Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1960’s, Chinese-American filmmaker Arthur Dong watched plenty of low-budget Chinese films from Hong Kong at the neighborhood theater. But the film that helped spark his imagination and inspire his love for cinema was the English-language Asian-American musical film Flower Drum Song starring Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta.Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1960’s, Chinese-American filmmaker Arthur Dong watched plenty of low-budget Chinese films from Hong Kong at the neighborhood theater. But the film that helped spark his imagination and inspire his love for cinema was the English-language Asian-American musical film Flower Drum Song starring Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta.
“It was just a revelation,” Dong said. “Mostly, it was about contemporary Chinese-Americans. It wasn’t about these Chinese people living in Hong Kong or in these historical costume dramas. It was about people I was living with in my community in Chinatown and shot in the streets that I lived in. Grant Avenue. San Francisco. That’s my neighborhood, so it was really quite wonderful to see all of that.”
At that time, Dong’s interest in Hollywood depictions of Chinese faces led to what he called a “fascination” with yellow face, which is when stage, television or film characters are portrayed by white actors, often while wearing heavy makeup in order to approximate “Asian” or “Oriental” facial characteristics.
“The yellow face and the offensive characters like the Charlie Chan characters and the Fu Manchu characters in Hollywood films was more a fascination than an offense,” Dong said of his early reaction to seeing non-Asians portraying Asians on screen. “Although in my later years I understood why we have to question those portrayals in the larger framework and context, but back then it was a fascination.”
Over the past 26 years, Dong has produced, written and edited eight documentary films. He’s been an Academy Award nominee, a five-time Emmy nominee and his films have garnered three Sundance Film Festival awards. He’s known mostly for his “Stories from the War on Homosexuality” trilogy of films (Family Fundamentals, Licensed to Kill and Coming Out Under Fire) covering the challenges and conflicts over gay issues, but has also remained true to his Chinese-American roots with films like Sewing Woman, a documentary about his mother’s immigration to America from China, the half-hour drama, Lotus, about the foot-binding of Chinese women, and Forbidden City, U.S.A., a documentary on Chinese-American nightclubs in 1940s San Francisco.
After spending more than 10 years of research, fundraising, conducting interviews and editing footage, Dong has now released his new film, Hollywood Chinese, a visual and cultural history of the Chinese in American feature films.
“Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by film history. That’s always been a love of mine,” Dong said. “I had ambitions of becoming a film historian. I love research and I love finding images and discovering images or rediscovering older images. And often times, the process I choose requires that I do archival film research.”
Dong combined his research with personal accounts from eleven of the film industry’s most accomplished Chinese-American filmmakers and performers to help create a stirring documentary that has garnered praise from Asians as well as non-Asian audiences alike. Ang Lee, Wayne Wang, Joan Chen, David Henry Hwang, Justin Lin, B.D. Wong, Nancy Kwan, Tasi Chin, Lisa Lu, James Hong and Amy Tan are among the many stars featured in Hollywood Chinese.
Non-Asian personalities such as actress Luise Rainer (The Good Earth), a two-time Oscar winner also appears in the documentary talking about performing in yellow face, along with actor Christopher Lee (Fu Manchu) and Turhan Bey giving their thoughts on being in yellow face. The film also features over 90 movie clips from the 1890s to the current wave of Asian American films like Better Luck Tomorrow and Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift.
Recently, Dong took time out from his busy schedule to speak with Asiance Magazine about the making of Hollywood Chinese and the responsibilities filmmakers face when dealing with the topics of race, culture and community.
ASIANCE: Were all the interviews for Hollywood Chinese done in a short amount of time? What was the time frame for gathering interviews in the film?
Arthur Dong: We did our first interview in 2003. That was Luise Rainer. She really kicked it off well because getting her interview was so exciting. In the interview she’s 93 years old and I didn’t know she was still alive. I did know that The Good Earth had to be a major part of the film because it was such a seminal work. Little did I think that I’d be interviewing one of the actors. That was pretty incredible.
