My life: Heland Lee
The film director, actor and Occupy Wall Street activist talks to Rong Xiaoqing about fighting for the rights of the less-privileged
L I was born in Trinidad in 1970. My parents were rich, so it's funny that I joined the Occupy Wall Street movement to fight the class I used to belong to. I didn't come to the United States to make more money and have a better life - I was searching for who I am. Being Trinidadian, being Chinese, being a New Yorker, that's the story I want to tell in my films. My parents came from Guangdong. My father opened a grocery store when he emigrated to Trinidad, which he later expanded into a supermarket. When I was a kid, my family was involved in businesses such as supermarkets, restaurants, real estate and food manufacturing. But whenever we tried to help, my father would say that he already had workers. My parents meant to give us the best, but because we were sheltered so much, I didn't know how to be a grown-up. When I was four, I was sent to Macau to live with my grandparents for a year. There, I was just like the other kids, but when I went back to Trinidad, I had to try to fit in again. All the kids started to make fun of me. At school, the boys knew my father had a supermarket and they would blackmail me. My mother was obsessed about giving us wholesome meals. She would cook meals in our restaurant and have the driver bring them to school for lunch. Other kids would say things like, "Here comes your chauffeur." I was teased so much that sometimes I fantasised about taking action. I am glad I didn't.
My parents divorced when I was 10 and they split the businesses. My father passed away suddenly when I was 18 and it took me three years to sort out his business. I came to the US to study at the University of Texas when I was 21. I started off with business and finance, but when I took an elective class in arts, I realised I didn't want to study business anymore. I transferred my major to theatre. My mother wasn't happy and said I was wasting my life. In Texas, I did all sorts of odd jobs - waiting tables in cafes, packing containers for UPS - because I needed to stay busy. While working at these jobs I saw what life was like for immigrants who came to the US and had to struggle. But I didn't realise how awful it was to be a deliveryman until I started playing one. I went to New York to become an actor and during the first couple of years I played a Chinese deliveryman many times. Once during filming for an episode of I was treated badly by everybody on site because I wore an apron and people thought I really was a delivery guy. Every time I walked into the holding area, the security would stop me. They didn't stop anybody else. That was one of the worst days I've ever had. I just wanted it to be over.
When I returned home I got thinking about how much it must suck to be a delivery guy. I went online and printed out all the news stories I could find about deliverymen. I noticed there was a trend: deliverymen were being murdered all over the city and they were mainly Chinese. I realised there was something cultural going on: Chinese people, especially if you are an illegal immigrant, don't speak up when they are assaulted. I wanted to do something about this, and that's why I made my first film, . It is a short narrative based on the true story of one of the victims, a murdered deliveryman named Huang Chen. Before that, I didn't know how to make a film. I had only taken acting classes, so I had to learn quickly. Since the film premiered, in 2007, I've been to 12 film festivals and travelled around the country screening the film and talking about it. I know it won't make me money, but I care about the issue. I want the film to educate people about the lives of deliverymen. The first film festival I went to was Cannes. My film wasn't selected but I got to see the process. And I met one of my idols, Wong Kar-wai. I love all of his movies. I sat in his workshop and was mesmerised. I thought to myself, "This is what I want to do. This is it."
Now I'm making a documentary about my life. It started in 2006, when the Trinidadian government celebrated the arrival of Chinese immigrants for the first time. That made me think about how to tell my story. The Chinese have been emigrating to Trinidad for 200 years, but it's been a long struggle for us to find a voice in the country. I felt we were treated unfairly, but as I pulled my story together, I started to realise that I came from a privileged background and was being teased for being rich. Now, my life is totally different. I'm vegetarian, I do yoga and one day I woke up and found myself in the middle of an Occupy Wall Street march because I believed in the cause. I'm 42 and have just figured out what I want to do. I realise poor people don't have that privilege. I'm the eldest son. The building my dad left me is dilapidated because I'm not there to take care of it. My mom is still trying to lure me back to Trinidad to take over the business. But she doesn't realise that if I had struggled in life, I'd probably care more about money. Now my income is at poverty level. But for someone living in poverty, my life is pretty good because I'm doing what I love. And this is the way I want to be.