Daniel Hsia not only wrote Shanghai Calling, but also directed it — which is no small feat considering the film was co-produced in the U.S. and China. The movie about a Chinese-American hotshot lawyer moving to Shanghai has already been successful in both countries. It screened last month at the Shanghai International Film Fest and Hsia was selected as Best New Screenwriter.
Hsia’s parents are from Shanghai, but he was born in Chicago and raised as both a Midwestern and California kid. He went to Stanford University and completed film school at the University of Southern California and went on to become a television writer for sitcoms including Psych, Andy Barker, P.I., and Four Kings. He dabbled in film before making Shanghai Calling, but this is his first feature film.
Shanghai Calling will open the Asian American International Film Fest in New York this week. The AAIFF is in its 35th year and is the longest-running festival showcasing independent Asian and Asian American cinema in the U.S.
Sadiya Ansari spoke with Daniel by phone while he was at home in Los Angeles in anticipation of the AAIFF film screening on July 25.
Tell me a bit about yourself growing up.
Both my parents worked a lot, so I watched a lot of TV. At the time, it didn’t seem like a worthwhile way of spending my afternoons, but in fact, it turned out to be extremely helpful for me to get a career as a television writer. It helped me understand the rhythms of comedy and get to know the references of older writers I work with.
Once I got to college I became very interested in cultural identity issues and sociology, and specifically being raised in America and the complexities of it.
When you were watching TV as a child, did you notice that there were not that many racialized characters?
It wasn’t something that really stuck in my mind. I think that growing up Asian-American you don’t really, at least back in the ’80s, we didn’t really think, “There should be a show about us”, because it didn’t really feel like there were that many of us.
But at the same time, there have actually been studies showing that TV was even more diverse in the ’80s than it is now. I mean the ’80s was the Cosby generation and you don’t really have families of colour on TV right now.
What motivated you to become a TV writer?
I was always writing short stories as a kid and drawing comic strips. I like the way stories were told and would look for and try to figure out structure and character. I wrote a novel when I was 12 years old. It didn’t get published but I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I thought I was a genius — and I was not.
In school, I started writing a lot of short fiction and studying creative writing, and then after I graduated from Stanford, I went to film school at USC and I learned a lot while I was there. The most important thing I learned was that you don’t have to go to film school to work in the film industry.
I realized of the short films I made, the ones that people really wanted to see were the comedies, so I realized that’s what I wanted to do.
How did you come up with the story for Shanghai Calling?
A very good friend of mine from college decided to move to Beijing and he didn’t speak a word of Chinese at the time. We were all very skeptical of whether or not he could survive out there.
We would see him every once awhile at someone’s wedding or something, and he would have really crazy, bizarre and hilarious stories about what its like to be an American living in China and it was a concept that stuck in my head. The first thing that popped into my head was the word “America Town”. Actually the story was originally titled “America Town” because it seems like the most interesting aspect of it — which is that Americans becomes the immigrants in someone else’s country.
When my friend moved to China, which was about six years ago, the economy in the West wasn’t so great and China was booming and everyone was moving over there. That became something really interesting that I wanted to explore.
So I went there and did a lot of research for a couple of months and talked to everybody that would talk to me and pretty soon the story came together in my head.
This is part one of a three-part interview — stay tuned next week for part two!
Schema will be covering the Asian American International Film Festival for the first time, including reviewing Shanghai Calling, so check back often for other reviews, interviews, and more!
Sadiya Ansari is a Pakistani-born, Canadian-raised UBC journalism student who loves politics–near and far. You can follow her @SadiyaAnsari.