Reality is a slippery medium. Just when a documentary filmmaker thinks she understands a story, people surprise her. Such it was for Debbie Lum. When she first started filming Seeking Asian Female, Lum hoped to dissect a cultural phenomenon that had affected her — “yellow fever” — by objectively interviewing “afflicted” characters. Instead, she not only got sucked into the story of one couple, but also became a makeshift marriage counselor and a character in her film. We recently spoke with Lum about racial stereotypes, the difficulty of remaining “a fly on the wall,” and some hilarious outtakes of her film.

What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope by touching audiences emotionally Seeking Asian Female will inspire individuals to reevaluate how stereotypes and expectations negatively impact human relationships, love and marriage. I hope the film will bring into wider discussion the objectification of Asian women by Western men and the real-life complications that grow out of their fantasies. I hope the film will offer alternative, three-dimensional portrait of an Asian woman who is neither a “victimized prey” nor a “ruthless opportunist.” I hope the film will raise awareness about interracial relationships, cross-cultural relationships, and Chinese immigrants. I hope the film also raises questions about how stereotyped thinking impacts all communities, including those who are being stereotyped (in this case Asian Americans and women).

Watch Coming to Independent Lens: Seeking Asian Female on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

What led you to make this film?

Steven and Sandy of Seeking Asian Female
Steven and Sandy of Seeking Asian Female

In my life, I’ve encountered so many Western men who just like the main character of Seeking Asian Female have “Yellow Fever”, or an unusual attraction to Asian women. These men seem to fit a pattern: they tend to be older, white, and yes, creepy. Many Asian American women I know (I’m fourth-generation Chinese American on my father’s side) have also spent a lot of energy avoiding bad pick-up lines from these men, who will stare a little too long in our direction, approach, and then try complement our Asian heritage (even if it’s the wrong one) or perhaps attempt to complement us by butchering an Asian language (that we don’t speak). Within the Asian American community, these men are such a well-known and much-hated “type”, that there are all kinds disparaging labels for them such as “Asiaphile” (which rhymes with pedophile for a reason), “guys with “Yellow Fever” or “Rice Kings”. (In fact the term “Rice King” is derived from a label for the same “type” in the queer community: “Rice Queen”.) We hear stories about men like this who frequent sex tours in Thailand or go searching a young wives in rural Philippines, exploiting the inequities between “first world” and “third world” and preying on victimized women. Sometimes the negative stereotype carries over to the women who wind up marrying these men. These women from China, Thailand, Vietnam and all parts of Asia, are often thought to be marrying for money or a green card, or both.

So when I started out making Seeking Asian Female I initially wanted explore the objectification of Asian women as seen through the cultural phenomenon of “Yellow Fever.” I wanted to understand why certain Western men become fixated on Asian women and why this trend had not only persisted despite the continual objections of many in the Asian American community, but seemed to be growing, especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I intended to examine “Yellow Fever” head on by “turning the tables” on men who had stared at me. I thought pointing the camera in their direction and analyzing the causes, the consequences and the nature of their fantasies, would perhaps help dispel the trend. I also felt that dissecting how Western men see, think about and desire Asian women would perhaps say a lot about Asian American identity and women’s identity as well.

I never thought that what would emerge from immersing myself into the subject matter would be a nuanced, complex exploration into marriage, immigration, cross-cultural understanding, and the ways in which romance evolves into human relationship through language, communication and companionship. At the center of the story I found two human beings with limited options who were facing and confronting their expectations and fantasies not just about Asian women, but also about love and marriage, America and China and husband and wife. I never expected that while telling this story, the film would the tables back at my own stereotyped expectations as a filmmaker and an Asian American woman, to reveal how problematic it is to stereotype any individual, whether white or Asian, old or young, American or Chinese, or woman or man.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Photo By Susan Monroe
Photo By Susan Monroe

Many of the challenges I faced in making the film became part of the story of the film itself. Originally I started out making an objective film about men with “Yellow Fever.” Similar to the self-consciousness I have around men who stare at me because they are interested in Asian women, I am very self-conscious about being the center of attention and never wanted to make a personal documentary. But whenever I filmed Steven, it was very clear that because I am an Asian American woman he gave me amazing access and could also never really ignore me as I filmed him. I would tell him, “Don’t talk to me. I’m a fly on a wall.” Instead he would constantly engage. I spent a lot of time in the very uncomfortable position of being keenly focused on the type of man who would make me extremely uncomfortable in my personal life. The more I filmed him, the more I realized that by including my story, I would be able to capture a story that is never shown on camera — how it feels to be objectified as an Asian American woman. The more I filmed him, the more I realized that I was beginning to understand his vulnerabilities and had to rethink why I had originally set out to make an “expose” of his search for an Asian wife. When his fiancée Sandy arrived in the US, I realized that even with my limited Mandarin, I could communicate better with either one of them than they could with each other. I also realized that Sandy was completely isolated and had not a single friend in America outside of Steven. Steven and Sandy began to call on me asking me to come over at every conflict. Although I shot the film with coverage in case I went back to telling an objective story, I eventually became so deeply pulled into their relationship drama that I couldn’t cut myself out. Even though the filmmaker in me was grateful to have their trust and access to such intimate moments in their life, the normal human being in me felt very awkward in the middle of their intense fights (I’m definitely not cut out for reality TV). I was a one-woman crew, learning how to shoot and record sound as I filmed them. Anyone else in the scene would have made shooting very stilted. I grew up learning Mandarin from college professors, not my parents who did not speak Chinese. Filming while translating between English and Chinese was extremely challenging, especially as their relationship drama intensified — and all of us became more and more exhausted. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, as expressed in the film, was realizing that by capturing their story, I had begun to play a role in the success or failure of their relationship, a relationship that I had always questioned. Ultimately, I had to get over my own prejudices before I could tell the story well.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Steven and Sandy
Steven and Sandy

