When you think of the Chinese, a few images probably pop to mind: the food, Kung Fu, China Town. Exotic. Far East. “Oriental.” Most Americans are familiar with these. But these do not necessarily have much to do with being Chinese or Chinese-American. And what about the Chinese in movies? PBS presents a film, Hollywood Chinese as a part of its American Masters series. While it premiered last May, I imagine that it pinged off of very few people’s radars.
The film shows us just how much we’ve been missing in the mainstream films and majority culture. Hollywood Chinese provides a view of the culture well beyond the martial arts, Tong gang wars, opium trade, or passive, pliant women.
This fascinating documentary introduces us to, or reminds us of, elementary myths and stereotypes about the Chinese. The director, Arthur Dong, accomplishes this by introducing the milestone films.
He shows clips and actors’ reflections on “The World of Suzie Wong,” the “yellow face” casting in the Charlie Chan series, and in “The Good Earth,” and contemporary concerns with the adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” In citing these titles, he demonstrates where Chinese films either went off the course of reality or authenticity or were course corrected.
As an example of the Web’s limits, I haven’t yet found the documentary at YouTube, nor even at SnagFilms.com. While I found neither an excerpt nor a full video, there is a Q & A with a renowned actor Nancy Kwan. Her career broke open with “The World of Suzie Wong.”
“Hollywood Chinese” brings us face-to-face with various Chinese and Anglo actors’ and scholars’ opinions about these films and the films that marked or meant a lot, either positive or negative, to the Chinese, or America at-large, if not both.
Among the fascinating details from this documentary is the saga of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American to make an American film about her community, The Curse of Quon Gwon, in 1916. Time Magazine has a slide show about her work and her legacy.
“Hollywood Chinese” engaged me as much as yet another documentary, “Chop Socky,” but that’s a whole nother topic. While I found no link to the full documentary, American Masters does provide edifying outtakes.