“Chugga Chugga Chu Chu” is what the kids in Squahamish like to call Ellie Chu. They scream it when she’s performing in her high school’s mandatory talent show. They holler it from their trucks on the way to school. When people finally accept Ellie — the sole Chinese American student and a closeted lesbian in her very religious, very white town — she is tokenized. “It’s the Chinese girl!” they shout with joy, and Ellie smiles, not bothering to point out the racism.
These are fictional experiences in The Half of It, a teen movie about a love triangle and finding friendship as an outsider. But “Chugga Chugga Wu Wu” was actually what San Francisco-based director Alice Wu’s elementary school classmates used to call her.
“That part is totally true,” Wu says, laughing. The Half of It is Wu’s first movie since her breakout film, Saving Face, which was inspired by Wu’s own experiences coming out as a lesbian in the Asian American community. Saving Face premiered in 2005, well before conversations about diversity and equity in Hollywood started to ramp up for filmmakers like Wu.
“The chances of that movie getting made were so tiny. It was such a shock when it did happen,” Wu says. “I was like a deer caught in headlights.”
After Saving Face garnered positive reviews from publications like The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly, Wu disappeared.
She’s re-emerged, 15 years later, with The Half of It and a Netflix deal.
But where did Wu go?
The answer: San Francisco. After a nationwide screenwriters strike put Hollywood’s entertainment industry on hold from 2007 to 2008, Wu received distressing news from the Bay Area, where she was born and raised: Her mother was sick.
“I dropped everything,” Wu says. “I moved to San Francisco.” It wasn’t a hard decision to make. “She needed me.”
Although she continued to nurture her passion by attending a writing workshop and teaching classes at Endgames Improv, Wu kept a relatively low profile — working “practical jobs” for financial stability instead of pursuing her big ideas.
“Well, this is embarrassing,” Wu remembers thinking. She had an office at the Writer’s Grotto, a creative co-working space for writers, which she felt was going to waste.
Then, about three and a half years ago, some universal force — Wu doesn’t know what — compelled her to pick up the pen again. The result was The Half of It.
Though it is not at the center of the entertainment universe, San Francisco is a great writing city, says Wu, who praises the community she found at the Writer’s Grotto, where she completed her most recent screenplay. Moreover, the Bay Area is the place for politically or artistically active Asian Americans.
“There’s a very strong queer Asian community in the Bay Area,” Wu says. And there’s a strong Asian American community that’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.”
Wu didn’t always thrive in the Bay. She remembers her family’s rise on the economic ladder, and how that upward class mobility related to race. One second, all her classmates were people of color. The next, they were all white.
“I didn’t know what was happening to me was racism. Suddenly nothing I did was right,” Wu says. People would say things like “Get back on the boat” to her and her Chinese immigrant parents. “I shrunk into myself. All I did was read books.”
There was at least one silver lining to growing up in the Bay Area. In her junior year at Los Altos High School, Wu met Mrs. Geselschap, an English teacher who encouraged Wu to pursue her artistic side when no one else believed she could. “Mrs. G” gave Wu books to read for fun and recommend films she thought Wu might be interested in. When Wu visited her again after junior year, Mrs. G asked her what she was planning on majoring in.
“I’m majoring in computer science.”
“That’s a shame,” Mrs. G said.
“Why?” Wu was startled.
“Well, I always hoped you majored in English.”
“That caught me so off guard,” Wu says. Though she ended up earning both a B.A. and Master’s in computer science from Stanford University, Mrs. G’s faith in Wu’s writerly impulses stuck with her. “She totally changed my life,” Wu says.
Mrs. Geselschap is the only person in Wu’s life who shares a name with a character from The Half of It. Before meeting Paul, Ellie has just one friend at her high school — her English teacher, Mrs. Geselschap. She encourages Ellie to aspire for a life outside of the town’s borders, and in turn, Ellie expresses her worries — about money, about fitting in — to her.
“You know what it’s like to finally meet someone your age who gets you?” Ellie asks Mrs. Geselschap.
“You know where else you can meet people your age who get you?” Mrs. Geselschap says, as no-nonsense as ever. “College.”