Taiwanese Cha Cha Cha: Judie Yang on Language, Culture, & Family

Judie Yang is a polyglot: she can speak English, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Spanish. Although she doesn’t always introduce herself as a polyglot, language has always been a huge part of her identity and is a common theme that runs through all her films, including Taiwanese Cha Cha Cha, a narrative short-film now playing at the Austin Asian American Film Festival.

Taiwanese Cha Cha Cha explores the connections between language, culture, and family in Taiwan as it follows a young woman who defies her mother to visit her grandpa in the countryside, bringing along a fearless interpreter who helps navigate fading dialects. I had the opportunity to speak to Judie Yang about her experiences creating Taiwanese Cha Cha Cha, as well as her thoughts regarding language and culture.

Vivienne Chang: Hi Judie! Congratulations on being selected for the Austin Asian American Film Festival, I know this is the first time Taiwanese Cha Cha Cha has been part of an online film festival.

Judie Yang: Hi Vivienne and TaiwaneseAmerican.Org! Thank you for having me. Yeah, this was my first-time being part of an online film festival and I’m very excited!

Chang: Before we dive into the film, I would love to learn a little bit about you!

Yang: Yes, definitely! So hi, I’m Judie. I was born and raised in Taiwan but went to high school in Colorado for a bit (one year) and obtained my masters in San Francisco. A little bit about how I got into filmmaking–  growing up, one of my biggest passions was reading because to me, the words on the page were not just words but images running through my head. It was like watching a movie. 

I became interested in filmmaking when I was eighteen and getting ready to go to college, but my parents did not approve of my interest and pushed me towards studying literature, which I did for my undergraduate degree. However, I started working at the Taipei Film Festival when I was a Freshman; it opened my eyes into that career path. I applied to San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) film school and got in and now I guess I am a filmmaker!

Chang: Let’s shift our focus to Taiwanese Cha Cha Cha. First of all, just wanted to say I love the film! One of my personal goals, even as a Taiwanese American, is to be fluent in Taiwanese Hokkien. What inspired you to create a film about language barrier? 

Yang: I actually had two strong inspirations when creating the film. 

The first of which was when I was at SFSU, my maternal grandma became very sick. I had always been very close to her growing up because although her main language was Hokkien, she could speak Mandarin. But when she became sick, she no longer could process Mandarin and I realized that I had taken advantage of her ability to do so. I decided to learn Taiwanese in order to communicate with my grandma. She ultimately passed away while I was in the States before I got to speak to her again, and so I felt regretful that there was this language barrier between us.

I didn’t want to this to occur again, so I sharpened my Taiwanese and began talking to my paternal grandmother. I did not interact with her that much for the first eighteen years of my life because of the language barrier as she only knew how to speak Hokkien. Every time I visited her home, I felt as if I was a guest. After picking up Taiwanese Hokkien, I was able to connect with my grandma and realized that she actually cared very deeply about me and that she had many insights and stories to share.

These two stories got me thinking about the relationship between language, culture, and family which inspired me to create Taiwanese Cha Cha Cha which was also my senior thesis for SFSU.

Chang: There are multiple languages portrayed in the film – Taiwanese, Mandarin, English – curious to why you decided to make this choice?

Yang: Mandarin, obviously, because it is the official language of Taiwan. Taiwanese, because that is the language my family uses. But the choice for English is interesting. There is currently a lot of emphasis on English education in Taiwan. One time when I was talking to my grandpa about my interest in learning Taiwanese to talk to my maternal grandmother, he asked me why I wasn’t spending that time learning English instead, as it would help me with my future career. There are many political and cultural forces in play, and we thought it would be important to include it to represent the sentiment of some Taiwanese people today.

Chang: Would you say language is synonymous to culture?

Yang: I think this is a very interesting question and something that I am still exploring. I believe that language is not only tied to culture, but also to politics. During the martial-law period (1948-1987), the Kuomingtang banned dialects from the public – if children spoke Taiwanese in school, they would be fined. The result of this event is reflective on the many young Taiwanese people who can no longer speak these dialects fluently. 

I think this is very evident in my alma mater, National Chengchi University. Last year, a group of students started a Taiwanese club, but [had the] dialect [been] natural to them, they would not have had to start this club – no one would start a Mandarin club in Taiwan. This is reflected on my community too. For example, many of my friends can no longer speak Taiwanese even if they once [could] when they were younger.

However, I think it is important to note that Taiwanese culture is something that is hard to define. Although we want to preserve these dialects, we do need to recognize that Hakka and Hokkien originated from mainland China. I think we need to first define Taiwanese culture before we link it to language. I do have to say that after my film got released, I received many emails from Taiwanese Americans sharing their love and memories of Taiwan as well as young Taiwanese audiences telling me they do have the interest in learning Taiwanese. Although the dialect does not seem to have a bright future, I believe that Taiwanese people still believe that these dialects are a part of their culture.

Chang: I really like that idea. Shifting gears a little, did you have any challenges while you were making the film?

Yang: In the beginning of the film, there was a bright floral pattern cloth in the translator character’s room. This iconic Taiwanese item is often associated with grandma’s old and dark house, and so I was very intentional on wanting to break this stereotype. In the beginning when I brought up this idea, my team suggested that the translator’s room should be small and old, kind of like grandma’s house. But I wanted to make sure that her room was bright, chic, and modern to represent this new Taiwanese energy even with age-old items and ideas.

Chang: What do you hope the viewers take away from watching the film?

Yang: I wanted the audience to hear the dialect because its not something that is often used in the States. These dialects can bridge families and hopefully some will be inspired to learn them.

Chang: Thank you so much for sitting with me today, Judie. But before you go, would love to ask you some quick (and very important) questions!

Favorite Taiwanese Film: Tropical Fish (熱帶魚) by Chen Yu-Hsun (陳玉勳)

Favorite Taiwanese Food: BOBA!

Favorite Activity to do in Taiwan: Hands down, night market!

The Austin Asian American Film Festival (AAAFF Online Shorts Festival) admittance is available via purchase of the full series ($11.99; virtual access to all shorts for the duration of the online festival) or tickets to individual, soon-to-be-announced “blocks” (virtual access to the shorts in the themed “block” for the duration of the online festival). Series passes are on sale now at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/aaaff, while individual short film blocks will be available for purchase during June 11-17.

Leave a Reply