Underground: Says Yang of 'Tongzhi in Love,' "It took a long time for us to find men for the film who would be willing to tell their stories." (Photo courtesy Frameline)

Ruby Yang on 'A Double Life'

Michael Guillen June 23, 2008

Ruby Yang’s A Double Life, also known as Tongzhi in Love, is boasting its West Coast premiere at Frameline32, screening with Yang’s Oscar-winning documentary short The Blood of Yingzhou District on Saturday, June 28, 2:30PM at the Roxie Film Center. Although unable to attend the festival proper, SF360 caught up with Ruby Yang during a recent Bay Area visit to discuss what’s been called her "latest and most lyrical film yet."

In 2003, noted Chinese American filmmaker Ruby Yang, in collaboration with producer Thomas Lennon, formed The China Aids Media Project (CAMP) to promote public health in China through film, television and other visual media. Fully committed to CAMP, Yang moved to Beijing, China—where she currently resides and works—directing documentaries and public service announcements (PSAs).

SF360.org: Ruby, what inspired Tongzhi In Love?

Ruby Yang: This project came about when CAMP did our AIDS research to raise AIDS awareness in China. During my year of research, I spoke with several Chinese gay men and, of course, a lot of them are at high risk. Because of traditional social pressures, many of them are married. The stigma of being gay is huge and most of them are afraid to talk about it. Even if they have been gay their whole life, they will never reveal it to anyone, especially in an interview; they never want anyone to find out. So my subjects and I always met in the dark, in a café. For most of them it’s very hard to come out.

The younger generation is more willing to talk about being gay. It took a long time for us to find men for the film who would be willing to tell their stories. All of them are under 30 and share the predicament of having reached the age where they are expected to marry. In China, men marry young, around 25; in the village, 22. The three characters of Tongzhi in Love live in Beijing, though they’re not from Beijing. The city has allowed them to live a freer life. They can hang out with their friends and be themselves. Still, in the workplace they cannot reveal their sexual orientation.

These gay men love their parents but, at this stage, could never tell their parents they’re gay. With a few of them, their parents know. I felt this was a very good story that could be captured on film and, hopefully, we can use the film in China as a way to help people accept these gay men for who they are in both the workplace and in society. In China, people are becoming more tolerant.

SF360.org: How will screening the film in a festival like Frameline engender increased tolerance in China?

Yang: The film’s publicity will bring awareness back to China. For example, after Blood of Yingzhou District won the Oscar, a lot of press in China talked about the film and brought up the issue of AIDS orphans. AIDS is no longer an underground issue. The more we expose the issue of gay men and their dilemma outside of China, eventually we will bring that openness back into China.

SF360.org: Your films stage a wary dance between respectful conformance to traditional values of family and village life and contemporary urban self-expression. Aware that China has sometimes been oppressive regarding censorship of sexual issues, have you had any problems with the government censoring your exploration of these themes?

Yang: China is multifaceted. On the Internet there’s a lot of explicit discussion of sex on gay websites and there are many BBS chat rooms. Gay men are able to meet on line to discuss their issues. Mainstream media, of course, is tightly controlled by the government. But there are now—just in the last three or four years—so many venues where people can seek out information. It has changed a lot. In the big cities there are now gay bars where men can meet and there are support groups and quite a bit of NGOs where gay men can find counseling. There are hotlines. Places they can get HIV testing.

SF360.org: On a related note, will there be any issues with your documentary being screened on Chinese mainstream media?

Yang: The Blood of Yingzhou District never screened on Chinese television. It was screened at universities and some public screenings. That was not a problem. For this film—Tonghzi in Love—I don’t know yet. I don’t think it will be screened as publicly as The Blood of Yingzhou District. It will probably only be screened in special situations.

SF360.org: Did you have any problems with government censorship during the production of the film, during shooting?

Yang: In the case of The Blood of Yingzhou District, we had the support of charities, so we were okay. It was actually more sensitive with Blood of Yingzhou District because we were involved with the whole village, whereas with Tongzhi in Love it’s basically three people telling their stories.

SF360.org: Though filming private individuals, you did shoot in some public areas, such as parks and saunas?

Yang: We worked with a group who was passing out pamphlets and condoms in the park and didn’t show any faces. As long as you have permission of the individuals and you make them aware you’re filming, it’s not an issue. With regard to the sauna, we had the permission of the owner. Again, we were not showing their faces.

