When The Joy Luck Club was released in 1993, it was the first film made by a Hollywood studio to star an all-Asian American main cast. Based on the novel by Amy Tan and directed by Chinese filmmaker Wayne Wang, the film follows four mother-daughter pairs. The mothers, immigrants from China, struggle to connect to their first-generation American daughters, who, in turn, feel distant from their mothers. Now, almost 30 years later, a Joy Luck Club sequel is reportedly in the works, with Tan as an executive producer and the four leads in negotiations to reprise their roles. While this development is certainly a celebration of Asian American film history, it’s also a bittersweet reminder of how little progress has been made for Asian Americans in Hollywood over the past three decades.
Like many Asian Americans, I have a personal relationship with The Joy Luck Club. As a second/third-generation Chinese American who didn’t know much about my Chinese family history, The Joy Luck Club allowed me to connect to my roots, even if they weren’t tangibly mine. Watching Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita), Rose (Rosalind Chao), June (Ming-Na Wen), and Lena (Lauren Tom) learn about their mothers’ (played by Kieu Chinh, France Nuyen, Tsai Chin, and Lisa Lu) hardships in China and coming to understand them in a new way felt like I was learning about my own family. The film gave me a new lens through which to look at my paternal grandparents’ immigrant experience, something I knew very little about. My grandfather immigrated as a boy and spent time in San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island, and my grandmother was born to Chinese immigrants in Nevada. Neither were particularly open with my father about their experiences, and they died before I was old enough to ask questions. Instead of a family history, I had The Joy Luck Club, which helped me understand how their Chinese identities lived on in me, regardless of whether or not I knew the details.
There’s no doubt in my mind that, done right, a Joy Luck Club sequel could offer this experience to the next generation of Asian Americans. As anyone from an immigrant family will tell you, being a first-generation immigrant is not the same as being a second-generation immigrant, and so on. A sequel, which would reportedly find the daughters of the original now mothers and grandmothers themselves, would make space for different and new stories of Asian American women — including one or more half-Asian American women — which could open the doors to more diverse and important representation for the community. As a second/third-generation half-Chinese American woman myself, the idea of a film that might explore how women like me connect to their Asian heritage is incredibly appealing.
It’s also exciting to think of what young talent could flourish in a potential sequel. The Joy Luck Club boosted the careers of Chao, Tomita, Tom, and Wen, who remain four of the most recogniaable Asian American actors of their generation. In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, Wen described the film as her “green card to Hollywood,” but in that same interview, her co-stars noted that the success of The Joy Luck Club was not enough to even get them auditions for other lead roles. A sequel would not only allow them the opportunity to lead a Hollywood film once again (a rarity for an Asian American actor), but also give a platform to younger Asian American actors. And yet the very prospect of a Joy Luck Club sequel also reflects a bittersweet truth about Hollywood: There simply are not enough Asian American stories being told on the big screen.
It took 25 years for Hollywood to go from Joy Luck Club to Crazy Rich Asians. That’s 25 years of zero major studio films starring predominantly Asian American casts. Since Crazy Rich Asians was released in 2018, there have been two major Hollywood films with predominantly Asian casts — Shang-Chi (2021) and Mulan (2020) — both big-budget Disney epics that don’t reflect the experiences of Asian Americans. Notably, all three of these films have ties to The Joy Luck Club. Wen, of course, originated the role of Mulan in Disney’s 1998 animated film, and appeared in a cameo in the live-action version, which Chao also appeared in. Meanwhile, Tsai Chin (Lindo in The Joy Luck Club) appeared in Shang-Chi, and Lisa Lu (An-Mei in The Joy Luck Club) appeared in Crazy Rich Asians.
This is not to say that East Asian American stories have not increased significantly in visibility or acclaim. Independent films The Farewell (2019), Minari (2020), and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) — all of which are family dramas about East Asian immigrants and their American children — have been enormous hits, and Asian American representation on television and streaming has continued to grow. Progress, however small, has been made, and some might even argue that even the idea of a Joy Luck Club sequel is a prime example: Family dramas don’t typically get sequels 30 years after their release.
We should celebrate the fact that this story about Asian American women and immigrant families has resonated so deeply that powers that be in Hollywood see value in revisiting it, but we must also interrogate why a Joy Luck Club sequel is such a compelling prospect. What does it mean that a sequel to a film that was groundbreaking in 1993 would be almost just as groundbreaking in 2023? If a Joy Luck Club sequel is really worth doing — and with Tan’s participation and the return of the original cast, it definitely would be — then so is challenging Hollywood studios to not let another 30 years go by without supporting Asian American stories.