A documentary seeks to take a deeper look at one of the few trailblazing Asian-American characters in young adult books.
“The Claudia Kishi Club,” directed by filmmaker Sue Ding, delves into the legacy of Japanese-American art-loving, boy-crazy “Baby-Sitters Club” member Claudia Kishi. A Kickstarter for the project ends Wednesday and had reached more than $11,000 of its $15,000 goal as of Monday afternoon.
For Asian-Americans who grew up with few role models who looked like themselves, the character reflected a new kind of Asian girl beyond the tropes that were regularly seen in mainstream media. Ding explained that “just being able to see an Asian-American girl who was normal” was tremendously significant for kids growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, and that’s exactly what she’s set out to explore with her documentary.
“Her Japanese culture was alluded to in the books … I think they did a good job of trying to reflect that, but she wasn’t defined by her race,” the filmmaker told HuffPost. “She was defined by being the fashionable one, by being boy crazy. She was a normal teenage girl who had a personality outside of just being Asian.”
The documentary includes commentary from creatives including blogger Phil Yu (aka “Angry Asian Man”) and young-adult authors C.B. Lee and Sarah Kuhn, who’ve all felt profoundly influenced by the character. Yu has even created a series of alternative “Baby-Sitters Club” book covers that better reflect what Kishi’s experience as one of the few Asians in town would’ve looked like.
“Claudia was definitely one of the first times I saw myself in a story ― especially centered in a story,” Kuhn says in the documentary trailer.
For years, the character developed a cult following among Asian-American internet circles, becoming a role model for those who felt their three-dimensional, authentic stories were absent from young adult literature. And, for many, including those featured in the documentary, Kishi had a real-life effect on their life trajectory, Ding told HuffPost. The interviewees ultimately serve as examples of the importance of proper representation.
“It’s a longitudinal look. It looks at the people who grew up with Claudia when they were kids and looks at them 30 years later and shows that there was a concrete impact,” the filmmaker said. “In some very direct ways, she impacted what they thought was possible for themselves and what careers they went on to pursue.”
Ding said that a portion of the funds from the Kickstarter campaign would go toward expenses involved in interviewing “Baby-Sitters Club” author Ann M. Martin herself and exploring the creative process behind the character. Considering the other Asian characters of the time, which were largely limited to “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’” Yellow Ranger Trini Kwan or offensive stereotypes like “Sixteen Candles’” Long Duk Dong, Kishi was revolutionary ― she bucked tropes and exuded a rarely seen “cool factor.”
“One of the biggest questions I’ve had is: How did this white lady come up with this amazing iconic Asian-American character?” Ding said. “Did she have Asian-American friends? Did she do any research? What was her approach as a white woman to an Asian-American character?”
The filmmaker herself is familiar with the wonder and pride associated with Kishi. Ding grew up in a predominantly white town in upstate New York and had long wanted to pursue a creative field. In some ways, she found herself in Kishi.
“My parents were first-generation immigrants, and I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a painter, I wanted to be a fashion designer,” she said.
She added that, growing up, she noticed that most of the titles she read in English class were by white men. And when a book centered on the experience of a person of color, “the protagonist often felt defined by their oppression.”
“All the stories we read about Chinese people were about impoverished rice farmers in ancient China,” Ding said. “The books were good books but were definitely ‘other’ in some way. They weren’t people you could see yourself in easily.”
But Kishi was different.
With a few more days to go, Ding hopes to raise enough money for editing in addition to the interview with Martin.