The behind the scenes force at WongFu Productions now onto create her own outlet for empowering women.
What fans see: the golden hour in beautiful, green park, the yellow light hitting a young Asian American couple at just the right angle over their shoulders as they sit in deep conversation about the state of their future. What Christine Chen sees: filming permits, actor schedules, props, mic cables, staying on schedule, lunch for the crew, and passerby who could disrupt every take.
Chen was the production director for the YouTube channel WongFu Productions, one of the first YouTube channels to create original short films and a prominent name in the Asian American community. Subscribers often didn’t know how much Chen contributed to each video even though it may not have been possible without her organization, scheduling, planning ahead, and outreach. In 2011, she was the first full-time employee at WongFu Productions. In her early days she often had to make sure the team, Wes Chan and Philip Wang, had eaten, buy office supplies and snacks, and learn what it meant to go from event organizing to video producing. Over time she saw where improvements could be made during the shooting process and in office management and her role developed into producing for videos, events manager, bookings, office administration, human resources as the hiring manager, and more.
“My role at WongFu has been, for lack of a better term, like a mom,” Chen said of her time with the small production company. “You take care of so many things. They asked me to write a manual so that everyone else can reference it and fill in the gaps of what I’m leaving. I couldn’t even like write this stuff down because it was like, ‘oh yeah, I forgot I did that.’”
Over five years with WongFu Productions, during which she saw the company reach milestones like the channel’s ten-year anniversary, its first feature-length film, and nearly a dozen international tours. Chen decided to leave her many hats and roles in February, and has been enjoying her time in-between careers. She’s in the process of editing her own series on her own YouTube channel, Peaches and Tea, and plans to begin a podcast with former WongFu co-worker, Regina Fang. Chen still remains close friends with the staff at WongFu, but felt she had begun to outgrow her shell with company earlier in the year.
“I always respected that this is your company and whatever stories you want to tell I’m here to help,” Chen said. “And the day I don’t want to do that is the day I go. I really gave them everything that I could give them, and I left building a second team so that they can continue on and get bigger and better.”
For spending half a decade with one of the most notable Asian American channels in new media, being Taiwanese American wasn’t always a factor in Chen’s identity. A Southern California native and self-described beach girl, Chen grew up in Arcadia, California the town of “middle-class, quiet, very nice community of rich people.” In the predominantly Asian town, she never thought about her friends being white or Asian as a kid, but many immigrant parents who were competitive with their children, encouraging careers in medicine or law, and pushed either the Universities of California or Ivy Leagues to compare with the other families in the neighborhood.
That atmosphere influenced her parents’ expectations who pushed Chen, as the oldest child, to do and achieve more in the usual ways: straight-A’s, first chair violin with private lessons, honors classes, and the like. Chen abided by her parents expectations for years, studying carefully to keep up with her friends and to avoid disappointing her parents and their subsequent arguments, yelling, and fights. She often would hear things like “Oh you’re not good enough. How could you be so stupid? This is common sense.” and began to feel that without reaching certain standards she was unworthy. She felt that she must have been stupid if she didn’t get into certain classes or get good grades. Math, especially, was one of those topics.
“I tried so hard, I went to so many different tutors, and to this day those are the things that just stay with us,” Chen said. “And I think it’s just one of those things that you just tell yourself you’re not good enough and it’s in your head. Suddenly your mind just accepts it as so, even if it’s not.”
Chen stayed on this path for years, earning high grades, continuing her violin lessons, and tutors. Then early in high school she started to question why she was working so hard and her parents pushed her so hard. She realized she played the violin only because her parents picked it out for her, and she wasn’t earning her high grades for herself. The angst set in her first two years of high school, and Chen said she started to skip class, hang out with seniors, and focused on being popular.
“In high school I just felt like I was done,” she said. “I was done trying to please my parents, I didn’t know what it was for. I knew it wasn’t for me, and I didn’t want to do it for them anymore. So we fought like crazy, it was horrible, horrible fighting.”