SF360.org: Did winning an Oscar open up funding opportunities for

Yang: Actually, not much. People do return your phone calls. There are many people who want me to direct a documentary for the government in China. By government, I mean provincial stations or other similar situations. Winning an Academy Award is something of a liability in China. It’s a plus and a liability. If I want to do a documentary, I have to be very low-key. I usually just want to be anonymous in situations. But with regard to public health, yes, the brand name of the Academy Award has helped. Funding is just about the same.

SF360.org: How did you approach your three subjects and convince them to be a part of your film?

Yang: Frog, the main character, was working with us on the film and posted on line, ‘We are making a documentary. Anyone who’s interested, please contact us.’ Five or six people responded, willing to be interviewed. Out of the five, we concentrated on two. And then we got Frog out in front of the camera because he was himself a very good character. All three wanted their story told. Once they said they would be willing to participate in the project, they had no problem. Some of them, however, don’t want the film to be shown in China because they don’t want their parents or some of their friends to know, although they’re okay with the film being shown outside of China. So few documentaries talk about this issue and they very much want the word to get out.

SF360.org: Why the change in title?

Yang: I had doubts about the working title A Double Life and a lot of people commented they felt it was negative, implying that gay people lead a double life. I don’t want to imply that; also, it’s a cliché. Tóngzhì in Chinese means ‘comrade’ and—starting in the ’90s—people adopted Tóngzhì to mean ‘gay’ in Chinese. Throughout Asia—in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China—Tóngzhì has this double meaning of ‘comrade’ and ‘gay.’ I wanted to use that term. The ‘in love’ part is good because young people in their 20s are in love and they also love their parents. They care a lot about upsetting their parents.

SF360.org: I’m glad you used 
Tóngzhì. When I Googled it, I was amazed to see just how much it has been incorporated into the gay lexicon and how much information can be secured on Chinese Gay life just by using that term. Thank you.

Yang: On our poster and on our postcard we have a tagline that explains the meaning of Tóngzhì for people who don’t know its meaning. I think it’s an intriguing title.

SF360.org: Do non-gay people in China know that
Tóngzhì is slang for gay?

Yang: I think they know. Some people who are more in tune with what’s going on, yes. Of course if they don’t want to talk about gays, then they won’t know. But all the health officials we have interacted with, they know. And if you Google Tóngzhì —as you did—much of it will come up as gay. Eventually, I think it will be a word everyone will associate with gay.

SF360.org: Do your subjects know what it’s like for gays in Hong Kong or Taiwan, outside of Beijing, where being gay is more out in the open?

Yang: Yes, they do. Most of the gay men spend a lot of time online where there’s quite a bit of information if you go search. Frog has spent most of his time online. And Xiang Feng too. They, of course, long for the openness that gays have outside of China; but, they live in China.

SF360.org: It seems that this knowledge would inform their hopes and dreams?

Yang: You can’t translate the same set of values to China; it’s very hard. You have to go step by step. You can push it only so much. The first step, in my opinion, will be to inspire more tolerance of gay people in China. Even in Beijing, some people could lose their jobs. They cannot be themselves in the work place. In fact, it’s extremely painful for them. Hopefully in 10 years time, they’ll get their rights; but, they have to work with the first step first. It was only in 2001, seven years ago, that ‘homosexual’ was no longer classified as a mental disorder in China. There’s still a long ways to go. If you compare this to the U.S. in the early ’80s when gay men were being beaten, and how it took 27 years to change that and have openly gay characters on TV, China will have to take about the same amount of time, though hopefully less.

SF360.org: I appreciated how the one character articulated that Beijing was like a piece of sky in which he could lift his head up and project his dreams.

Yang: Beijing Is My Sky was almost the film’s title. But because of the Olympics, we decided not to use that and confuse people who are associating Beijing only with the Olympics.

SF360.org: Your three subjects are basically closeted men in China. Will you not talk to openly gay young people in China?

Yang: The openly gay group is a very small percentage and they can be open only when they are with their group. A lot of times they marry and have wives and kids. If you go to a Shanghai gay bar, you might say, ‘Oh, this is the same as San Francisco.’ But that is only a little slice of life. That’s not all over China. It’s not so easy. When gays are younger they go out to the gay bar but when they get older they get more reclusive and they don’t go out anymore. A lot of them you don’t see in their home life; in—as the one person put it—the ‘shell’ of a life. If you don’t see them, you don’t know what’s going on.

