Remembrances of Betty Yao-Jung Chen, Filmmaker and Artist

Posted December 14, 2022.

Introduction:  Betty Yao-Jung Chen was an artist, filmmaker and community activist. Several of her friends, classmates, and colleagues share their remembrances of this remarkable woman who left us earlier this year. 

Nobuko Miyamoto – Betty Y. J. Chen was an artist who “served the people,” as we said in the movement. But she was also a person of mystery. It was the early 1980s when I created a work with her.  The Japanese American movement for Redress and Reparations was in full swing.  I wrote a song, “Gaman” (to endure), that depicted the experience of a young girl growing in a concentration camp.  When Betty heard me perform it, she asked me for the words. It wasn’t long before she showed up with more than twenty five haunting pastel drawings she made to bring the story to life. We created slides of each drawing. I first performed the song with her slide show. My brother, Bob Miyamoto, later made it into a 16mm film, an early version of a music video, which showed on PBS’ Silk Screen series.

Self-portrait by Betty Chen, courtesy of Nobuko Miyamoto.

One day she told me she burned the original drawings, with no explanation. Was it a ritual? Was it an act of impermanence like the Tibetan sand mandalas? Soon after, Betty was gone.  She left Los Angeles for New Haven, Florida to care for her aging parents.  She called later and I could hear children in the background. She laughed and said she was teaching at a school. I imagined her making art with the children.  One day a package arrived. I opened it to find a hand carved wooden face, with soft open smile, gentle but bold, like Betty.  On the back she wrote that after I see it I should burn it. Of course I couldn’t.  Years passed, I heard less. Recently I tried to find her to tell her we updated the song and the video, but she was no longer at the New Haven address. She was gone, like her original drawings, and no one knew where she was…till we heard of her death. I’m glad there is something that remains, something that shares her soulful art of storytelling, her sense of community and history, something made with her own hands. “Gaman” endures.  Thank you, Betty.

Jeff Furumura – A son once asked, “Father, how come in every story I’ve read, the lion always dies?” The father replied, “Son, the story will always end the same, until the lion learns to write.”From a lesson on Perspectives, developed by the Asian/Black/Chicano (ABC) Pride Program, 1973-75.

It’s not easy to teach a lion to write, but that’s what Betty Chen was so good at.  Betty was a senior advisor to the first batch of fledgling film students, of which I was one, admitted under the Ethno-Communications program of UCLA’s Film school back in the early 1970’s.  Betty had earned her way into the UCLA Film school years before us, and I clearly recall seeing one of her films: A delicate, hand-drawn animation only a few minutes long but which must have required dozens, perhaps hundreds, of drawings to complete. It was mesmerizing to watch the wisps of line (in ink? pencil?) fade and merge and tell a story wordlessly.

Betty never leaned on her mastery of the film making process to teach us but prodded us forward with her genuine appreciation for our individual creativity. It could almost be embarrassing to be on the receiving end of her nurturing ways. I remember showing her a few seconds of a shot that I had set up to mimic the profile of the Buddha in the subject of my film about a Japanese gardener (Elmer Uchida in “I don’t think I said much”). According to “ear” witnesses listening in the hallway outside of the film screening room, Betty’s orgiastic moans could clearly be heard. Fueled by such effusive encouragement from Betty, I finished the film project. I did not want to disappoint Betty, no way! Betty was an influential guide to many young lions who went on to write their own stories, to tell their own endings. In this way, the spirit of Betty Chen lives on.

From left to right: Duane Kubo, Eddie Wong, Betty Chen (at the Arriflex 16) and Filipino senior at the LA Filipino Community Center. Photo by Alan Ohashi, courtesy of Visual Communications Archive.

Mary Uyematsu Kao – I often thought of Betty as too pure of heart for an oftentimes heartless world.  As a highly talented artist, she avoided self-recognition.  Betty was deeply imbued with idealistic convictions of how art should serve the people, and many of her artistic motifs were reminiscent of the revolutionary art that was coming out of the People’s Republic of China.  She made a beautiful silkscreened poster for the 1973 year of the ox, captioned with Lu Hsun’s famous:  “Fierce-browed, I coolly defy a thousand pointing figures, head bowed like a willing ox I serve the children.”

Illustration by Betty Chen for “Six in the Morning, Six At Night: Growing Up in a Chinatown Grocery Store” Interview with Frank Eng by Victor G. and Brett de Bary Nee in Counterpoint, 1976 UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Family duties called on her to move to Florida to care for her aging parents.  While she made the difficult adjustment to again being confronted with taunts of “Ching Chong Chinaman” after spending years in the LA Asian American Movement, she continued to serve her new community in Florida with her love and unfailing optimism for people.  Something she wrote for a collection of movement reflections perhaps reflects her life philosophy:  “What after all is revolution?  A spin of the wheel for another perspective?  Another way of living?  Another explanation?  I’d like to see more humanizing efforts (in personal/social changes) that measure up to the best technical achievements in science and spirituality, in commerce and in crafts.  One thing is certain—deeply ‘humanizing’ efforts are always in demand.”  (B.Y.C., “What after all is revolution?”, “Public Record, 1989,” Amerasia Journal 15:1 (1989), p. 141.