Early on, Steven perhaps trusted me because I am an Asian American woman who tends to smile a lot. He also found out that my husband is white and identified with me. At the same time, we watched previous documentaries that I had edited and co-produced and some of my short narrative comedies. Steven had a very trusting and open personality. He’s an ex-hippie who studied painting in college and is extremely open to the artistic process. His website reads, “Anonymity is for scaredy cats.” Despite other people telling him to be wary, he always wanted me to tell his story even while he knew he might be criticized. For Sandy, I think she initially trusted Steven and that is why she agreed to let me film. But upon initial meeting, she was deeply relieved to know that I could speak Mandarin (I did not grow up speaking Mandarin, but had just returned from living in Shanghai for two years and had been studying Chinese). The more I filmed and the more complicated their relationship became the more we all began to understand each other and appreciate each other. In that sense, because I had to take the process of capturing a well-rounded story seriously, I was forced to look at their story from their own point of view and therefore the compassion that I felt for both of them, including Steven, who proved that despite his rather questionable motives was willing to work very hard at being a good husband to Sandy, led us all to trust each other more.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
Seeking Asian Female was shot over the course of 5 years, amassing over 200 hours of footage. We cut out many great scenes and countless interviews. There was an entire sequence around Sandy’s wedding dress that could not be included. The wife of Steven’s landlord (the man who said “You’ve got two of ‘em!”) used to own a bridal shop and when she found out that Steven could not afford to buy Sandy a wedding dress, she offered one from her old warehouse. The dress was a size 10 and Sandy was a size 1. She generously offered to do all the custom fitting over a period of several weeks. Janet and Wayne were ballroom dancers and collected porcelain dolls. They become two of Sandy’s early friends and early introduction to American culture, and also revealed Sandy’s genuine affection for seniors. Sandy and Steven have a very great sense of humor. We cut out many fights as well as many scenes of love and play. One night, Sandy snooped through Steven’s apartment looking for relics of past relationships with other Asian women to make sure he wasn’t hiding anything from her. The next day she forced him to throw out files and pictures, and pointed to his brain, saying “delete here”. She also made friends with two older Chinese American women. During one very painful misunderstanding these two “aunties” came to visit and tried to have a group counseling session, enlisting my help in an attempt to force reconciliation. During this “group fight” we all discovered that when Sandy is angry, her English suddenly got very good. Finally one favorite scene was an extremely revelatory scene where Steven and Sandy discuss why he only wanted to date younger women, with Sandy (and myself) grilling him until he was surprised to find out that he was the oldest suitor she had. She admitted, “The Internet changed my destiny.”

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Chronologically, one of the first very moving scenes happened shortly after Sandy arrived in America to live with Steven. After the initial “honeymoon” phase, Sandy immediately stumbled upon old pictures and emails of Steven’s previous Chinese girlfriend that he had kept on his computer. While this scene marked the first time I outwardly “transgressed” the filmmaker subject boundary and became one part translator and one part relationship counselor, it was also the first time that Sandy revealed her true feelings for Steven — she wanted to be Steven’s “one and only” and was quite jealous of his ex-girlfriend. Throughout the film, no matter how many times other issues strained their relationship — from money issues, to wedding preparation stress, to cultural misunderstanding — Sandy continued to care about this one thing the most.

Debbie Lum at work
Debbie Lum at work

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Audience response has been really amazing so far. The film appeals to people from all backgrounds, genders, and age groups. Even Asian American audiences for whom the film’s subject matter hits a very sensitive nerve, have embraced the film and appreciated the unusual insights it brings to light. Silver-haired women from the Midwest have come up to me in tears identifying with Steven and Sandy’s story. Newly married couples have approached me to ask a question only to spontaneously break into a debate between themselves over the plight of the characters. The film provokes many conversations, particularly for anyone who has been in or tried to be in a relationship.

Steven and Sandy have seen the film. They came with me to the film’s premiere at SXSW Film Festival. Steven has always been extremely supportive of the film and would have perhaps been a better promoter of the film than I am! He said when he first saw it, “Phew, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” That said, the film depicts an early and tumultuous stage in Steven and Sandy’s relationship. For Chinese and Asian people in general, sharing intimate details of personal life is not something that is as culturally accepted as it is in the West. Even though she laughed at all the same points in the film that we did when she first saw the film, it’s very emotional film for Sandy. In contemporary Chinese culture face is very important and causes a lot of social pressures that we are relatively immune from in the US. Steven learned quite a lot about how to make her happy and respect her, and supports her wish to avoid press requests even though he would be happy to be in the limelight.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The chance to tell a story about a person or a subject that has never been told before.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I think it’s wonderful to share this film with the diverse, engaged and inquisitive audiences who watch public television. It’s a great honor and great opportunity to beam into the living room of millions of Americans for whom the story most resonates.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Sleep very much.

What are your three favorite films?
I don’t have three favorites. Some of my favorite documentaries are:
Man on Wire, Intimate Stranger, and The Gleaners and I

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Be tenacious. Be honest. Be patient. Work on other people’s films. Find a great mentor and surround yourself with people who know more than you do. I could not have made this film without having worked for years as an editor for my mentor, Spencer Nakasako. My previous employer who hired me to edit one of his documentaries and became a great friend and colleague, S. Leo Chiang, gave me invaluable knowledge as I tenuously ventured out of the editing room to shoot the film. Having a great mother and partner who support your undying ambition also helps!

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Watch Seeking Asian Female premiering Monday May 6 at 10 p.m. (check local listings).