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Return to ‘The Joy Luck Club’ With Tamlyn Tomita

On the film’s 30th anniversary, the actress reflects on its legacy and talk about the sequel

spinner image left actress tamlyn tomita right a younger tamlyn tomita and ralph macchio in the karate kid two
Tamlyn Tomita starred alongside Ralph Macchio in the 1986 film “The Karate Kid Part II.”​
Courtesy of Tamlyn Tomita / The Everett Collection

Actress Tamlyn Tomita, 60, sits in front of a red and black kimono from the 1900s that is hanging on the wall of her Los Angeles home. Its age makes it too delicate to dance in, as she does during Obon season, the annual Japanese Buddhist festival that celebrates ancestral spirits. The scale of the kimono’s flower motif is very loud and theatrical, she says. Her husband, Daniel Blinkoff, bought it for her on eBay.

“He thought this was very me,” she says wryly, laughing.

Tomita’s hair is styled in long waves like that of her character Waverly Jong, the child chess prodigy turned tax attorney from The Joy Luck Club. The groundbreaking film debuted in theaters in 1993 with an all Asian American cast, including Tomita, Lauren Tom, Ming-Na Wen, Rosalind Chao and Lisa Lu. The film adaptation of Amy Tan’s 1989 novel, directed by Wayne Wang, is marking its 30th anniversary this year.

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The contours of Tomita’s career follow a similar path. In the 1980s and ’90s, when few nuanced roles for Asian American actors existed, Tomita broke down barriers as Kumiko in The Karate Kid Part II, then maintained longevity in fickle Hollywood. Her next project is the forthcoming Netflix live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Besides acting, Tomita actively supports Asian American organizations like the Japanese American National Museum and the Nisei Week Foundation.

“Her influence in politics, the arts and API [Asian Pacific Islander] causes is huge and so many organizations rely on her support and wise advice,” says Lauren Tom, her Joy Luck Club costar.

Joy Luck Club was about shero-making,” Tomita says of the film’s focus on mothers and daughters. “And sheroes that didn’t have to wear capes. They just had to tell their stories.”

Family reunion

Shooting the film in San Francisco was extraordinary, Tomita says. While filming, fans of the novel would interrupt to tell the actors how much they loved the book. It was the first major studio movie with a predominantly Asian American female cast.

“We knew this was very special. We knew that it had to be done right,” says Tomita, who identifies as Okinawan, Japanese and Filipina.

In 1993, the film about four Asian American daughters and their mothers grossed nearly $33 million domestically. It focused on the women’s respective journeys to finding their voices. Women are the glue of families and society, writ large, but they don’t often get the opportunity to tell their stories, Tomita says.

“We stand alongside the men, but we don’t have the practice of speaking up.”

The mood on set was generally relaxed, like at a family reunion, where the daughters of the film would throw out an occasional Cantonese phrase as a shortcut or affectionate joke. It was a nod toward the uniqueness of being a part of an Asian American ensemble cast.

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Back then, when she was asked how the film would affect how Hollywood saw Asian Americans, Tomita recalls she said change would be incremental, “like a big pebble in this path towards truer representation.”

Her words proved to be prophetic — 25 years after The Joy Luck Club, another major studio film with an Asian American cast, Crazy Rich Asians, made its pop culture and box office mark in 2018 by grossing $174.5 million domestically. Then this year, a bejeweled Michelle Yeoh cradled her Oscar for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and told women everywhere, “Never let anybody tell you that you are past your prime.”

This perhaps signals an inflection point for Asian American representation in Hollywood, but it also leaves Tomita feeling wistful that The Joy Luck Club didn’t receive this kind of attention.

Sometimes, it feels lonely to be a pebble. 

spinner image cast of the joy luck club including kieu chinh ming na wen tamlyn tomita tsai chin france nuyen lauren tom lisa lu and rosalind chao nineteen ninety three
“The Joy Luck Club” is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2023. The cast (from left): Kieu Chinh, Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Tsai Chin, France Nuyen, Lauren Tom, Lisa Lu and Rosalind Chao.​
The Everett Collection

Mothers and daughters

When we meet the adult Waverly Jong in the film, she is locked in an intense game of will with her mother, impeccably depicted by actress Tsai Chin. In the beauty salon scene, mother and daughter are side by side, but wedged apart by feelings they can’t express.

Since The Joy Luck Club, strangers often pour their hearts out to Tomita about their own maternal relationships. Mothering, what it means and how it trickles down to children, has always been a subject of rumination.

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In the movie, the mothers gather strength and learn from their daughters. And in an instance of life imitating art, Tomita’s mother, Asako, followed her daughter’s lead in learning Bon Odori, a Japanese style of dance that takes place in the summer months at Japanese Buddhist churches and on the streets of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.

The dance is slow and peaceful, says Asako Tomita, 86. You can use your body to signify things that are bigger than you. She moves her arm gracefully up and down: ocean. Dance can be an expression of emotions when words fail.

When mothers become grandmothers

Last year, news of a sequel to The Joy Luck Club — with Tan and the original screenwriter, Ron Bass, on board — set the internet on fire. The original cast knows no other information about the sequel, Tomita says.

“There’s nothing to reveal. There’s nothing to conceal as well.”

Waverly Jong was already a mother to a daughter, Shoshana, but 30 years is enough time for a personal evolution. Tomita predicts that when we revisit her character, Waverly will be a Chinese American activist, maybe fighting for civil and human rights.

“I think it’s a natural evolution. When you finally see your mother in the country where she comes from, you want to be like your mother,” Tomita says. She pauses here and strokes the back of her black cat, Umami, to take in the depths of the passage of three decades.

“We know we have a very special place in Asian American cinema and American cinema,” she says. “We can choose to wield the sword of righteousness and pride and have to uphold the value of a story such as Joy Luck Club.”​

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