East Meets West: Arthur Dong on "Hollywood Chinese language"

East Meets West: Arthur Dong on "Hollywood Chinese"

Filmmaker and historical past Arthur Dong has been fascinated by photos of Chinese language and Chinese language-American folks since he was a toddler rising up in San Francisco. His 2019 guide Hollywood Chinese language: The Chinese language in American Characteristic Movies is a lavishly illustrated, thoughtfully annotated quantity that charts the altering photos that he is consumed over the many years and thinks about what they are saying and imply. The guide is a belated companion of kinds to his equally titled 2009 American Masters particular. Dong is an Oscar-nominated and triple-Sundance successful documentary filmmaker whose work consists of “Licensed to Kill,” “Household Fundamentals,” “Forbidden Metropolis, U.S.A.,” and “Coming Out Underneath Fireplace.” 

On July 1, Dong will do a digital guide speak about Hollywood Chinese language, sponsored by Associates of the American Chinese language Museum, and moderated by veteran movie producer Janet Yang (The Pleasure Luck Membership, The Individuals vs. Larry Flynt). This occasion is free, however registration is required. For data, click on right here.

What are you able to inform me about your childhood as a moviegoer, and the way your tastes developed?

Ever since I can bear in mind, I used to be taken to the films by my dad and mom. Now, we lived in Chinatown, San Francisco, and once I was a lot youthful, once I was rising up—we’re speaking concerning the 1950s and 1960s—there have been 5 film theaters in Chinatown. It was a small neighborhood, solely a 5 or 6 block radius, they usually all confirmed Chinese language movies, imports from Hong Kong. These are the films that I grew up with. 

I’m bilingual. We spoke Chinese language at house besides with my siblings. We spoke English. With my dad and mom, we spoke Chinese language and I went to Chinese language college, though I additionally went to English college as effectively, so I had each. So the films I grew up with and knew since beginning had been Chinese language films. By way of illustration, my foundations had been completely different tales and characters that had been all Chinese language, they usually all regarded like me, they usually ran the gamut of illustration.

As I acquired into my teen years, I began going to Hollywood movies, and since notably in San Francisco, there have been quite a lot of repertory theaters at the moment. We’re speaking concerning the ‘60s now. They confirmed basic Hollywood movies, so I began branching out my style to Hollywood movies. And in addition at the moment, the 60s, TV was just about restricted to the three large networks plus some native stations, however they at all times ran basic Hollywood movies. I bear in mind within the mornings, particularly, that’s once I noticed quite a lot of basic Hollywood movies. I bear in mind watching “Citizen Kane” in 1968 whereas I used to be watching the Chicago demonstrations on the Democratic Conference. Channel 7, ABC, ran the Apu Trilogy three weekends in a row, Sunday Evening on the Motion pictures. It’s loopy, proper? So from childhood, having been introduced up with a basis of Chinese language-language movies and the complete vary of illustration of characters that had been performed by Chinese language, actual Chinese language, talking Chinese language on the display screen, I grew as much as additionally embrace Hollywood movies, and with the assistance of TV and repertory theaters in San Francisco.

Was it type of a reverse tradition shock going from an early food regimen of Chinese language cinema after which switching over to Hollywood, the place there have been so few individuals who regarded such as you?

I do not bear in mind a tradition shock. I bear in mind a thrill. The movies that got here out of Hong Kong, notably within the ‘50s and ‘60s…the budgets had been restricted. It wasn’t unhealthy, the trade in Hong Kong, however in comparison with Hollywood movies, Hong Kong movies had been shot fairly rapidly. They didn’t have the posh of months of manufacturing time. And what you noticed on display screen, particularly in costume dramas, the manufacturing design and the costume design was oftentimes fairly missing. With the Chinese language movies, I might discover that the extras within the background at all times regarded fairly bored, like they had been dragged out of the streets and paid a fairly miniscule sum of money to be on the units. They didn’t look very joyful. Generally the units regarded like papier-mâché cutouts. However the story was the factor, and the thrill of seeing characters was the principle occasion. 

So the tradition shock for me was about manufacturing worth, notably once I noticed Hollywood movies that had been concerning the Chinese language, like “The Masks of Fu Manchu” or “The Bitter Tea of Basic Yen.” These are fairly well-designed movies, very well-shot and well-lit. Even the costumes are wonderful, particularly those in “Basic Yen.” With the Hollywood films, I bear in mind saying “Wow! Take a look at that! A solid of hundreds, they usually actually look concerned! They actually look engaged! They’re actually into the scene!”