When I found out she was alive, she was not an easy interview to get because she lives in London, and I had to go to London. Finally, through personal relations, I had people who were friends of her give her a call and encourage her to give me the permission to do an interview. And she finally did. When we went to London, I remember the moment we were interviewing her and thinking to have a witness from that era talk about yellow face is so important. Whether or not I agreed with her point of view didn’t matter, we able to get her point of view and her experience on The Good Earth. And once I got that interview I knew this is a great start and I went on to get others. Our last interview, I believe was Lisa Lu, or maybe it was Justin Lin in 2006. He was just finishing Annapolis and he was just starting on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. And he was pretty busy, too. We grabbed him out of post-production. It was the same with Wayne Wang. I had to go to New Orleans because he was beginning production on Last Holiday, and so with most of these cases I had to be there when they were available. They would say, “Well, I can carve out part of a few hours while I’m here,” or something like that, and I’d just have to say yes in order to meet all their schedules.
ASIANCE: How long were each of the interviews?
Arthur Dong: I would say on the average about two hours.
Any criticism has come more from Asian-Americans than from non-Asians and that phenomena comes from where we’re tougher on ourselves. I think that comes from our hunger as well because there is so little of ourselves in pop culture and media that we just want more, and we just have this community that wants so much from us. But we can only satisfy so much.
ASIANCE: Did you have to wait for some stars of filmmakers to become available? You mentioned that you had to wait for Ang Lee? How long did you have to wait to get access?
Arthur Dong: I didn’t wait that long. It was a few months. It was about timing. The time that I wanted to interview him was right after the whole Brokeback Mountain explosion of Oscar nominations (the film was nominated for eight Oscars and won three). So it was during the whole awards season. Funny thing when I interviewed him about the whole awards campaign, and he said it’s like a war campaign, with how tough it is, and so much work. Now I understood why he was so busy because he was making the rounds. But he was in town for a weekend for the Golden Globes and they made time while he was in town. I was willing to go to New York. That was no problem. But during this campaign of his, it didn’t matter where he lived because he was just all around the world doing press and promotional support for Brokeback Mountain. You know, I think that often times it’s who you know in a relationship and Lisa Lu was a good friend of Ang Lee and she helped me make a call to him to encourage him to participate in Hollywood Chinese.
ASIANCE: The story of Keye Luke as Charlie Chan’s number one son was quite interesting. You could have probably did a whole feature about his life or the actors playing number one son. How did you make the choice of who to put in and who to leave out of the film?
Arthur Dong: Telling the entire story was impossible. I knew as a filmmaker, I had to make certain stories and I will never be able to please everybody with this film. There’s going to be somebody that says, “Well, you didn’t include XYZ, and what about this person, and you totally left this other person out.” There hasn’t been any criticism about leaving out a person that was detrimental to the film so that makes me feel good. But I knew that I would have to make choices and one of them was that because I chose to tell the story from the point of view of my interviewees that the overall construction of the piece would partly rely on what they could talk about, what they brought up in conversation about their personal life. So in terms of Keye Luke, for example, Nancy Kwan was a good friend of Keye Luke. So she was able to talk about him from her point of view, drawing from her experience of working with him, and that was really beautiful as opposed to some voice of god narrator saying, “And Keye Luke was born in blah blah blah.” For me there’s no emotion there, but when you have Nancy Kwan talk about her own conversations with Keye Luke and how he felt about having to take that role with a white man playing his father, that holds much more emotional value. That’s how I constructed the film and that’s part of how I chose to include people and not include others.
Click to watch a Q&A with Arthur Dong, Amy Tan, Tsai Chin, and James Hong.
ASIANCE: Are there parts of the interviews that you left out that you really wanted to include in the film?
Arthur Dong: Of course. A lot. Are you kidding? The film is only 90 minutes. Each of my film interviews ran an average of two hours, I have over 30 hours of interviews. But this is where the beauty of dvd comes in because I can include them in the special features for the dvd. And that kind of made it easier for me as I started to exclude stories because that wonderful story I couldn’t include in my documentary I could certainly include it in my dvd extras and share it with people.
ASIANCE: I always hear this being asked of Asian-American or Chinese-American filmmaker’s that some people feel you have a responsibility to represent their community or their heritage or so forth. What’s your opinion?
