Lia Chang is a multidisciplinary artist (with an impressive resume) based in New York City! At the age of 17, she was singled out as a model for Sidney Bitterman Coats, and later made her stage debut in South Pacific, starring Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet! Chang went on to become a professional filmmaker, photographer, multi-platform journalist, social media director, and actress, and her award-winning work can be seen everywhere, from YouTube to the Library of Congress’ Asian Reading Room! Largely inspired to repair the “lack of positive coverage artists of color in the mainstream media” receive, the mission of Chang’s film company (Bev’s Girl Films) is to “foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera.” As an artist that believes in telling stories that truly matter, she advises young artists to “have a seat at the table,” “take up space,” “control [their] own [narratives],” and “[refuse to] take no for an answer.” In the future, she looks forward to releasing a documentary centered around the life of her mother, Beverly Umehara, “a secretary and mother of four who became a labor activist and president of the national executive board of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance,” and to play more lead roles in film and television herself! Read on to learn more about Lia Chang and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Lia Chang
Heritage: 6th Generation Chinese American
Hometown: San Francisco
Current City: New York
The Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest will screen two of Bev’s Girl Films short films, Hide and Seek and When the World Was Young, written and directed by Garth Kravits, which I executive produced and starred in as part of the online component of their Festival from Oct. 1-10, 2021 (read about the festival here: https://wp.me/p6wusm-1BI). I also just finished playing several characters in a workshop of the development of a new play by Alex Lin called Bad Chinese Daughter, directed by Chay Yew. It was right up my alley!
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
My short films, written and directed by my creative partner Garth Kravits: Hide and Seek, Rom-Com Gone Wrong, Belongingness, and When the World Was Young, which I starred in and executive produced.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
It is important to have a seat at the table to have our voices heard and to be represented. Take up space. You matter. Write and control your own narrative. Tell your own stories. Produce your own work. Representation is everything. Don't take no for an answer.
How did you get your start?
I came to New York when I was 17 for a modeling convention at the Waldorf Astoria. I met a woman who owned a special size agency -- petites and plus size. She told me of all the models that she had seen at the convention, I had the most potential, but at the time there would not be enough work to pay my rent, and I would have to do survival jobs. I had no intentions of staying, but I loved the energy of the city and knew that I could live here.
I got my first full time job in modeling as a receptionist/model for Sidney Bitterman Coats. I was the petite showroom model for Liz Claiborne from 1984-1993, and was one of the top petite runway models in the Tri-State area. I would work for Liz Claiborne 2-3 weeks at a time, 4-5 times a year. I considered modeling my survival job, and in the off season I worked in film, television and theater.
I made my feature film debut in Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon in 1984, followed by John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China in 1985. In 1986, I made my professional stage debut as Liat in a North American tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, starring Robert Goulet and Barbara Eden, directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald.
1985 - Big Trouble in Little China
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
In 1996, I was cast in the ensemble as Sally in the Signature Theatre Company revival of Sam Shepard’s Chicago, directed by Joe Chaiken. We were lucky because Sam was in rehearsal with us. I was allowed to photograph during rehearsals and tech. When the show was extended by two weeks and our leading lady had another commitment, my director gave me the lead because he knew that I knew the show from every single angle.
1996 - Chicago cast on set with Sam Shepard
In 2000, I received an Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) Chinese American Journalist Award for an article entitled "An Active Vision", which detailed the life of my mother, Beverly Umehara, a secretary and mother of four, who became a labor activist and president of the national executive board of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
In 2001, I received the Asian American Journalists Association 2001 National Award for New Media for an article I wrote about my grandmother’s harrowing journey through the Angel Island Immigration Station.
In 2015, Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72-Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and I received a Best Actress nomination. The revelation of making the top ten did not happen until #9. I was speechless when I saw myself on the big screen as the lead and not a supporting character. I cried when I received the Best Actress nomination. More please!
