In 2014, I spoke with filmmaker Yu Gu (顾雨) and her co-director, Scott Drucker, as they were gearing up to follow Arthur Chu for his appearance in the Tournament of Champions on Jeopardy! as a part of their documentary, Who is Arthur Chu?. The film centers on this fellow Taiwanese American, who translated his notoriety from the game show into a being a critical voice on issues of social justice and pop culture.
After following the film’s progress, I drove up on a rainy day to speak with Gu at the Cleveland Film Festival. I would learn that this was more than a film about someone who is Taiwanese American, but a story where identity is fundamental to how this person interacts with the world.
Gu and Drucker first heard about Arthur Chu when he was a contestant on Jeopardy!. Drucker was fascinated by the utter intensity of the vitriol against Chu. Hate-filled comments about Chu’s race and weight were evidence that this was more than just an unpopular TV figure, that somehow Chu had touched upon a societal nerve. Gu was less enthused about “the male Asian hero figure”. She explained that lifting up Asian males into the spotlight often does nothing to combat existing power structures in media. But then Chu began writing on issues like the Isla Vista shooting, and it was through this written work that Gu decided this was worth delving into.
And delve they did. After filming in the US and Taiwan, the documentary was finished early 2017. I was finally viewing it for the first time in my home state of Ohio, almost four years after my initial conversation with Gu and Drucker.
The film opens with Chu’s morning routine: brushing his teeth, getting dressed. He distractedly pulls on white tube socks in the dark; his hair is disheveled. Tweets from haters at his account pop up on screen, overlaying the still dimmed morning. Over the course of the next ninety minutes we witness how Chu first rose to fame winning round after round of Jeopardy!, through the Tournament of Champions, his first speaking gig, a trip to Taiwan, and other settings. We also see him at home in Cleveland, with his wife Eliza Blair, who supports Chu throughout his upward swing while coping with the chronic pain of fibromyalgia. These scenes are bisected by clips of Chu narrating his motivations or reading from his written work. Throughout the film, Chu’s Twitter follower count periodically appears on screen, providing a benchmark of his fame.
Gu and Drucker have masterfully displayed a modern human experience laced with heartbreaking irony. We watch as Chu talks and fights for social justice on the big front, while failing to manage the day to day acts of social connection with those closest to him. The documentary is painfully intimate as it shows us wincingly awkward moments and heart-wrenching memories familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with the alienation of being misunderstood. In the end, Gu and Drucker illustrate fame, media, and family history with exquisite care, gracefully evading the ham-handed caricatures painted of those primarily engaged with digital communities. Arthur Chu is finally human, rather than only a paper villain.
The public perception of Chu on Jeopardy! was indicative of certain truths of society regarding race, gender, and social standing. Likewise, the documentary also tells us something about our place in the US as Taiwanese Americans through the prism of Chu’s character.
Fresh from showings at CAAM Fest (Center for Asian American Media), Who is Arthur Chu? came to a much whiter gathering in Cleveland, the city where Chu currently lives. Sitting down in the theatre, I had counted no more than 2 other Asians and less than a handful of other people of color. This Midwestern setting was an essential backdrop for this film, especially for a person like myself–who, like Chu–lived a childhood strongly impacted by white peers, white teachers, and white media.
Chu tells us that “There’s definitely a sense in which there was a time when I really didn’t want to be associated with my family, didn’t want to be associated with my ethnicity…This lie, this delusion of like ‘I can be a blank person,’ I can be just my opinions, and my thoughts, I won’t have a race, I won’t have a gender…And ultimately, I think that project is doomed to fail. And it’s also not a good thing to be trying to seek out.”
This is a common delusion for Asian American children growing up as a minority in their community, and it takes some a longer than others to reach this conclusion: that we will always fail. Some of us never figure it out. Figuring it out is a painful process. It is one that usually involves being repeatedly othered until there just is no way to continue denying the reality and choking inescapability of racism. Throughout his Jeopardy! experience and beyond, it is clear that the fact that Chu is Asian plays a role in how people treat him. In the film, Alex Trebek is shown chiding him about pronunciation of a name and how “that’s one of the funny things about our language,” pointedly excluding Chu from who he considers native English speakers.
Chu tells us he has always been an angry person, and that fairness was always something that weighed heavily on him. I suspect many Taiwanese Americans can relate to this anger, particularly those of us who have been raised in majority-white spaces. “Quite often in my life I’ve been the only Asian American in the room and it’s been this thing that defined me.” We have less access to communities of people who look like us, less access to ethnic enclaves, less access to exposure to diverse ways of existing, less access to community history and affirmation. This lack of access makes racism in this country something we are constantly aware of, as quotidian as coffee. We are pushed up against racial lines with mundane frequency and little refuge. No wonder we’re angry. Some of us fight when we tweet at trolls, others of us as write at TaiwaneseAmerican.org.
For children of color living in overwhelmingly white spaces, media may be our only lifeline to seeing ourselves as people of value. George Takei, Kristi Yamaguchi, the yellow Power Ranger, Lucy Liu, Jeremy Lin, these people meant so much to us because they reminded us that people out there who looked like us could be something out there, wherever “there” was. But the last few years have shown us that we are still fighting to be seen. From Aloha, Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, The Great Wall, and Iron Fist, we are still being told that we are not good enough, that our stories are not ours, and that we are not worthy of being seen as a full human in fiction and in reality.
In this milieu, Who Is Arthur Chu? is particularly important in showing there are real, full Taiwanese American human beings out there whose stories are worth being told. But make no mistake, Arthur Chu is no hero. In fact, he is an anti-hero. A nerd, a loner, an intense and abrasive person who has struggled in society for as long as he can remember. He is troubled, flawed, and self-sabotaging. But of course, that hasn’t stopped other such figures from being beloved and relatable (John from S-town comes to mind), and the mark of any decent writer or filmmaker is to show people as multidimensional. Gu and Drucker, from our very first conversations, were very adamant about showing the different layers of Chu not seen in news interviews on TV.
Taiwanese Americans will undoubtedly feel this most acutely as they watch, as Chu is perfectly clear about the fact that you can’t understand him unless you know his parents, and you can’t understand his parents until you understand where they came from: Taiwan. The spectre of Taiwan haunts Chu’s every struggle, from not knowing popular culture as a kid to expectations of his family. Ultimately, Chu goes back to the source and travels with his wife, Eliza, and the filmmakers to Taiwan. Images of blue-gray mountains pass by through the windows of the MRT, and the Grand Hotel in Yuanshan is a familiar setting for those who travel to Taipei. And Chu’s relationship with his father is painfully familiar, whose Taiwanese parents haven’t encouraged them to pursue a stable career? How many of us haven’t had distance they could not bridge with their father? Who hasn’t been unable to take their mother’s good advice despite the fact that you knew it would probably save you from yourself?
Here’s the thing–people may think this is a film for Taiwanese Americans or Asian Americans and if you aren’t either then there might not be anything about Chu to relate to. But there is. There always is. Asian American stories–Taiwanese American stories–they are specific but they are human. There is universality to finally seeing Arthur Chu the person, not just Arthur Chu the internet persona. That is the beauty of this documentary: to help us see ourselves and our family, and to help us remember it is okay to be wrong, to have trauma, to be awful, to be understood and misunderstood, to be human.
See the theatrical screening in Chicago on September 16th at the Music Box Theatre:
Arthur Chu’s Selected Writings:
Author with filmmaker Yu Gu