is true — that doesn’t matter what your income is — is introducing your girlfriend or boyfriend to your parents, and their reaction, and how much you will endure for that love.”
After all, a good story is universal and the more diverse ones there are, the more it captures the much-needed representation that is lacking on screen. “I have had a number of people say to me that they and their mother read this book together when their mother was dying, and that was the last thing they did together,” Tan reveals. “That is so incredibly touching. I’m grateful. It wasn’t through my intention, but this book, in the hands of readers, gets overlaid with their own experiences and emotions, and it becomes their book.”