I recently had the opportunity to interview Asian American filmmaker Christopher Wong about his first feature-length documentary Whatever It Takes, scheduled to premier on PBS stations nationwide on March 30, 2010. The documentary profiles Chinese American Edward Tom, Principal of the new Bronx Center for Sciences & Mathematics:
Christopher Wong’s Whatever It Takes offers a fascinating inside look at the first year of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM), a small public high school in the South Bronx headed by the idealistic Principal Edward Tom, an Asian American man who gave up a lucrative position as an executive with Saks Fifth Avenue for the underpaid, supremely challenging career as an educator in the inner city. . . .
This deeply emotional, character-driven documentary focuses on the school’s dynamic rookie principal and a spunky ninth-grade girl with big dreams but even bigger obstacles. The personal stories of the school’s students and staff call to mind larger themes of school reform and the need for educators, parents and policy makers to prioritize the transformation of the public school system so that all children can receive a quality education.
Grittily realistic, yet ultimately triumphant, Whatever It Takes paints a compelling picture of cutting-edge ideas and dedicated individuals, united in their vision to restore hope to a broken community.
What were your experiences in elementary and high school growing up?
I grew up in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood, so the area schools were excellent. I had good teachers, clean school facilities, and small class sizes. Since my parents were both college-educated, they always checked my homework every night, and made sure I studied for my tests. There was never any question in my mind that I would go to college; it was a foregone conclusion. However, for the kids profiled in my film, college is only a dream — something that only “privileged” people get to experience.
How did you decide to become a filmmaker, rather than a ‘safer’ occupation more typical of Asian Americans, such as an doctor, engineer, etc.?
Believe me, I always thought that I would end up working a high-paying, white-collar job in a Fortune 500 corporation. While being a lawyer or businessperson wasn’t exactly my dream, I thought those careers would be good enough to provide me with a comfortable and happy life. But after graduating with a degree in economics, two years at a law firm, and five years in banking, I finally realized that I was meant to do something more creative, something that was a better fit for my talents.
Right before I quit my last corporate job, I started watching a lot of documentaries (e.g., “Hoop Dreams,” “Salesman,” “Roger & Me”). Those films taught me that the two most important qualities of a documentary filmmaker were 1) the ability to listen well, and 2) the willingness to invest oneself completely in someone else’s life. While I didn’t have the brains to become a doctor or the genes to be a professional athlete, I knew I could produce good documentaries. And so, I quit my job, started taking video production courses at a community college, and 10 years later, here I am.
Why did you decide to focus on Principal Edward Tom and his school?
When you see Principal Ed Tom on screen, you instantly understand why people find him so compelling. He’s a born leader, and people absolutely listen to what he has to say. Leaders like Principal Tom are rare, but those are just the sort of individuals that we all want to see running our nation’s public schools. When I went to school, I never had a principal like him; in fact, I don’t even remember seeing my high school principal more than once or twice a year. But Ed is always with his students, and they know that he cares, and that he will fight for them with everything he’s got.
But I didn’t want to just portray Ed only as a hero. I was also equally curious to see if good intentions and constant effort were enough to bring about change in one of the nation’s worst school districts. After all, Ed was a rookie principal, and failure was always looming around the next corner. Then add to the mix the potentially explosive racial dynamic of Ed as an Asian American amidst a student body almost entirely comprised of African American and Latino children. I remember telling Ed that while I wished him the best, my documentary might show him falling on his face and getting fired midway through the year. When Ed said he was OK with that level of honesty, I knew that I could go ahead and start filming.
There’s a debate about whether race or social class are the bigger barrier for African Americans and Latinos these days. What are your thoughts on this question?
In the South Bronx district of New York City, race and social class are almost identical. The South Bronx is the poorest district in the entire country, and it’s no coincidence that you almost never encounter a white face on the street (unless it’s a cop). So, for a kid who comes from a low-income, African American/Latino family, they have so many hurdles to overcome just to make it into college. They often have no support from their parents, no role models who have gone to college, and few friends with high career aspirations.
And they certainly don’t have the financial means to afford college, or other things that are sometimes necessary to get admitted (e.g. SAT prep courses). Having said that, I don’t think that South Bronx kids should use these barriers as excuses for lack of achievement; however, when we do see someone from that kind of environment make it to college, we should recognize that accomplishment as something truly great.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Asian American students these days?
Just like there are poor African American and Latino students, there are also very poor Asian American students. So, a lot of the challenges are the same. But what seems to be different is that there is an ingrained cultural respect for education and the value of a college degree. Thus, as a whole, Asian Americans have significantly higher college attendance and graduation rates. Therefore, the challenge to Asian American students generally has nothing to do with access to college or finding jobs that pay well. Rather, the real challenge for our community is to seek after jobs that are truly meaningful, and that have positive effects on society at large.
For too long, Asian Americans have been satisfied with replicating the financial success of their white American counterparts, all the while neglecting to invest themselves in causes greater than themselves. Truthfully, much of that selfish motivation comes directly from our Asian American immigrant parents, whose main goals were survival, stability, and social conformity. Liberating ourselves from our parents’ dreams for us is not an easy battle.
Asian Americans as a whole have done pretty well occupationally and economically but in many ways, are still not perceived to be “leaders.” Individuals like Edward Tom are slowly emerging as exceptions to this image, but what else do Asian Americans need to do to change this perception?
To be seen as leaders, Asian Americans need to get more involved in issues that extend beyond their own ethnic community. I think that’s what makes Edward Tom such an amazing figure, because he is absolutely putting his life on the line for people that neither look like him nor can give him back anything in return.
Leaders are made through sacrifice and commitment (e.g Martin Luther King, Jr.), and Asian Americans need to do a better job of understanding that. On a positive note, I should say that I have recently seen more and more Asian Americans pursuing unconventional careers and being willing to take risks on the behalf of others.