Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood during the 1960s, Chinese American filmmaker and author Arthur Dong saw plenty of people who looked like him in his community and in the Chinese-made films he watched. But on screens showing Hollywood fare, it was a different story: Portrayals of Asian people leaned heavily into stereotypes or, worse, were outright offensive and with many roles played by white actors, a practice commonly referred to as “yellowface.”
“When I was in my early teens, I started seeing American-made movies with Chinese characters and really noticing how odd it was that their representation [was] in a way that was foreign to me and my experience,” says Dong, 65.
This curiosity would motivate Dong to make documentaries and films about the Chinese and LGBTQ communities. With his new book, “Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films,” out Oct. 17, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker dives deep into the history of Chinese representation in U.S. cinema, from early depictions of San Francisco’s Tong Wars in the early 1900s to hit romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018.
He touches on the history of stereotypical characters like the villainous Fu Manchu, the game-changing presence of Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star, Anna May Wong, and other notable, if lesser known, junctures in pop culture history — like how the 1962 film “Confessions of an Opium Eater” became the impetus for starting East West Players, the Los Angeles-based Asian American theater company, still in existence today.
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The book also includes interviews with prominent Hollywood players spanning a range of eras, including Ang Lee, Nancy Kwan, Justin Lin, James Hong, B.D. Wong, producer David Henry Hwang and writer Amy Tan.
Dong drew upon his 2,000-piece collection of film memorabilia for the visually driven tome; in compiling images, he unearthed hidden gems that revealed just how deeply entrenched the Chinese American community has been in show business, like a picture of a mixed-race Chinese American vaudeville performer, dating back to around 1915.
“It’s fascinating to know that this woman, who was mostly Chinese with some mixed black ethnicity, was out there performing and knowing what was going on in America, the discrimination against Chinese Americans, at that time,” says Dong.
Dong adds that he is heartened to see the success of Asian American-driven films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell.” But the motivation of a marginalized community to own and tell its own stories is one that stretches much further back in cinematic history.
“We get a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” blasting out last summer and it being a major hit. Well, that came from somewhere. The motivation behind that team to tell their own stories the way they want to tell it really was the motivation that came from the silent era,” says Dong. “It took us a long time to have a blockbuster like [that], to say, “Yeah, we’re here.” It’s that larger history that I wanted to tell.”