He Was Raised By Poor Chinese Immigrants, Now He’s One of Hollywood’s Star Directors

At just 36 years old, director Jon M. Chu already has quite the resume. He’s helmed films like “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” which went on to become the highest grossing concert film of all time, and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.” His latest film, “Now You See Me 2,” features an all-star cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Daniel Radcliffe.

Chu was born in Palo Alto, California, to Chinese immigrants as the youngest of five kids. His father, Chef Lawrence Chu, runs Chef Chu’s, one of the most popular Chinese restaurants in Silicon Valley. Its customers run from Mark Zuckerberg to the late Steve Jobs.

Melly Lee
Melly Lee

“He would take us to school every morning but he was at the restaurant all the time,” Chu said of his father.

“He loved what he did. He was the best example of a person that loved what he did, worked hard, and never took it for granted and was always coming up with new inventive ways for the business.”

He added: “He didn’t even speak English when he came to America — he just figured it out along the way.”

Although the offspring of restauranteurs are usually expected to help their parents at the restaurant, this wasn’t the case for Chu. His parents didn’t let any of his kids work at the restaurant and instead pushed them into finding their passions in life.

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Chu was given his first camera by his mother and would carry it around and tape people every time they went on family vacations. However, there was one pivotal moment that made Chu realize his passion for film.

“One day, I convinced my dad to get me this little mixer from Sharper Image. It was like a $200 thing,” he recalled to Inquirer.

“Then, I made this video of our vacation. I added music. I was probably in third grade. So I was 10 years old. I showed my family, and they started crying when they watched it. I was like, I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

While many Asian parents push their kids to do well in school, Chu’s parents were extremely encouraging of his passion for filmmaking.

“They were definitely tiger parents, but in a different way,” Chu said. “When I told my mom this is basically what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, I was crying and the next day she came with a pile of books all about filmmaking and she said, ‘If you’re going to do this you have to study it for real. Work hard as if it’s math or science.’”

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Through hard work and perseverance, Chu was admitted to the USC School of Cinematic Arts, one of the top film schools in the world. Since Chu grew up in a relatively diverse neighborhood, he didn’t really think about his racial identity until he moved to Los Angeles to attend school.

“There were jokes here and there that people would say that would ring in my head a little bit,” Chu recalled. “Just like if you’re in a meeting or something and they make some racial joke. All light stuff — nothing you don’t think about in the moment. Later you’re like, ‘Oh that also indicates they’re looking at you differently.’

“Don’t categorize me as an Asian-American director. I’m a director. I appreciate you saying that, but that means you’re looking at me in a different category”

“That was the first time I felt that people see me differently here. But my parents also taught me that when they had gone through things, keep your head down, focus on the work, and do things so well that no one else — they have to want to hire you, work with you, and be with you.”

And that philosophy paid off for Chu. His USC senior short film caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who helped him get into the industry.

“Someone told me once that you are what you do every day,” he told the Inquirer.

“I asked Steven Spielberg, ‘So, when do I know I’m a director?’ He said, ‘No one’s going to give you permission. No one’s going to give you a sign on your door one day. You just are what you are every day. If you’re a writer, you don’t have to tell anyone you write, you write every day. That’s what you do.’”

But even then, Chu still faced numerous failures and let-downs before his success. He was set to direct “The Great Gatsby,” a big budget remake of “Bye Bye Birdie” and a children’s version of “Kung Fu Hustle,” none of which materialized. One of his recent works, “Jem and the Holograms,” a film he was incredibly passionate about, bombed at the box office.

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“I thank god for lows, because when you’re at your lows, you find out who you are, your limits, and what you care about,” Chu said.

“When you have public humiliation and your movie doesn’t do well and everyone is tip-toeing around you — you quickly discover why you’re doing it. Through bumps and bruises and picking yourself up off the floor: you learn how you stand, get your ass up off that floor and keep going. For me, that is essence of life. That is the only reason to live.”

Recently, the topic of Hollywood whitewashing characters that were originally Asian in movies has been subject to controversy.

“I feel like it’s not the actors’ fault,” Chu said. “I’m not sure it’s the filmmaker’s fault either, to be honest, because sometimes it’s an unconscious decision that gets made. They spend all their time and energy making this and as soon as it comes out you get this backlash of ‘Oh she’s not Asian.’ I feel the [backlash].

“But at the same time I think it’s important to make it an issue because it’s not about the choice — it’s already been made. You’re not going to change that movie. But the next time that choice comes to the line, you bet your ass those marketing people, and the people who usually don’t give a shit about that are going to be like, ‘If we put her in that we risk millions of dollars.’”

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In terms of his racial identity, Chu admits he’s felt uncomfortable being labeled an “Asian-American director” in the past.

“I’m like, ‘Don’t categorize me as an Asian-American director. I’m a director. I appreciate you saying that, but that means you’re looking at me in a different category,’ Chu said.

“For me as a filmmaker, at least for my mentality to move forward, I had to always put myself in the same bucket as every other director out there. That’s my competition, not the next Asian-American director. I’ve got to compete against the highest levels. It’s only going to make me better to be on that level.

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“I think everyone handles their identity in different ways. I think had you asked me this question a couple years ago, I would have been more on that side of it. ‘I don’t want to fucking talk about it, just let me make my movies.’ That’s how you get better.

“Now having a bit more perspective on those things and seeing how it affects up and coming people also gives me as an Asian-American director the power to also put a little muscle in the movement as well. I think it’s becoming more important to see that side of it so I can contribute in some sort of way.”

“Now You See Me 2” is set to release in theaters on June 10 and Chu is already signed on to direct its sequel, “Now You see Me 3.” He’s also going to direct “Crazy Rich Asians,” the movie adaptation of the bestselling book by Kevin Kwan.

Feature image via Melly Lee

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