What about seeing white actors play Chinese language folks, below heavy make-up? How did that strike you?

[From “The Mask of Fu Manchu” ]

By way of the yellowface casting, it was extra of a curiosity. It didn’t strike me, at the moment – and even now once I have a look at it and give it some thought – as offensive, however as a curiosity. That is what led me to attempt to discover this complete thought of casting illustration in Hollywood movies, to know why these selections had been made and why they had been acceptable.

As you’re telling me this I’m sitting right here wanting on the {photograph} reverse the desk of contents, and it’s a publicity photograph for “Charlie Chan in Shanghai” starring Warner Oland, who was Swedish, proper?

He’s Swedish, yeah. I’ve seen writings right here and there about the truth that he might need some Mongolian blood in him, so some folks argue “Nicely, it wasn’t completely yellowface as a result of he had some Mongolian blood!” Filmmakers did that type of factor in all of the Charlie Chan films. I truly had thought they had been type of enjoyable. I believed the children within the movie had been hilarious, they usually had been all performed by Chinese language-People.

However as I began working in media, notably producing Asian-American tales on movie and being with different Asian-American media producers, I began listening to tales from individuals who didn’t develop up with Chinese language illustration on display screen. They had been hungering to see their very own faces and their very own tales on the display screen, whether or not small or massive, they usually had been offended by stuff just like the Charlie Chan movies. And I believed, “Whoa, that’s the viewpoint that I actually wanted to determine.”

As we’re speaking, I’m two-page unfold out of your guide. On one facet you’ve got Carol Thurston having “yellowface” make-up utilized for “China Sky.” On the dealing with web page, the actress Maylia undergoes make-up for her display screen debut in “To the Ends of the Earth.” The studio caption that initially accompanied that photograph defined that she “…isn’t being made up as a Chinese language woman, she is a Chinese language woman, and a really charming one.’”

Once I put this guide collectively, earlier than I even met the writer, Angel Metropolis Press, I did the entire design on InDesign, the publishing software. I realized tips on how to use InDesign and I laid out the entire guide, deciding what textual content would go along with what image and the way the photographs can be specified by conjunction with one another. And this web page, which you’re mentioning, was specified by my InDesign precisely the best way it’s within the guide. I needed the juxtaposition of those two photographs on this one unfold to indicate the scenario that was taking place in Hollywood at the moment.

There have been quite a lot of press releases issued simply in the previous couple of weeks of tv packages saying they’ll not solid towards race for even voiceover elements. Allison Brie, who performed an Asian-American character on “BoJack Horseman” expressed remorse that she performed the character all these years, and producers of “The Simpsons” put out a press launch saying that any longer they’re not casting any extra white actors as non-white characters. What do you consider all this?

I wish to acknowledge the truth that the cinematic artwork has solely been round for 100 years or so. In comparison with different artwork types, you’ll be able to say it’s pretty new and nonetheless attempting to determine itself out. At first of movie historical past, they weren’t considering, actually. 

However it’s essential to notice right here that it wasn’t like in a single day the trade simply abruptly opened its eyes and gone, “Oh no, we’ve made all these errors for all these previous many years and all of this previous century.” I can communicate largely for Asian-American historical past or Chinese language-American historical past in Hollywood, however notably with Chinese language-American historical past: because the silent period, the Chinese language-American neighborhood has spoken up and resisted and fought towards stereotypes and demeaning characters. The Hollywood machine is large, the studio system is large, and it’s actually exhausting to make change inside that system. 

I believe these developments actually coalesced in 2016. Bear in mind on the Oscars in 2016 when Chris Rock was the host, and it was the second 12 months of Oscars So White, which had began in 2015 however had resurrected itself as a result of the nominees within the performing classes had been Oscars So White once more! Range and illustration had been actually within the air. And so Chris Rock was employed, a black comic and an actor, and everyone was excited concerning the present. Once I say “everyone,” everyone that was within the challenge of variety and altering Hollywood. His opening monologue was stunning, however then he instructed these actually racist jokes about Asians as mannequin minorities, and he mentioned, “Now I wish to introduce the Value-Waterhouse accountants,” which they usually do on the Oscar present, they usually come out with their briefcases to indicate how correct and secretive they’re going to be when it comes to the winners. And he introduced out three Asian-American children.

Sure, I bear in mind this.