In 2021, When the World Was Young received the 2021 DisOrient Film Audience Choice Award for Best Short Narrative.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
When I started working as an actor, the roles that were available to young Asian American women were hookers, maids, victims, dragon ladies, kung fu killers, et cetera. I played them all. In 1993, when I joined the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), the very roles that I had played were the ones that I would be protesting. As a photographer, my biggest challenge was having my male counterparts take me seriously.
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I am a cinephile and love the films of the 40s. Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress. I loved the rich, full, and complex characters that she was able to portray.
I love to eat -- meat and potatoes, mac and cheese, veal milanese, rack of lamb, xiao long bao, soul food, barbeque, pierogies -- all make me very happy!
I love to travel -- since May, I have been in Honolulu, St. Louis, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, and Santa Fe!
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) (https://www.aaldef.org), a national organization founded in 1974, protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans.
The Asian American Arts Alliance (https://www.aaartsalliance.org), which “is dedicated to strengthening Asian American artists and cultural groups through resource sharing, promotion, and community building.”
Stop Asian Hate (https://stopaapihate.org): Our communities stand united against racism. Hate against Asian American Pacific Islander communities has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we can stop it.
The Yellow Whistle (https://www.theyellowwhistle.org) which is “a symbol of self-protection and solidarity in our common fight against historical discrimination and anti-Asian violence.”
Broadway Barkada (https://www.broadwaybarkada.com), which “[provides] a community for Filipino artists that CULTIVATES our talents, EDUCATES our audiences, and ELEVATES our global impact.”
National Asian Artist Program (NAAP) (https://www.naaproject.org), which “[showcases] the work of Asian-American theatre artists through performance, outreach and educational programming.”
Womankind (https://www.iamwomankind.org), which “uses the multidimensionality of its Asian heritage to work alongside survivors of gender-based violence as they build a path to healing.”
Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) (https://www.cacf.org), which
is the nation’s only pan-Asian children and families’ advocacy organization bringing together community-based organizations as well as youth and community allies to fight for equity for Asian Pacific Americans (APAs).
Do you have any mentors?
My photography mentor is Michael Yamashita, a National Geographic photographer who has specialized in photographing Asia for many years.
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?
My survival jobs included being a night receptionist at The Animal Medical Center, coat check and reservationist at The Russian Tea Room, and Barnes and Noble before they became a superstore.
Do you have any other “special skills?”
Multimedia content producer, filmmaker, journalist. I am one of the top performing arts and special events photographers in New York so I stay pretty busy. Since May, I have photographed numerous artists’ solo shows, photographed performances at the new park, Little Island, and for the Dramatists Guild, Signature Theatre Company, and Prospect Theater Company -- mostly outdoor events.
Do you have any side projects you’d like to highlight?
I have been the archival photographer and Director of Social Media for Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winning Hadestown star André De Shields since we first acted together in a play at La MaMa in 1993. We were very busy in 2019, before, during, and after he won the Tony. I thought we were going to have a break during the pandemic, but he/we got even busier because everything pivoted to being online. This summer, I flew to St. Louis to photograph performance and opening night of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s production of KING LEAR starring André, was in Indianapolis to photograph his concert performances in August, photographed Hadestown re-opening on Broadway, attended the Tony Awards with him, will go to Chicago with him in October as he is receiving the Sarah Siddons Award, and will head to Baltimore in December where he will perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
In November, I will be in Salt Lake City to photograph rehearsals and opening night of Jason Ma’s new musical, Gold Mountain (read about the show here: https://wp.me/p8ilTC-aia).
I also am the company photographer for Jason Ma, writer/director Lainie Sakakura, and composer Paul Fujimoto, who are working on the stage adaptation of Jamie Ford’s New York Times' best-selling novel, The Corner of Bitter and Sweet, called Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
André De Shields and Lia Chang at The Tony Awards at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York on September 26, 2021. Photo by Brian Stokes Mitchell
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?
