The History Of ‘Hollywood Chinese’

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“The whole idea of trying to grasp the notion that someone can be Asian and American seems to be a difficult conundrum both for American culture as a whole and then reflected in the movies.”

— David Henry Hwang, writer,
quoted in
Hollywood Chinese

Hwang’s quote perfectly epitomizes the American film industry’s historically awkward relationship with the Asian American community. In his latest documentary Hollywood Chinese, acclaimed filmmaker Arthur Dong tackles this history by focusing on Hollywood’s depiction of the Chinese and Chinese American experience. From early films like 1900’s Beheading the Chinese Prisoner, which exploited negative stereotypes of the “heathen chinee,” to Ang Lee’s Academy Award triumph with his masterpiece Brokeback Mountain, Dong employs clips from almost 100 films and interviews more than a dozen prominent individuals to create a comprehensive and thoroughly enjoyable walk down memory lane.

Hollywood Chinese hits all the major highlights — the stereotypes represented by Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, the pioneering career of Anna May Wong, the all-Asian musical Flower Drum Song, martial arts films — but it also digs deeper and introduces the viewer to little-known stories like that of filmmaker James B. Leong, who came to California from China, established James B. Leong Productions (also known as Wah Ming Motion Picture Company), and co-wrote and produced the 1921 silent feature Lotus Blossom.

In fact, Dong dug so deep that he unearthed two reels of the 1916-17 film The Curse of Quon Gwon, written and directed by San Francisco native Marion Wong and considered to be the first feature film made by an Asian American. The clips from this “lost” film demonstrate the work of a filmmaker with artistry and potential, and one wonders what Wong would have done with the opportunity to make more movies.

Dong’s interviews — from veterans like James Hong (Balls of Fury) to newbies like director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) — are deft and lively, and he gets his subjects to part with interesting tidbits such as Tsai Chin’s explanation for why she appeared in the Fu Manchu series: “I’m not particularly proud that I did these films, but I did it. It’s called … something like food, that you need to eat! … I don’t have to work very much because the scripts are always the same.”

Most fascinating are the interviews with Caucasian actors who played Asians in “yellow face,” Luise Rainer (The Good Earth) and Christopher Lee (Fu Manchu), who offer unique perspectives on the topic.

Coming on the heels of Planet B-Boy, Benson Lee’s exhilarating documentary about the worldwide b-boy phenomenon, Hollywood Chinese is further proof that we may be in the middle of a creative renaissance for Asian American documentaries; if only we could say the same for our narrative features. But, as Hollywood Chinese argues, we’ve come a long way.

Hollywood Chinese opens on April 11 in select cities.

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The 25 most infamous yellow face film

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