The Oscar winner behind China’s AIDS awareness campaigns
My job is to give a voice to people who don’t have a voice,” says Chinese-American Ruby Yang, the filmmaker who made The Blood of the Yingzhou District, a documentary about orphans with AIDS in China.
In the film, which won an Academy Award in 2007, Yang documented the devastating
consequences of Chinese blood banks that
offered poverty-stricken residents in Anhui RMB 50 in exchange for blood donations, subsequently infecting them with HIV-contaminated needles. The 39-minute documentary is part of Yang’s work as director at Chang Ai Media Project, a Beijing-based non-governmental organization that began as an AIDS awareness media project and has since branched into
tobacco control and environmental issues.
Yang, who moved to Beijing in 2004, has built a career by creating films that depict the stories of marginalized people. It all began with her films that showcased the Chinese
immigration experience in America, including Bill Moyer’s three-part PBS series in 2003,
“Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.”
She had a natural affinity for the subject
because she had also immigrated to the US.
“There were still remnants of exclusion laws for Chinese immigrants [during the early 20th century]. They couldn’t become citizens, and they couldn’t return to their homeland,” says Yang, who spoke about her work in March at a symposium on women’s rights in Beijing organized by Barnard College.
Yang moved to California from Hong Kong in 1977. She was struck by the loneliness of older Chinese men from previous immigrant generations that she saw in parks in San Francisco.
“They were stuck in the United States without their families and relatives, who were still in Chinese villages. I gradually understood their situation,” says Yang, who had arrived in the US at a time when Asian minorities were gaining acceptance in mainstream American society.
During her Oscar acceptance speech, she spoke Mandarin in a tribute to Chinese people. The Oscar statue, a beacon that many people
request to touch, now resides in her office.
Yang left her native Hong Kong at the age of 20 to join her brother in San Francisco. She arrived in the progressive city during the dawn of experimental films. After initially studying painting, she met her husband, Hong Kong filmmaker Lambert Yam, who was responsible for her first dabblings in film.
Thirty years later, Yang has integrated her social justice values with a wide range of projects, including Chinese public service
announcements that star celebrities like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming and promote safe sex, tobacco control (such as the campaign for a smoke-free Olympics), and AIDS awareness. In one safe sex ad, Jackie Chan says, “Protect yourself. Life is too good.”
Timing was key in the creation and support of Blood in Yingzhou. In 2002 Yang, roused by the prominence of AIDS in the news,
collaborated with Thomas Lennon, a producer she worked with on “Becoming American” and met with David Da-i Ho, a prominent Chinese-American AIDs specialist. “Suddenly Yao Ming and Magic Johnson were involved. One thing led to another – we began to raise funds for PSAs,” says Yang. “We didn’t think we would make a strong impact in China, but we had to do something.”
To her surprise, a year later the Chinese government became open to promoting AIDS awareness, setting the stage for the production of Blood in Yingzhou.
In 2004, Yang launched Chang Ai Media Project (formerly China Aids Media Project), with Lennon. “We arrived in Beijing only
knowing three people in the city and had to set up a company, but luckily our naivete was a good thing,” says Yang. “When people keep telling you that you can’t do something, you just keep asking, ‘Why not?’”
These days, Chang Ai Media Project is
creating public service announcements to
encourage mothers to vaccinate their children
against hepatitis B and an environmental
campaign to promote clean water and clean air – although Yang believes that until governmental policy pushes people in this direction, the battle will be an uphill one. “We want ordinary people to see what they can do,” she says. Plus, Yang also wants to try to change attitudes about tobacco use in China.
Even though her work has reached hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers and drastically improved the conditions for AIDS orphans in Anhui, Yang is quick to say that she isn’t a health worker or a public health activist but a filmmaker who uses her skills to push important messages to audiences who need them. Her more progressive projects, such as A Double Life, a chronicle of single men in the gay community, have yet to be broadcast in China. But Yang hopes that they’ll one day be as widely accepted as her other films and can help make a difference in the lives of the film’s subjects. Jessica Pan
For more information on Chang Ai Project, visit www.chinaaidsmedia.com. To view Yang’s other work, visit www.kbikfilms.com.