SF360.org: Is this the first documentary on this subject in the Chinese language? Even though gay characters have appeared in features, has there been no documentary focus? I would love to see more.

Yang: We are working with a couple of stations right now. At the end of this year we will do three talk shows about gays in China. We’ll have a health expert. We’ll have the parents of a gay man. We’re looking for characters in China. We have some Chinese television stations that have said they will help us do a documentary so we can change views a little bit; but, you can’t do it overnight. Two years ago a documentary short was aired on television. One of the characters was an AIDS activist and a gay man who talked about his life. It was aired and censored. In Hong Kong they cut it. It depends on which region and which television station. These new developments are very encouraging because a couple of years ago it couldn’t even be discussed. We hope that through this documentary we can open people’s minds a bit.

SF360.org: Is it possible that—as far as target audiences go—
Tongzhi In Love might have more impact in urban areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Beijing precisely because it’s closer to the existing gay communities and their families, and to people who travel more frequently between China and the Western countries? Are there plans to screen Tongzhi In Love in regional gay film festivals? Are there regional gay film festivals in China?

Yang: I just finished the film yesterday. [Laughter.] And Frameline32 is its West Coast premiere. But we definitely want to make it as available as possible to gay and lesbian film festivals and on university campuses for discussion. That’s what we did with The Blood of Yingzhou District. That’s what we hope to do with this film as well. It’s just that we’ve just started and, of course, we’d like to have it shown as much as possible, now, on TV here and throughout Asia.

SF360.org: With film being a medium by which so much can be variously effected, I’m respectful of your personal wish to use film as a social device by which to enlighten and educate people. Your commitment is astounding, let alone effective. What motivated you to move from the United States to China to focus on this important work?

Yang: Naivete. [Laughter.] I was in China in the year 2000. I spent time in the village seeing children who were poor and underprivileged and I saw the difference between the city and the rural areas. After becoming an American, I saw at that time a lot of news about the AIDS orphans and was very moved by the story because they have been doubly stigmatized. First, they’re already orphans. But then their parents have died of AIDS, another stigma. They’re stigmatized even though they don’t have the disease. It was a necessary story to be told. At that time I worked with my colleague Thomas Lennon and he helped through those 18 months to film The Blood of Yingzhou District.

I think a person only gets one true chance at getting to do something really important. I knew that The Blood of Yingzhou District was important work. I didn’t know that it would reach so many people. I didn’t know how hard the work was going to be. But it was a good opportunity and the thing for me to do.

SF360.org: You’ve been exploring the PSA, the public service announcement, which—in your hands—is almost like a genre all unto itself in China right now. [Yang nods her head affirmatively.] I loved the Jackie Chan one! How important to differentiate between the fictional dangers in movies and the dangers present in real life! I understand further that—with these PSAs—you’re venturing further into ecological concerns? Can you talk a little bit about your future work with CAMP?

Yang: We’re working on raising public awareness about secondhand smoke because the Olympics are going to be smoke-free and in Beijing they have already banned smoking in certain areas, not all venues but in the Olympic venues. So it was a good opportunity to raise that issue to a high level. We understand now—after working in China for four years—that if you work with the government, your message gets to be seen 400,000,000 times, whereas if you work on your own on your website, it’s not as effective.

On the environmental front, we hope to do more PSAs and short films to stream on the Internet. The Internet right now is a huge opportunity. We’re working with the largest video streaming website in China. If they put it on their front page, literally one million people will see these PSAs easily. We were experimenting with the Jackie Chan PSA and at the end of our three-week campaign, 10,000,000 people had seen these PSAs. It’s amazing! We never would have imagined that. There is a lot of opportunity to do that kind of humanitarian work in China.

SF360.org: How is Gao Jun, the little boy in
Blood of Yingzhou District?

Yang: He is doing okay. Zhang Ying, the charity lady, rented an apartment next to her charity association and hired someone to take care of him. He’s also received medication from the U.S. They’re working to get pediatric medicine to him. He’s doing okay. I saw him last year. He’s grown and now talks non-stop. You recall in the film he never talked? Zhang Ying’s charity is still doing well and she has kids going to her Saturday activities. Besides Gao Jun, she has three more orphans she’s helping.

SF360.org: Thank you for your continuing commitment to those issues.

Yang: Yes, we’re still doing AIDS work. In fact, we have launched three major campaigns in China and a lot of people are working now on AIDS issues, so we feel we can back up and focus on other topics.