Vancouver-based filmmaker Jon Chiang’s tribute to familial love, Doh Jeh Mama / Thank You Grandma, premieres online today.
The short film starts with endearing moments between a grandma and her grandson. “Eat some more. It’s delicious,” she says, as she adds vegetables onto his bowl of rice.
Later, the boy is shown as a grown man, working an office job but reminiscing about the good times he had with his grandma and all she taught him—and realizing just how much he appreciates her.
“I think the marker of success, honestly, is if people watch this and end up calling their grandparents, or calling their mom or dad, or family, and just say hi or say thank you or reach out,” Chiang tells the Straight in an interview.
Chiang studied political science but got his start in photography at the UBC school newspaper. Soon after, he started learning video and interned at Lululemon—which led to him landing a spot on their film team.
“I eventually kind of just made my way into film that way,” he says. “I had a lot of mentors at the company, and a lot of them had a background in documentary—that’s how I got into that side of filmmaking, as well as being a commercial director.”
Raised in Richmond, Chiang is of Chinese-Peruvian background. “I never felt a super strong sense of belonging as a Canadian, just because I’ve witnessed so many acts of racism against Asians, including my parents… but I was never able to speak Cantonese, so I never felt like I fully belonged there, either.”
His parents were born in Lima, Peru and taught him Spanish growing up. “I feel a strong cultural connection to the country and the history but at the same time, I don’t look Peruvian, nor was I born here,” Chiang said. “I found myself in this in-between and this kind of space where I neither belonged here nor there, and I think a lot of my work kind of comes from that place.”
The inspiration for the short film Thank You Grandma came from a trip to Peru in 2019. Chiang was feeling burnt out after freelancing for five years, so he took ten months off to travel South America with his partner. He ended up spending two of those months in Lima, living with his uncle and spending time with his grandmother who would soon be diagnosed with cancer.
“Deep down, I had this feeling,” he recalls. “[that] this could be like the last time I really spend as much quality time with her, and I felt so fortunate to have that time.”
She brought Chiang to dinner parties at the Chinese Association and around the neighbourhood where she grew up. “I had the chance to really get to know her and ask all the questions I really wanted to, but never had the opportunity to,” Chiang says, noting that he normally only saw her once or twice a year.
“I had the chance to see her before she passed, and I think just being there with her in the last days, I just felt so much gratitude for her and what she had to go through to create this life for us,” he says. “So, I think that's really where the inspiration comes from—this place of gratitude and love for our grandparents, our parents, and our ancestors.”
He took this feeling of gratitude and turned it into Thank You Grandma, honouring his grandmother and all the other grandmothers out there. Chiang started writing the script at the end of December 2022, and it was filmed in March. By the end of April, it was edited and ready to publish—just in time for Asian Heritage Month in May.
“It was surprisingly hard to find our grandma, and we’re lucky we found Althea Kaye,” says Chiang, having loved her performance in Netflix’s Christmas rom-com, Love Hard. After a Zoom call with Kaye, he knew she had the levity and skill needed to bring his vision to life.
The casting of Joshua, who played the young boy, was also a highlight for Chiang. “One of my favorite moments was seeing Joshua's journey—from our first rehearsal to the end of production—as our young grandchild,” he says.
Chiang could tell that Joshua was a bit nervous at first, but had a gut feeling that the young actor would be successful. “The last thing I wanted to do was scare him off from acting and I'm glad that all our cast and our crew created this incredibly warm and protective environment for him to just be himself and feel safe… He absolutely knocked it out of the park.”
Of all the films he’s created, Chiang is most proud of Thank You Grandma. “I just feel the buy-in and the amount of generosity and energy all our crew and cast brought to the table, and also our post-production partners really believing in this project,” Chiang says. “It feels really vulnerable to feel so strongly about a piece and it just felt really special seeing how many people felt this was a project worthy of their time and something they could find meaning in.”
A virtual screening of Doh Jeh Mama / Thank You Grandma is available here.