UCLA Graduate’s New Documentary Unpacks Anti-Asian Hate During Covid

To say that Covid has changed our lives would be an understatement — ‘disrupted,’ ‘upset,’ or ‘wrecked’ would be more apt verbs for many people. Asian communities, in particular, count among Covid’s disproportionately impacted (DI) groups, no thanks to a rise of anti-Asian sentiment and targeted hate crimes.

For Nox Yang, an alumni of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Chinese international students are a subset of Asian communities in America who are overshadowed in public discourse. As a sociology major and film studies minor, she felt compelled to foreground them by making a documentary.

Nox Yang in San Francisco

Yang’s upcoming documentary sheds light on how Chinese international students navigate life in a nation full of hostility towards them. The film is in its post-production stages and will be released before the year’s end.

In an interview with the young storyteller, RADII learns more about pandemic life through the eyes of Chinese students studying abroad in 2020.

Humans of L.A.

Born and raised in Henan province in Central China, Yang moved to America to pursue her studies at UCLA in 2018. Armed with her camera, she would explore Los Angeles in her spare time — excursions that resulted in photos of interesting personalities and stories that she’d share on her blog.

An exciting opportunity awaited Yang at the end of her freshman year: A professor roped her in for a documentary that he was directing. The project served as Yang’s first introduction to the film genre, which she would quickly embrace. Following her professor’s film project, she would go on to create her first documentary profiling a colorful art community in L.A.

Nox Yang with the subjects of her first documentary

“Not only did they support each other, but that bunch never forgot to have fun. They also taught me a lot about American society and different industries,” she says, referring to the artists profiled in her first doc.

The experience enhanced her appreciation of documentary filmmaking as a powerful medium for storytelling.

The art of documentary filmmaking felt like a natural transition from her blogging days, which involved taking photos, interviewing people, and recording her interactions. Moreover, she realized that the former was an even better way to connect with her audiences.

Nox Yang

“Making documentaries humanizes communities because it allows you to see people for who they really are,” she muses.

When Covid hit China in early 2020, the aspiring storyteller didn’t have to hunt around too much for her next human-interest story: She decided to profile her very own student community.

Capturing Covid

When Covid first swept across China, most UCLA students imagined the pandemic would be isolated to China. Sympathetic towards their motherland, Chinese international students conducted fundraising campaigns — and Yang was there every step of the way.

They raised money to purchase medical supplies that they mailed to China. One organizer, a friend of Yang’s, allowed her to trail him as he visited warehouses, checked on supplies, and ensured that deliveries went smoothly.

Nox Yang (center) and her film crew shooting at UCLA

Yang emphasizes that Chinese students were, in fact, doing a lot to help people in their home country. In addition to handling their coursework at UCLA, many actively communicated with local organizations and hospitals in China. Yang, too, played a role by ensuring that these commendable efforts were well documented.

In February 2020, however, things started to get tricky. While it was tradition for UCLA’s Chinese student group to organize a Spring Festival show to celebrate the holiday together, many Chinese parents advised their children against the event, knowing how the contagious virus had swamped China.

Yang followed a debate among the students, who decided that a public vote would democratically determine whether or not to cancel the event. Despite their parents’ concerns, the majority insisted that the show should go on, especially since they’d invested a lot of time in its preparations.

“I went backstage, talked to the students, and documented how they felt about the situation and Covid,” recalls Yang. “Fortunately, the event was not canceled.”

UCLA students posing backstage on the day of the Spring Festival show

The passing of Doctor Li Wenliang is an important event in the global Covid timeline that is covered in Yang’s documentary. The respected doctor, who has come to be known as the ‘Wuhan whistleblower,’ was the first to issue warnings about Covid’s severity but was silenced by authorities.

Li’s life was honored by way of memorials worldwide, including one right outside UCLA. In addition to paying her own respects, Yang filmed the memorial and spoke to several attendees.

Nox Yang at Doctor Li Wenliang’s memorial

To her surprise, most of the mourners were not UCLA students.

“I did speak to some students about the memorial,” says Yang, who soon discovered the reason for their avoidance. Fearing that they’d be caught on camera, many had decided to give the politically sensitive event a wide berth.

Ebbing Virus, Rising Hatred

Just as things were improving in China, Yang noticed a change in the wind in the West. Chinese students, specifically those from Wuhan, had begun to face targeted discrimination. One such student agreed to speak to Yang about her experiences.

“After I interviewed her, I reflected on ways to avoid exclusion based on a person’s origins,” shared the documentarian.

And then it happened.

In March, America was hit hard by the virus and cities, including L.A., finally went into lockdown. Consequently, more Americans discovered Covid’s origins and coined or embraced harmful terms such as ‘kung flu’ and ‘China virus.’

“We saw a lot of anti-Asian, anti-Chinese things happening,” sighs Yang. “There were a lot of misunderstandings and misrepresentations.”

Seeing as her documentary was impacted by lockdown, she turned to social media to crowdsource video clips from the Chinese student community. Participants had the freedom to select their own format and content.

A clip submitted by a Chinese international student wearing a protective face shield on a flight

“Because we are Chinese, they threw eggs at our door,” reads the caption on one of the submitted clips

Yang patiently combed through and compiled the clips with an end goal in mind: To depict real stories and real lives of the Chinese student community amidst the Covid pandemic.

“We are not a label. We are not a stereotype. And we most certainly are not the virus.”

The time-consuming task proved eye-opening for the young filmmaker. A lesson on adaptation and patience, much of the content depicted students adjusting to the new situation and putting up with unpleasant confrontations.

At the end of the day, Yang realized that most of her subjects were just kids living far away from their families and in a foreign land where they lacked support systems.

She names a clip titled ‘Declaration against Discrimination’ as a particularly memorable submission. “If you discriminate against us…” warn two Chinese students in a thuggish manner while waving a toy gun around.

Screengrab from ‘Declaration against Discrimination’

Other submissions make for more heartwarming content, especially the videos of Chinese students supporting one another through tough times.

Yang may have filmed her yet unnamed documentary two years ago, but its message still rings true: Anti-Asian sentiment is still hugely problematic in America. Looking back, Yang feels empowered to have been able to document history.

A Facebook post by Yang

Moreover, the project has further fueled her passion for social justice.

“Every individual in society is affected by social injustice. I, personally, have experienced it as a woman, as an Asian, and as a migrant in America. Everybody should learn about social justice, as we are all in it together.”

All images via Nox Yang

This post was last modified on May 30, 2022 3:11 pm

Born and raised in China, Kayla received her BA in Communications and Public Service from the University of Pennsylvania. She currently works as a staff writer at RADII and is passionate about telling stories related to social issues women's empowerment. You can find her exploring coffee shops in Shanghai in her free time or rushing for Duffy and Friends plush toys at Shanghai Disneyland.