My mother was also creative and my father wanted to be a photojournalist when he was younger. He never fulfilled that dream because he got married and had to support a wife and three children. He was an amateur photographer, and I have been photographed since birth. He used to take classes, photograph us and then take us into the darkroom to develop film and make prints.
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
Tenacity, drive, determination, pivoting on a dime, and embracing constant reinvention.
Where did you study at?
I studied at the school of Hard Knocks. I attended Hunter College and the International Center of Photography. I started working at such an early age that I was able to turn my theater credits into Independent Study credits. I am an Asian American Journalists Association Executive Leadership Graduate (2000), a Western Knight Fellow at USC's Annenberg College of Communications for Specialized Journalism on Entertainment Journalism in the Digital Age (2000), a National Press Photographers Association Visual Edge/Visual Journalism Fellow at the Poynter Institute for New Media (2001), a Scripps Howard New Media Fellow at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (2002), and a National Tropical Botanical Garden Environmental Journalism Fellow (2003).
What are some goals you hope to achieve?
I am looking forward to playing lead roles in film and television.
I am currently working on a documentary about my mother, based on my award-winning article, “An Active Vision,” which detailed the life of my mother, Beverly Umehara, a secretary and mother of four, who became a labor activist and president of the national executive board of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
What do you love most about what you do?
I learn something new every day about myself, the world, and whatever medium that I am working in that day. I love making a difference in people's lives.
Do you have any self care practices you do to stay focused and sane? What was your self care routine before the pandemic and how has that (as well as your views of self care) changed throughout the pandemic?
Sleep, two-hour massages, and vintage clothing shopping. No change throughout the pandemic because I never stopped working. I am so happy to see my family and friends again in person.
As a storyteller, how do you pick the stories you want to work on and what goes into putting a story together, whether on stage, page, or film?
All of the things that I do -- acting, writing, photographing and filmmaking -- are all forms of storytelling. The only decision to make is which is the best medium to tell the story.
With Bev’s Girl Films, Garth and I make films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. With the exception of The Writer, which stars Garth, our short films (Hide and Seek, Balancing Act, Rom-Com Gone Wrong, Belongingness (Isabela Sanchez), When the World Was Young (Virginia Wing), The Cactus (Ali Ewoldt and Emily Borromeo), The Language Lesson (Jaygee Macapugay), and Cream and 2 Shugahs (Marjorie Johnson) all have female leads of color. Prior to the pandemic, we had gathered our stable of actors and we all worked in different roles -- leading lady one day, PA the next. I think it is really important as indie filmmakers to be familiar with all the different jobs on set, and to be able to implement them.
I am working on a documentary about my mother, based on my award winning article, “An Active Vision” (https://wp.me/p8ilTC-7pt) which detailed the life of my mother, Beverly Umehara, a secretary and mother of four, who became a labor activist and president of the national executive board of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. My mother was only 53 when she died, and while she lived a very full life, she had so much more to accomplish. I think her story is an important one to tell.
What inspires you?
Talent and vision.
If you could name one point in time when everything changed for you, what was it?
The day my mother died. I was grateful that I had been doing oral histories with her. That allowed me to write her story and to mourn, as I had her voice on tape. It was cathartic.
Who are your role models and why?
My parents, Beverly Umehara and Russell Chang. They taught me to believe that anything was possible, imbued me with my independent streak, and allowed me to forge my own path in the world. My father was also an amateur photographer, and my sisters and I have been the subjects of his camera since birth. He was thrilled to pieces when I added the photography component to my life, and loved hearing about when my photos would get published. There have been so many Asian Americans who have broken the bamboo ceiling and paved the way for me -- too many to mention -- and I am grateful to them all.
To find out more about Lia, please visit her at:
YouTube (Bev’s Girl Films Trailers):https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIxHUvDBIxgj4dMc0cT0seA
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