Her attitude sophomore year resulted in failing some of her classes, and as a result her parents wouldn’t renew her permit to attend high school in Arcadia, out of her hometown district. Faced with completely starting over in her final two years of high school, Chen said that was when it hit her that it was in her hands now. She studied hard again to get into the new honors classes and earned straight-A’s, but it wasn’t enough to offset the damage of her sophomore year. Of all her cousins, Chen is the only one to not attend a UC, instead opting out of UC Riverside for California State Long Beach. She was happier to choose a blank slate at Cal State, entering undeclared and graduating with a major in business, focus on marketing.
Looking back, Chen realizes as she was growing up she didn’t understand her parents were trying to provide what they thought was the best future for her in the only way they knew how. Between the culture and language barriers, she also didn’t understand at the time Chen’s mother had her own pressure to live up to.
“She was a daughter-in-law and I think that she felt very pressured to prove our family to her mother-in-law, and that was by her first child,” Chen said. “And I didn’t realize that my dad was working late hours, and he was a mailman at the time, working lots and lots of shifts just to pay for all this tutoring for me, and for private violin lessons and all that.”
Now she credits her mother for two of the biggest influences in her life: her love of film and one specific moment Chen remembers impacting her to this day. When she was in elementary school and struggling with concluding paragraphs for essays, she couldn’t figure out the best way to end her papers. Neither her teachers nor her tutors could explain how to write a conclusion, instead telling her it must have six to eight sentences and conclude the thesis of the paper.
“Then my mom just in very simple terms, and in Mandarin, said, ‘Well, what is the heart of what you’re saying?’” Chen said. “I told her recently (that) I credit her for everything that I write that has any sort of message, or how I view any type of body of work. I think that’s what I kind of brought to WongFu, and tried to pull out of everything that we make or do. That’s ultimately why I left as well.”
Chen met Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu, the three original founders of WongFu Productions, when she was working for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPF) as a the special event coordinator. In 2010 and 2011 Chen planned the festival’s parties, gala, and other events using her past experience as an independent event planner. When LAAPF hosted a special WongFu Productions screening in 2011, the event was packed and Chen began talking to Wang about new media. She had heard of WongFu before through videos emailed along by friends, and through a number of events hosted by the film festival became more aware of the growing presence of Asian Americans online. Even by 2011, when YouTube was six years old, not many film festivals and other mainstream outlets were taking WongFu Productions seriously even though the channel wanted to bridge that divide between old and this new media platform. After Chen and Wang talked about this divide, WongFu’s mission, and how Asian representation needs to grow, he reached out to bring her on board on a project by project basis.
“To work with creatives like that as a producer, she started getting her producing chops and she did very well,” says Francis Cullado, a co-worker of Chen’s at LAAPF. He’s the current Executive Director of Visual Communications, the company who runs the festival. “I think part of your job as a producer is coordinating stuff, connecting the dots. That’s what she really does. That was a pretty easy transition for her and I think that’s why WongFu wanted her, she had those skills.”
While at WongFu Productions, she saw the channel reach the 1 and 2 million subscriber mark, crowd fund their independent film “Everything Before Us,” tour the film internationally, be a part of several sponsored web series, and helped create their second channel More WongFu. When she joined the channel, she learned video production in the WongFu, on the fly, improvised style, and took on many different roles to help the company go.
“As things started to progress and she started to get more involved, it was really inspiring to see her in a leadership role,” Regina Fang, Chen’s long time WongFu co-worker and podcast co-host, said. “I was kind of more the back-end of answering emails, whereas she was more proactive going out making the shoots happens. Watching her step it up and be able to kind of see everything that could potentially go wrong and have a back up plan for it. That was very, very inspiring.”
Chen always believed in their mission and the impact their stories were having, the channel’s message of encouraging Asian American representation, and telling honest stories from the community. As the channel grew into developing the on-screen personalities of the company, namely the three founders, Chen found herself in front of the camera when they were short actors. Out of her element, Chen said she started to look at how the guys were doing their on-screen personas and tried to follow their example.
