Born and raised in Hong Kong, Wang moved to Los Altos, California in 1967. For two years he lived on a Quaker ranch, surrounded by the unique counterculture of America in the late 60s, and attended college nearby. He initially majored in Biological Sciences. Then after taking some inspirational art classes, he decided to study painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, an education he augmented by avidly watching the films of the French New Wave, German New Cinema, Asian Post-war Cinema at the Pacific Film Archive, specifically becoming an admirer of Asian directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray. For graduate studies, he changed his major to Film.
After getting a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film, he returned to Hong Kong and got a job as one of the trainees to direct a popular TV series, “Below the Lion Rock”, for RTHK-TV (the Hong Kong equivalent of PBS). He soon found that he did not fit in the very formulated series and the government financed media bureaucracy. He returned to the U.S. where he got involved with teaching English to immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
In 1982, with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute, Wang made the low budget and completely independent “Chan Is Missing”, in which two cabbies search through San Francisco’s Chinatown for the mysterious Chan, a friend who’s made off with their hard-earned dough. “Although the character of Chan is never seen through the film,” says Wang, “I wanted to show the many varied personalities and their perspectives of Chinatown. I wanted to represent this through the disappearance of a recent immigrant in Chinatown.” Wang also wanted to show another Chinatown not represented by Hollywood – the one behind the scenes with its temperamental chefs, stingy businessmen, mobsters and the people manipulating the internal politics that represented the divide between the two different Chinas–Taiwan and the People’s Republic. “Unlike Hollywood filmmakers, I didn’t use Chinatown as a signifier of mysterious Oriental superficiality,” he says. “I took my characters and audience into its very real streets and people who lived and worked there.” This and the next film he made, “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” (1985), a family comedy about a Chinese-American mother and daughter relationship, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the British Academy Awards, and established Wang’s reputation as a Chinese-American storyteller.
Given his upbringing in Hong Kong by traditional Chinese parents and schooled by Irish Jesuit teachers, Wang is often identified with films about the Chinese Diaspora, including the film adaptation of “Eat a Bowl of Tea” (1989), and “The Joy Luck Club” (1993), the iconic Chinese-American film that crossed over to a mainstream American audience.
However, Wang has also made such independent features as “Smoke” (1995) and “Blue in the Face” (1995), both starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt; written by Paul Auster and set in Brooklyn. In 2002, Wang made the romantic comedy of a Puerto Rican hotel maid who falls in love with a Kennedy-like politician. “Maid in Manhattan” (2002) starring Ralph Fiennes and Jennifer Lopez and the movie became a surprise box office hit that year. Wang has also worked with Jeremy Irons in “Chinese Box” (1997), Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman in “Anywhere But Here” (1999), and Queen Latifah in “Last Holiday” (2006).
At the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, Wang returned to his Chinese roots and premiered a double feature about two women from two different periods of New China; one middle-aged who is from the late cultural revolution era and one barely 18 post revolution. Their respective stories in America were titled “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “The Princess of Nebraska.” Wang won the Golden Shell for Best Film at the 2007 San Sebastian Film Festival for “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.”
His feature film “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” based on the bestselling novel by Lisa See, was released by Fox Searchlight in 2011, and his “Soul of a Banquet,” a documentary about a 93 year old female chef who cooked a traditional Chinese banquet to celebrate Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse 40th anniversary, was released in fall 2014 via streaming and online downloads.
In 2016/2017 he went to Japan and made a film loosely based on Javier Marias’ short story “While the Women Are Sleeping” with Beat Takeshi.