By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Filmmaker and writer Arthur Dong, member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists, watched hundreds of hours of film preparing for his new curated series, “Hollywood Chinese: The First 100 Years,” starting Nov. 4 at Los Angeles’ Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
But according to Dong, this series, and the thousands of hours of film he’s watched in total, go back to one afternoon long ago in his native San Francisco.
“The first film that made me want to be a filmmaker was Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds,’” Dong remembered. “I was no more than 10. When that film ended, it was not an ending at all, it was a big question. What was going to happen to these people?
“It just astounded me. For days afterwards, I was making up stories about them.”
He was still in high school when he shot a short film, using his own bedroom as a studio. He went into documentary filmmaking as an adult. The most important lesson he’s learned over the years, he says, is to trust his interview subjects and to let them, not himself, guide the story paths.
His 2007 documentary “Hollywood Chinese” includes clips from dozens of Hollywood films, plus interviews with roughly 20 actors and filmmakers. Its mission is to document the history of the Chinese as seen through Hollywood’s eyes.
“There had been documentaries to focus on certain aspects of that topic, but not with the narrative arc that I wanted to have, which is the first 100 years of [Hollywood] history,” said Tong. “So I said, ‘Well, no one’s going to do it, that’s where I come in. That’s my job.’”
The documentary took 10 years of research and film watching. His interview subjects included Joan Chen, B.D. Wong, Ang Lee, Nancy Kwan, Lisa Lu, David Henry Hwang, and Justin Lin.
Some of the most interesting viewpoints come from non-Chinese actors who participated in yellowface—Christopher Lee, Luise Rainer, and Turhan Bey.
“I have certain feelings about yellowface,” Dong explained, “but I really want to hear their feelings and their experience and their point of view. What I learned from each one of them is that there are circumstances, why an actor chooses a particular role, whether that be economic or artistic. Christopher Lee, if he wouldn’t do [Fu Manchu], then the cast and crew [working with him] wouldn’t have the jobs.
“But that doesn’t excuse the effects of yellowface, how it denied the Chinese actors the chance to take on these roles at that time. How it perpetuated a certain look and a certain set of mannerisms that we see as audience members.”
The series begins Nov. 4 with a screening of “Hollywood Chinese” itself. Dong himself leads a post-screening discussion, moderated by Academy Museum Director and President Jacqueline Stewart.
Other highlights of the series include the evening of Nov. 5, when James Hong, 93 years old and celebrating an astounding 68 years in acting, appears in person for a screening of two of his most famous films, “Big Trouble In Little China and “Black Widow.”
The final program, for Nov. 27, features female Chinese Americans taking matters into their own hands outside Hollywood.
“The Arch” had a female Hollywood star, Lisa Lu, and a female director, Tang Shu Shuen, but was shot in Hong Kong. Joan Chen, frustrated with contemporary Hollywood conditions, went to mainland China and Tibet to shoot “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl,” a devastating tale of China’s cultural revolution that landed her in trouble with Chinese censors. Chen herself will lead a post-screening conversation.
Asked which films in the series represented the most crucial turning points, Dong singled out “Flower Drum Song” and “The Joy Luck Club.”
“Flower Drum Song,” elaborated Dong, marked the first time “where there was a majority Asian American cast of Asian characters. It was about contemporary Chinese Americans, but it was also a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. So that was pretty impactful, I think, for the American public to see that.
“And it took until ‘Joy Luck Club’ for [a majority Asian cast] to happen again. From 1961 to 1993, you do the math! That was not only critically acclaimed, but was a box office success. That had the majority Asian American cast, and definitely about contemporary Chinese American characters.”
For more detailed information on the “Hollywood Chinese: The First 100 Years” series, visit academymuseum.org/en/programs/series/hollywood-chinese-the-first-100-years.