I served on the documentary department of the Academy’s Board of Governors, and I’ve been a member of the Academy for over 20 years. I used to be sitting in my front room with my son, who’s part-Asian. He was 12 years outdated. And I believed, “Oh my god. How am I going to speak about this? I actually wish to watch the present, however that is so egregious and so racist! And if he asks about that I must cease watching the present and speak to him as a result of I can’t ignore this.” However he actually didn’t hear it, and I used to be type of relieved that I used to be in a position to proceed watching the present, however quickly after that got here Sacha Baron Cohen, who made a joke about “little yellow folks and their little dongs.” Keep in mind that? 


That simply floored me, these two jokes in that 12 months when the problem of variety was a lot within the forefront. A gaggle of Asian Academy members acquired collectively and wrote a letter to the Academy to say how a lot we had been towards what occurred and that we would have liked to see some elementary modifications. That was type of the beginning of us telling Hollywood that this challenge is not only black and white. The Academy management apologized and issued a proper apology. 

I point out all of this as an example that these points have been with us for a very long time, and folks have been working to counter them for very long time. I’m on the inclusion advisory committee of the Academy’s museum. As a result of I’ve been so concerned in writing and finding out this guide for my complete life, it’s actually terrific to see some elementary, concrete modifications and selections being made.  

What do you concentrate on the development of eradicating racially or ethnically insensitive materials from reruns of TV reveals, enhancing offensive scenes out of films, and so forth? I’m sitting right here a fantastically designed espresso desk guide which discusses quite a lot of movies and pictures that I do not assume would even be allowed on screens now.

I simply noticed “Gone with the Wind” once more a few weeks in the past because of what occurred with the movie at HBOMax and albeit, I’d by no means notably preferred the movie even once I first noticed it on the large display screen when it first acquired re-released. I bear in mind watching it the primary time and going, “What’s the large fuss?” However two weeks in the past once I noticed it once more, I introduced out the DVD and watched it once more, and I used to be horrified. Even the intertitles, the textual content on display screen that units up the chapters of the story: I used to be studying them, and I used to be listening to the phrases of the characters, particularly Leslie Howard because the “good man,” and considering,“that is like Trumpspeak.” 

On the Academy Museum, one among our first conferences once we started the inclusion committee was about “The Start of a Nation.” We had conferences and discussions about “How are we going to function D.W. Griffith? Will we ignore it? Will we put it out?” And there was a lot dialogue about that exact movie and that exact filmmaker, after which tips on how to acknowledge that he was an essential determine within the creation of the cinematic artwork, however then to take a look at his physique of labor and say “What sort of message was he sending out to the bigger public?” These discussions had been the type of discussions which might be being had now about “Gone with the Wind.” I discover it troublesome to encourage and assist displaying these kinds of media productions with out context. 

Can we speak extra about context? That looks like an essential phrase to you.

Numerous that feeling concerning the significance of that phrase comes from having labored on the guide. So lots of the photos within the guide are egregious and offensive, however I wanted to indicate them, and I believe they need to be seen, however with context.

That’s my angle as effectively. I train arts criticism. I intentionally embody many alternatives from throughout the final century of arts writing which might be taking what’s, looking back, an offensive viewpoint a couple of sure film, as a result of I wish to see what the scholars are going to say about it. That leads us right into a dialogue concerning the evolution of the artwork kind and all of the writing concerning the artwork kind. It’s particularly fascinating when the author of a chunk drops in a phrase or phrase that’s thought-about offensive now, however that no one would’ve blinked at in 1987, or 1946, or every time the piece was initially printed.

That’s the lesson I realized watching “Gone with the Wind” once more two weeks in the past. It was like, “Whoa! I’ve a lot extra to be taught.” Was I accepting these productions at face worth, as “They’re what they’re”? I believe it’s extra sophisticated than that. 

Nicely, I do not “assume” – it is extra sophisticated than that.

I consider one among my favourite Mel Brooks traces: “Tragedy is once I minimize my finger, and comedy is while you fall into an open sewer and die.” Which means we’re hypersensitive to each misfortune that befalls us, however we’d giggle off issues which might be a thousand occasions worse for anyone else.

That’s very on-point with that Sacha Baron Cohen joke. That was fairly on the market, that joke. I’m undecided he may even say he was simply tone deaf and didn’t know what he was doing.

A number of years in the past I used to be instructed by an individual with listening to issues that “tone-deaf” is taken into account a slur. I used to be greatly surprised. I’d been utilizing it my total life. 

That’s fascinating. Inform me about that.

