Actor and director Chi Muoi Lo can trace his fearlessness to his mother. As a seven-year-old in southern China, Lo says, she was sold by peasant parents to a childless couple, and she learned early to fend for herself and to be resourceful--skills that would come in handy later. In the mid-50s she and Lo's father fled China's communist regime by boat and headed for an enclave of ethnic Chinese merchants in Phan Rang, near the southeast coast of Vietnam. There the couple used their extensive connections (and the gold Lo's mother had stowed away with her) to open a store that sold watches, sunglasses, and other Western goods. The business expanded, as did the family--Lo is the 10th of 11 children--until the eve of the American pullout at the end of the Vietnam war.
In 1975, when Lo was six, his mother sensed the inevitable and prodded her husband to arrange the family's departure. To make sure her family wouldn't starve, she hid gold jewelry and coins in her children's clothes. En route, their rickety freight ship, crammed with over 500 passengers, was intercepted by a U.S. navy cruiser. "We told them we wanted to go to America," recalls Lo. "At that time the U.S government felt guilty about political refugees, so we were flown to Guam." Months later, sponsored by a Jewish charity, the Lo family--parents, eight sons, and three daughters--landed in west Philadelphia, a heavily African-American neighborhood.
"We lived in a tiny apartment and went on welfare for a while," Lo remembers. But life steadily improved after his mother found a job as a factory worker. "She's always been the boss," says Lo. The family moved into a house, and Lo found happiness and friends in school. "There were other Vietnamese refugee kids, but I hung out with black kids and identified with them," he says.
When he was ten he decided he wanted to be an actor. His parents didn't much like the idea, Lo says, but they figured they could afford to lose one child to a disreputable profession. He enrolled in Philadelphia's Creative and Performing Arts High School, and after graduation entered Temple University as a drama major. "During this time I apprenticed in a lot of plays, of course, but my goal was to be on TV and in the movies as both actor and director. That didn't go down well with my teachers," Lo says. "I wanted to be the next Brando, the next Nicholson. There were no Asian role models for me, and I hadn't realized that it meant there wouldn't be many roles for Asians either."
In 1988 Lo transferred to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco after being offered a full scholarship. "I was 19, rather young for its master's program, but they really wanted me," he says. He was the only Asian in the class. "The teachers, mostly frustrated actors who looked down on anything other than theater, were there to teach you how to be a professional white actor. I had to learn the Irish brogue. Why? When would I ever use it?" Even worse, he believes he was the victim of "subtle racism": he kept getting cast in supporting roles, "as if Asians couldn't be convincing as leads." He dropped out of ACT after two years--"I don't have any academic degrees; unusual for an Asian, hey?"--and headed to Los Angeles.
Lo did the Hollywood shuffle, landing parts in movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kindergarten Cop and guest stints on TV series such as Northern Exposure and NYPD Blue. His acting career reached a peak in the mid-90s when he was a regular on the syndicated show Vanishing Son. But meanwhile he was writing movie scripts and longing to direct.
In 1998 Lo convinced three of his older brothers, owners of a computer business, to mortgage their houses and invest the proceeds in his debut feature. He showed them his semiautobiographical comedy script, written in three months, about a young Vietnamese-American and his older sister who search out their birth mother. The twist was that the brother and sister had been adopted by a black couple. "I felt very passionate about the story, and my brothers sensed my passion," Lo says. "It helped too that the script was good and authentic. Of course, I knew the milieu in which blacks and Asians lived together, learned to overcome their prejudices. It wouldn't have been the same for the adoptive parents to be white."
Once he had the money Lo hired a prominent casting director to assemble his dream cast. They went after Paul Winfield for the role of the father. "Paul read the script in one day and called to say he'd love to be in the movie," he recalls. "That was the breakthrough. We used his name to get to the other actors." He says many Asian actors wanted in, but he'd promised the part of the Vietnamese mother to Kieu Chinh, a distinguished Vietnamese actress who portrayed one of the mothers in The Joy Luck Club. And the plum role of Dwayne, the brother conflicted over his cultural allegiances, was reserved for himself.
"I put as many Asians as I could in the film," he says, "which will continue to be the policy for my future projects." Catfish in Black Bean Sauce went on the festival circuit late last year and has since won a number of awards.
Lo hopes Catfish will attract a wide audience. "I think the ethnic communities will turn out for my film, as they did for Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker's Rush Hour," he says. "Certainly Asians and blacks, two communities I grew up with, should find it true to life." His mother, on whom the shrewd, judgmental Vietnamese mother is loosely based, has already weighed in. "She thought the movie was too close to home, but she'd give me money for the next project," he says.
This Friday Lo will discuss Catfish in Black Bean Sauce and answer questions at a fund-raiser for Columbia College's Center for Asian Arts and Media. It's at 8 at Julie Mai's Le Bistro, 5025 N. Clark. Admission, which includes a one-year membership to the center, is $50. Call 312-344-7870. Lo will also answer questions after the 7:30 and 10:30 PM screenings this Saturday at Landmark's Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark (773-248-7744), and after the 12:45 and 3:35 PM shows this Sunday at the Deerbrook Cinema, 180 S. Waukegan in Deerfield (847-272-0212). --Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.