“I naively just adopted that and it came out as I was dumb,” she said. “Looking back, I can see how that wasn’t really me. I was trying to imitate what I thought the guys were trying to do. I had no idea what the significance of that would mean.”
Along with her discomfort being on camera, her role as producer wasn’t officially explained to fans, as they still wanted to keep the core WongFu team to the three founders. Considering she worked in the the days when it was still rare to see YouTube channels with its own production crew, Chen became an unexplained constant in the usually all-male videos. In turn, Chen faced the full scrutiny of WongFu’s young fanbase. Relentless comments about her appearance began showing up in videos, and Chen felt comments attacking women for their looks tears them down more because that the main currency for women in media, especially on new platforms like YouTube.
“After that, it crushed me,” Chen said. “Before those comments, I never thought I was ugly. After those comments, I thought I was the most hideous person ever. I was in my mid-twenties, and I cried. I would wake up and look at myself in the mirror and be like, ‘You’re hideous, you’re ugly.’”
The comments Chen saw affected her for many years at WongFu, changing her self-confidence and how she viewed herself. Compared to seeing comments on videos she wasn’t in talking about the content of the story, she watched multiple hate comments specifically about her receive hundreds of likes. She said she bought in to that mentality that commenters can’t all be wrong, and lost all interest in being in front of the camera.
“You see it all over the internet, and some people will say some really heinous things and it’s kind of removed from you, that’s just what happens,” Chen said. “But then when you’re on the receiving end of it… I’m actually glad it happened because I can really have empathy towards it, or else I don’t think I’d ever really fully understand it.”
Now Chen has a better understanding of how to feel about herself and hate comments, she tries to encourage the new team of employees at WongFu so they can navigate what it means to be on-screen. Checking to make sure each one is comfortable with the shoot, knowing they represent the company, not worrying about pretending to be someone they aren’t, and asking if they’re ok with being on camera. Chen joined WongFu at a different time for the company, and as the first hired producer she wants to make sure she can offer the guidance she missed.
“There have been times in the comment section people will say stuff about Jenn and I,” Ashley Matsunami, the producer trained to take over Chen’s role, said. “And Christine will chime in saying they’re more than just their looks. There’s more to them than just ‘I think they’re attractive’. They’re strong women, they have much more to offer the world than just their faces.”
Chen has always been a strong advocate for women, not an easy stance to take in the male-dominated YouTube community. When WongFu hired interns and editors, Chen was still often the only woman and she was the only one who could give voice at table reads about women representation. At first Chen wasn’t confident enough in her filmmaking opinions to share with the others, but she realized that’s often a pitfall of women in the workplace. As she began to grow close friendships with Chan and Wang, the main writers for videos, she felt encouraged to speak up in meetings about how she felt.
“It made me speak up more, it made me not accept things when before I just let it go,” Chen said. “Before it was ‘what’s wrong with me?’ but then it was like ‘hey, these are things that I don’t think I’m wrong’. You may not agree with me, but let me finish.”
There would still be times when her coworkers would cut her off or shut her down, so when new employees Matsumi and Jenn Le joined the team Chen actively worked to make sure their opinions were heard. At tables reads whenever one of the girls said something, Chen made sure to back them up and add on to their statement. Now that’s Chen left the office, Matsumi said everyone thinks more about the roles women play in their scripts, and she works to voice the concerns that she feels.
After years in the boy’s club of YouTube, Chen thought it was time to create a platform that focuses on telling women’s stories and voices, talking about daily life, struggles in the workplace, relationships, and more. She said she’s not focused on starting the channel to enter the YouTube economy, focusing on views, subscribers, and ads, and is open to seeing where the channel could go. Perhaps in a year she might not continue working in new media.
“That’s what brought me to where I am now. Just gaining the courage to move forward and not be concerned about now that I’m 32, I’m going to risk it all again,” Chen said. “Back to what my mom said for the conclusions of my essays, what is the heart to what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to say. That’s really all I want to focus on right now.”