Abled folks use phrases having to do with incapacity that point out disapproval or condemnation, like saying one thing is “lame” or “tone-deaf” or that if a film didn’t succeed due to one thing it did poorly that it was “Crippled by its unhealthy enhancing.” These are phrases and phrases I’ve been utilizing my total life, and now I do know they’re offensive so I attempt to catch myself earlier than utilizing them. However it’s an ongoing course of as a result of there’s quite a lot of wiring to unplug right here.

Yeah, and it’s no surprise that there are particular elements of our inhabitants which might be lastly saying “Sufficient is sufficient.” There’s part of the inhabitants that makes use of the time period “politically appropriate” in a derogatory method. A sure voting bloc says, “We wish to return to what issues had been. We don’t need our lives to be sophisticated by whether or not or not we are able to use the time period ‘tone-deaf’ or whether or not we are able to use the phrase ‘crippled’ in the best way you describe.” I by no means considered that. You’re completely appropriate.

I believe we’re witnessing a restructuring of our instructional course of and our imaginations, which is nice. However it’s going to take quite a lot of work.

So to be clear, you’re not saying, “Take away these offensive issues from public view?” You’re saying “Grasp labels on them and contextualize them”?

I’m saying present them as classes. Present them as examples of a sure mindset, and what sorts of ideas or motives or artistic processes went by minds of the creators, and actually dig into why these portrayals or tales had been instructed as they had been. I believe there are classes to be realized. 

In my movie “Hollywood Chinese language,” I interview Christopher Lee about Fu Manchu and Turhan Bey about his position in “Dragon Seed,” and Luise Rainer, who performed a Chinese language peasant employee in “The Good Earth.” I needed to try this as a result of I needed to know what it was they had been considering and what they thought now. It was the identical as as in my movie “Licensed to Kill,” concerning the killers of homosexual males. I didn’t interview victims for that movie. I solely interviewed killers of homosexual males for that movie, as a result of I needed to ask, “Why did they do it?” That was the kickoff for your complete investigation. I’ve at all times believed that to repair an issue you must actually perceive who’s inflicting the issue, or what’s inflicting the issue as a result of with out understanding the basis of the issue, how can we actually repair it? 

Are you able to give me an instance of this philosophy from the guide? 

There’s an article within the guide from the journal American Cinematographer, written by Cecil Holland, the make-up man who did “Masks of Fu Manchu” and “The Good Earth.” I printed the entire first web page of the article, that’s the best way I laid it out, and I mentioned to the writer and the designer, “I wish to give this an entire web page,” the primary web page of the article. Cecil Holland writes, in a really superb method, concerning the work that he’s carried out to create make-up for Boris Karloff to change into Fu Manchu. He was writing it from an inventive viewpoint, a creators’ viewpoint, however the language he’s utilizing is racist and the attitudes he factors out are racist. 

As a creator myself, I wanted to know that. I wanted to know the place his mindset was and the way he thought that what he was doing was not racist, and what he was doing as an artist. It is a dialog I’ve introduced up a number of occasions in our conferences on the museum, coping with the make-up show. The response was actually vital of the make-up used for blackface or yellowface, and there have been sure makeups created by Max Issue to rework a white actor to be a brown, yellow, or black particular person. I agree that we would have liked to be vital of those practices. 

However on the similar time, simply it from a make-up particular person’s viewpoint, they had been being artists. Their job was, as a make-up artist, “How do I create make-up that may work onscreen?” That’s the 2 sides to the coin that I’m taken with , and the Cecil Holland article within the guide actually factors out how, once we have a look at it at present, we’d assume, “How racist,” however wait a minute: have a look at it as an artist. As a result of that’s how he was approaching the task.

I had a good friend, who’s white, who went to India and instantly acquired solid in a TV sequence the place he performed a sadistic British officer, as a result of they only thought his face had “the precise look.” It gave him a really small style of what it should have felt prefer to be a black actor with darkish pores and skin in 1975 or one thing, the place in case you acquired solid in a Hollywood film, there was a excessive chance that you simply had been enjoying a mugger. 

Fascinated about the instance of your good friend: in case you have a look at Chinese language films—not all of them, however a few of them—they’ve essentially the most racist white characters! It’s like, it’s throughout cultures, this misunderstanding or misrepresentation of “the opposite,” however it’s not simply white folks. I do know in Chinese language films the white characters are at all times idiots! I imply, I giggle once I watch them as a result of it’s like, “Oh good, some comeuppance, proper?” I giggle as a result of it’s humorous. However then I additionally understand, “Oh my god, we’re simply as responsible of doing the identical factor we’re offended about!” I do know I’ve stereotypes about different teams of individuals and I catch myself, however I don’t at all times try this. Once I do I’m going “Whoa! The place’d that come from?”