UCLA Film School’s Media Urban Crisis Committee aka the Mother Muccers on location production. From left to right: Danny Kwan, Richard Wells, Luis Garza, Betty Chen (behind the camera on the wheelchair dolly), and Nancy Dowd on the Nagra sound recorder. Photo courtesy of Luis Garza via Josselyn Luckett.

Mario Vieira da Silva – Naturality, simplicity and affectivity are the three treasures according to Daoist philosophy. Betty Yao-Jung Chen embodied all of them. I had the privilege of being her classmate at UCLA in the 60s. I have no words to properly describe the feeling of loss with her departure. Her creativity was contagious. I’m sure that if I have not come back to Brazil I would be around.

Sandy and Yasu Osawa – Betty was immediately noticed as one of the hardest working students in our class. Even our professor, when asking about our plans, would say that he knows Betty is going to be working on how to develop her film. That was a common issue with us all, but Betty was always one to persevere and was a positive presence on us all.

Betty (center, back row) with family on a trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1984. Photo courtesy of May Ying Chen.

May Ying Chen – I met and worked with Betty Chen in the 1970s in Los Angeles. She was a very gifted artist and teacher. I watched her teach and work with high school students in summer programs in Chinatown – sketching, silk screening, photography. Betty was very creative and methodical, teaching kids the whole process from set up to clean up of complicated, beautiful art projects. She told me she grew up in a rather isolated environment with very few other Asians, and art was an important outlet for her imagination, emotions and energies. In Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Betty and I joined many community activities for U.S.-China friendship, youth programs and day care.

Betty and I became friends and kept in touch when she moved back to Florida. Her parents were friends of my husband’s aunt (Ettie Chin Hong). Ettie was leading tours to China in the 1980s and Betty went once with her parents. I took my children to Florida in 1987 (or so), and we visited Betty and went to the historic Cypress Gardens together. Betty was teaching art at a local college. Somehow, we lost touch in the millennium, but I think about her – her gentle, patient good humor, her passion for art, and her curiosity about community issues and civic affairs.

Eddie Wong, Robert Nakamura and Betty Chen inspecting b/w prints at the VC office and darkroom. Photo by Alan Ohashi. Courtesy of Visual Communications Archive.

Eddie Wong – when betty chen walked up to you and said “hello,” a smile curled from her lips and her eyes sparkled.  betty seized every moment to make a human connection. She was generous in spirit and exuded joy at being in community.

betty was one of the teaching assistants for the second-year students in Ethno-Communications, an affirmative action program, that brought in dozens of Third World students to desegregate UCLA’s Film School in the 1970s.  much of her instruction centered on the mechanics of operating a 16mm camera, setting up lights, and managing a production crew. i’ve never had a more patient and encouraging teacher. But far more than technical information was imparted in our sessions with betty. she taught us that true artists care deeply about the people we photograph and must nurture relationships that go beyond the act of recording and documentation.

we spent many hours working on various photo projects in the early days of Visual Communications at our tiny office on South Jefferson Blvd. over the years, we lost touch, but I’ll never forget her sweet disposition and humble artistry.

Betty Chen teaching Duane Kubo and Eddie Wong on how to load an Arriflex 16 camera properly. Visual Communications photo shoot at the LA Produce Market in 1971. Photo by Robert Nakamura, courtesy of VC Archive.

there’s an awful finality to death. i’ll never have an opportunity to tell her in person how much I appreciated all that she taught me and how much I wished we would have continued to be friends. all we can do is carry on in her spirit and emulate her kindness and dedication to truth telling.

Illustration by Betty Chen for “The Indispenable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California” by Alexander Saxton in Counterpoint, 1976 UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Josslyn Luckett – Betty Chen. The name was everywhere, and then I got to see her work. I have never seen a two minute animated film that shocked me more than her Portraits of a Young Girl. What begins as a fanciful, almost psychedelic sketch pad of images of young women’s faces, turns into a horrifying reminder of the Kent State massacre of 1970. Who was this radical animator, who seemed to shepherd a generation of Asian American filmmakers at UCLA at the same time she was showing up in the credits for Sylvia Morales’ Chicana, Judith Dancoff’s Judy Chicago and the California Girls, as well as illustrating projects for Nobuko Miyamoto and Nancy Dowd? Then all at once she seemed to vanish. Her vanishing concerned me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about a statement Alice Walker once wrote about Zora Neale Hurston: We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and if necessary, bone by bone.*

I’m deeply grateful for Eddie Wong’s dedication to collecting these words and for all the memory work and loving tributes to this trailblazing artist gathered here. May Betty Chen’s remarkable contributions never be forgotten.

[*from Alice Walker’s “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View” In Search of Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983)]

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To learn more about Betty Chen and the female Asian American filmmakers at UCLA in the 1970s, read Josslyn Luckett’s article in Film Quarterly, Spring 2020.  

Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the PDF article.

Featured Image:

Photo of Amaryllis flower, a symbol of beauty and joy, by Eddie Wong.

1 Comment

  1. Lydia Tanji on December 15, 2022 at 12:24 am

    Thank you Josslyn, Eddie, Nobuko and Eastwind Folks – I didn’t know about Betty Chen – her work is inspirational, and beautiful with haunting tenderness.

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