Arthur Dong: I look at it in two different ways and I try to accomplish both. And that is I do feel that I have a responsibility, but at the same time there’s that undo burden that a larger community places on an artist. And it’s not fair. I believe that artists have difficult choices to make in that respect and that we should respect their choices. But I happen to choose to acknowledge the fact that my films serve a larger community and they have since the beginning of my career. I have much gratitude that they are accepted by a larger community, whether the Gay community or Asian American community, and that they are shown as examples of who we are. I take great respect in that. In all of my films I have advisors from the community that I am documenting. That’s a very important step for me. They’re not just advisors on paper. I mean I work them. I have them read my script and I have them read my proposals and I have them look at clips and I have them write comments and I pour through their comments and I pick these advisors very carefully and they don’t always agree with each other, especially with Hollywood Chinese. I picked advisors that I knew would not agree with each other and would not agree with me. But I need to know their point of view, what their feelings are and what their ideas are and their intellectual understanding of this topic. I know that I can’t please everybody. And when I make a film, I make a film that I want to watch. If it doesn’t work for everybody that’s okay because it works for me.
ASIANCE: What has the response been from the Chinese-American community?
Arthur Dong: It’s been great. The reviews have just been fantastic. If you go to my website www.hollywoodchinese.com and go to the press page, you can see some of the reviews. I chose a sampling of the reviews and most were positive. I’ve had a few critical ones and that’s good, too. I believe you can’t please everybody. If you try to please everybody then you’ve made a bland wishy-washy product that hits the lowest common denominator, and for me what’s the point of doing that. That’s like making the worst kind of TV show possible and that’s not what I want to do. Although the worst kind of TV show possible probably makes a lot more money than I make, but that’s not my goal in life. By in large, the reviews have been great and the audiences have been positive. Any criticism has come more from Asian-Americans than from non-Asians and that phenomena comes from where we’re tougher on ourselves. We want more from ourselves and I think that comes from our hunger as well because there is so little of ourselves in pop culture and media that we just want more, and we just have this community that wants so much from us. But we can only satisfy so much. It’s a little frustrating. A few of the more critical reviews have come from APA writers because they know the arguments and they want to see their argument fulfilled, but this is not a film that fulfills their point of view.
ASIANCE: So what do you want viewers to take away from seeing Hollywood Chinese? What is your message?
Arthur Dong: I want them to have a good time because I love film. I made this film as a film lover and I made it for film lovers. Given that in the larger framework this is a film about a very specific slice of film, and that’s the Chinese and Chinese-American story. But really this is a film about film. That’s what it is for me and because I love film it’s like a love letter to this slice of life. Not that I’m glossing over any harder issues that exist. It is also a film about race. But as a filmmaker I know that you can’t make a film about race and have people watch it because people don’t want to do that. People in America really do not want to discuss race unless you’re in some academic circle and it will get debated or some community forum where it can be debated. But film is a popular culture, it’s a popular medium and I treat it as such. With all my films I want the film to go out to larger audiences. But I also knew this film is about race. Its discussing race issues and race relations in America.
So on the one hand to answer your question, I want people to have a good time watching this film. I celebrate the milestones, but I also include a critique of this industry and I try to balance that too. At the minimum, I would like audience members who were never aware of these issues, and I’m including Chinese-Americans and APAs in this category, who have never really been aware or thought about representation and how it affects us and how we see each other as human beings. If an audience member can walk away from the theater thinking, “I never thought about it that way,” and be aware that the next time they see a racist dvd or one-dimensional character, whether on a television or movie screen, that they think what does it mean in terms of how I perceive this person? What does this mean in terms of how we all perceive each other?
On a certain level, misrepresentation is a large part of the problems in this world. It causes us to be afraid of each other, to be apprehensive, to think the worst of each other because we don’t know about each other. The problems with race, the problems with the Middle East, the problems with sexism and homophobia, it’s all about not knowing the “other,” and often times what we know about the other is through media. That’s all we get and that’s dangerous when representation is misguided and inaccurate. So that’s a lot to ask from an audience member, but these are the themes I’m trying to cover in the larger scale.
STARTS MAY 30:
NEW YORK CITY:
The ImaginAsian Theater
239 East 59th St., Manhattan
LOS ANGELES/BEVERLY HILLS:
Laemmle’s Music Hall *
9036 Wilshire Blvd.
* Q & A with Filmmaker: May 30, 7:40 pm show only
Laemmle’s One Colorado *
42 Miller Alley, Old Town Pasadena
* Q & A with Filmmaker: May 31, 7:40 pm show only
For more information on the film please visit: www.deepfocusproductions.com/HollywoodChinese