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New Doc Profiles America’s First Chinese American Female Mayor

More than a testament to the inspiring story of Lily Lee Chen, ‘Rocking the Boat’ is also a moving collaboration between two passionate Chinese women

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May 25, 2022 2 mins read

Rounding up RADII’s content for AAPI Heritage Month is a film recommendation: Rocking the Boat: The Story of Lily Lee Chen, a short documentary about America’s first Chinese American woman mayor, premieres online on May 26 at 5 PM PST, and guess who got the inside scoop from filmmaker Nox Yang?

The 17-minute-long documentary explores Chen’s experience of running for the Monterey Park mayor’s office and her journey of advocating for Asian American rights in the 1980s.

Stay on after the film premiere for a panel discussion moderated by award-winning journalist Lisa Ling. Joining Ling are several prominent Asian American leaders and history-makers: First U.S. ambassador of Asian descent Julia Chang Bloch, first Chinese American congresswoman Judy Chu, co-founder of nonprofit organization Stop AAPI Hate Dr. Russell Jeung, as well as Chen, and film director Yang.

Lily Lee Chen documentary

Scan the QR code in the promotional image above to register for the documentary premiere

A little backstory: It was in May 2020 that Yang first heard of Ms. Lily Lee Chen. The discovery coincided with a low period in her life: The filmmaker had just lost a student government election at UCLA, missing her chance to become an international student representative. However, hearing Chen’s success story empowered her.

“Someone [Chen] who also didn’t come from this country ran a campaign on a city level back in the 1980s — not to mention as a woman of color — and actually WON?!!” posted Yang on Facebook.

Even then, she knew that she wanted to document Chen’s story.

Lily Lee Chen

A newspaper clipping of an article about Lily Lee Chen

When Chen agreed to be the subject of Yang’s documentary, the filming process brought them close together. Yang soon discovered her subject’s strong personality.

“She has her own ways of getting things done, no matter what it takes, and that really taught me a lot,” says the filmmaker. “Coming from a disadvantaged position, sometimes you need to be aggressive and tough. We need such people to step up and to speak up for the whole community.”

The director specifically names Chen’s commendable efforts in protesting the English-only movement. The political movement was established in 1907 and aimed to establish English as the only official language in America. It still holds sway in some parts of America today.

“It was really awful back then, but Lily was there. She had the courage to speak up for the Asian community, which really changed people’s perspectives on immigrants,” says Yang.

Lily Lee Chen

Lily Lee Chen

More than a testament to the inspiring story of Chen, Rocking the Boat: The Story of Lily Lee Chen is also a moving collaboration between two Chinese women at very different points in their lives: Yang, a Chinese national in her early 20s and a fresh grad from an American college, and Chen, an accomplished Chinese American politician in her 80s who dedicated her life to racial justice.

Despite their different nationalities and ages, Yang and Chen have a shared passion: Using their voices to advocate for social justice.

lily lee chen

Lily Lee Chen and Nox Yang on set

Even though she is a Chinese national, Yang grew interested in Asian American politics after relocating to the U.S. for her studies. After leaving her comfort zone and embracing her position as a woman of color living in America, she gained a true sense of being a minority.

“The things going on within Asian American community immediately felt very relevant,” she says. “Through political participation, I learned that without representation, you don’t have a voice.”

The young documentary filmmaker strives to use the power of storytelling to raise awareness of racial justice, humanize her community, and build meaningful connections.

We can’t wait to watch Chen’s impressive journey unfold through Yang’s lens.

More event information and premiere registration of Rocking the Boat: The Story of Lily Lee Chen can be found here.

All images via Nox Yang

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