I needed to ask you concerning the elements of your guide that cope with movies concerning the Tong Wars. I didn’t know that these tales had been being instructed as early as 1919-1920. That’s as wealthy a subcategory of cinema as Italian mafia movies.

Yeah, that might be, and it nonetheless carries on at present. We nonetheless see remnants of what was taking place within the early 1900s, notably in TV reveals when you’ve got the NYPD or LAPD reveals, and even in different cities. The Chinese language mafia, or hoodlums, or Tong Wars, these characters are nonetheless round. Generally I get proof against it and I’m like, “Oh yeah,” and I’ve actor mates within the enterprise who say, “Yeah, we nonetheless should do these roles, as a result of if we don’t, we are able to’t make a dwelling.”

Do you assume there’s a component, as there may be amongst some Italian-People, that takes satisfaction in a few of these representations, as a result of they’re powerful, charismatic, intimidating characters who’re the celebrities of the film?

Nicely, to date I haven’t heard any complimentary remarks about Tong Wars films, drug sellers from Hong Kong and the Chinese language mafia. However I believe what you’re referencing pertains to the parable of Bruce Lee. Lee long-established himself right into a mythic character, and a part of that’s primarily based on his brutal energy and his potential to keep at bay his attackers bodily. It’s primarily based on violence. He was a really good man and he was very philosophical. However what actually sells that his energy, his brute energy and his mastery of Kung Fu, his potential to beat up the large guys who had been oftentimes bigger than him. 

A part of me actually appreciates that as a result of it breaks the stereotype of the emasculated Asian male, or the eunuch, however on the similar time, it’s primarily based on brute energy solely oftentimes. That doesn’t at all times sit effectively with me. That has change into a stereotype as effectively.  

I simply observed one thing, and I needed to ask you about it: the quilt picture of this guide is of Keye Luke in “Burma Convoy.” You reproduce the identical image on the within and he’s holding a gun. You cropped the gun out of the quilt picture. Why?

You wish to speak about that?

Yeah, please, it’s fascinating.

I believe you’re the primary individual that introduced it up. You’re the one one who’s requested me about it to date. That’s nice! I used to be ready for somebody to convey this up! [Laughs

Nicely, for starters, it’s a good looking picture, cropped or uncropped, however it wasn’t my first alternative for the quilt due to the gun. I mentioned for me, the gun simply glorifies and perpetuates gun violence. I perceive that that actually is a noir movie, when it comes to composition it has an ideal aesthetic, it’s an ideal {photograph}. However I argued towards it as a result of it’s my guide, OK?

I ask about it as a result of once I regarded on the cowl, not having seen the film that the picture comes from, I imagined an entire different film out of his expression. Solely realizing Keye Luke from when he was a a lot older character actor, I believed, “Wow, who’s that good wanting man, and what romantic drama is that this from?” He appears to be like just like the second male lead who doesn’t get the woman, and he’s acquired glasses and a swimsuit. I imagined that he’s wanting on the girl he needs to be with, who’s sadly with with the opposite man who’s truly the star of the film. And but he’s a good looking man in and of himself. He appears to be like like he might be in a Wong Kar-wai movie or one thing.

After which I have a look at the uncropped picture inside the guide, and I’m going, “Oh, I see, he’s acquired a gun. It’s a gangster image.” However as quickly as you take away the gun from the photograph it by no means even happens to me that this man might be a prison. It’s extra like, “Oh, this have to be from a romantic movie.” 

You might be considering precisely what I believed. After the writer agreed that they wouldn’t put this picture with the gun on the quilt, we went searching for different photos, however we at all times got here again to this. Lastly, somebody mentioned “What if simply we minimize out the gun?” After which the designer did it, and I had precisely the response you had. I mentioned, “What a good-looking man! What a good looking hunk!” [Laughs] It’s like, due to that gun I couldn’t see the {photograph}. All I noticed was the gun.

I hope you don’t really feel like I’m overdoing it speaking about this one picture a lot, however I really feel like this one editorial resolution is the guide, in a method.

Yeah, undoubtedly. That was my level to the writer. That’s once I mentioned, “That is my guide. I can not have that gun symbolize my guide perpetually and ever.” With out the gun he’s a good-looking man, a number one man, and the picture is filled with thriller. What’s he ? What’s he considering? Is he in love? What’s his story? What’s it?