The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
EXAMINING STEREOTYPES. Arthur Dong’s Hollywood Chinese, a documentary examining the history of Chinese Americans in Hollywood, shows how Chinese have been imagined in movies and how filmmakers past and present have navigated an industry tainted by a tangled history of race and representation. (Photos courtesy of DeepFocus Productions)
From The Asian Reporter, V18, #40 (October 7, 2008), page 11.
Hollywood Chinese examines Tinseltown’s minority representation
Directed and produced by Arthur Dong
Distributed by DeepFocus Productions
By Pamela Ellgen
Hollywood Chinese is a compelling documentary chronicling the journeys of Chinese actors, writers, and filmmakers from the early days of silent film to present-day blockbusters and film festival selections. The film is written, directed, produced, and edited by award-winning filmmaker Arthur Dong and features an impressive cast, including directors Ang Lee and Justin Lin, actresses Nancy Kwan and Tsai Chin, writer Amy Tan, and many other brilliant artists. The documentary highlights and analyzes selections from more than 90 films. Some are presented favorably; others are an embarrassing glimpse into America’s past.
In the early years of Hollywood, the Chinese were represented onscreen as one-dimensional, often played by non- Asian actors in "yellow-face." Writer Amy Tan reflects upon the making of The Good Earth in the 1930s, in which Anna Mae Wong was passed up for the main role of a Chinese woman in favor of Caucasian actress Luise Rainer.
"The audience needs to identify with the characters," Tan says forgivingly. "How are they going to identify with someone who looks Chinese?"
When they were given roles, portrayals of Chinese in films were dismal depictions of opium, murder, and mystique in Chinatown, or of rural, uneducated denizens of China in need of saving by white missionaries, as seen in the film Inn of the Sixth Happiness. These stereotypes persisted well into the middle of the century, eventually giving way to typecasting of another sort — that of the exotic Asian beauty or the martial-arts master.
Acclaimed actress Nancy Kwan admits in the documentary that she’s somewhat ashamed of perpetuating the demure Asian vixen stereotype through her role in Suzie Wong movies.
However, not all mid-century movies were so deplorable in their depictions of Chinese. The 1961 Rodgers and Hammerstein film Flower Drum Song makes the statement that Chinese in America were in fact Americans, something that wasn’t as apparent then as it seems today.
Hollywood Chinese wrestles with several other weighty issues including the portrayal of Japanese by Chinese actors during World War II, the de-sexualizing of the Asian male in film, and the idea that every Asian in film is somehow a representative of his or her people.
One of the most poignant moments of the film is footage shot during a question- and-answer session at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival with director Justin Lin, whose award-winning, albeit disturbing, Better Luck Tomorrow follows several Asian-American teens from their life of good grades and suburban graces into a violent world of sex, drugs, and crime. In the final question of the evening, one festivalgoer suggests that perhaps Lin has done Asian Americans a disservice by his amoral depiction of them. This ignites a fury of discussion in which Roger Ebert enters with his own observation, "No one would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to represent their people."
There is no way to adequately sum up Arthur Dong’s fascinating documentary other than to say it’s a must see. He eloquently covers many aspects of Chinese contributions in Hollywood and the challenges they faced, without ever sounding preachy or judgemental. Hollywood Chinese challenges moviegoers to a higher thinking and greater appreciation for all aspects of filmmaking. It plays at the Hollywood Theatre October 11, 12, 18, and 19. For tickets and showtimes, call (503) 281-4215 or visit <www.hollywoodtheatre.org>. To learn more about the documentary, visit <www.deepfocusproductions.com/HollywoodChinese>.