By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer
It is not everyday that you get the opportunity to meet someone as accomplished as Arthur Dong who has not only been an Oscar nominated filmmaker, but has also won Sundance Film Festival awards and is an award winning author. Before I drove up to his office in Los Angeles, I was anticipating what kind of person he would be because my nerves started to get the better of me, but when I stepped into his office he was humble as pie, so kind and was a great listener. I was so appreciative of him hearing me talk about the Asian Australian experience and some of the projects I have planned back there and he was so generous in offering sound and constructive advice – I mean it is not everyday that you can get advice from someone like Arthur Dong.
What is most impressive about Arthur Dong is his persistence and resilience in making films, creating content and writing books all with a focus on highlighting the Asian/Chinese American experiences over many decades. If you think about it, many of Arthur Dong’s work was during the 1980s and 1990s at a time when there was hardly any public discussions and focus on Asian American representation and authentic storytelling. In addition to the films he has made including The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (2015), Hollywood Chinese (2007), Forbidden City, U.S.A. (1989), and Sewing Woman (1987) he has also made films talking about issues around being LGBT in America including Coming Out Under Fire (1994) and Licensed to Kill (1997). But his work doesn’t stop there. Dong, (as stated above) is an award winning author having written Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs 1936-1970 (based on his 1989 documentary ) and has just released his new book ( October 17, 2019) titled: Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films – which is the purpose of this feature article.
His book Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films really hits home about the Chinese American impact on Hollywood from some of the earliest films set in America’s renowned Chinatowns to contemporary hits and artists that are remaking the face of Hollywood. Filled with page-after-page of stunning vintage images (many of which come from Dong’s personal collection of images he has collated since his youth) it reclaims a history which for the most part has been lost/forgotten and it illustrates the myths, misconceptions, and memorable moments of the Chinese and Chinese Americans in films made in the United States. For any person without the passion or the research, the understanding of this history may not go beyond Bruce Lee. Where Lee is one of, if not the most iconic Chinese Americans in film, there were many others who like Lee who paved the way for what we have today.
This was what I bought up with Dong and asked whether his book Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films will further our/people’s understandings about Chinese American film history as well as shed light on some of the well known racist/yellow face tropes from the early to mid 1900s like Fu Manchu or Mr Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s among many others.
“I think the tropes are important to study to understand the evolution of this history. I also think iconic characters like Bruce Lee and Anna May Wong are also important to research because their names carry the history (and they are included in my book). But overall what i really wanted to do in my book was to reclaim/rewrite Chinese American Hollywood history and just to say we were here and still are here”, Dong says. “As a Chinese American kid growing up I was always fascinated watching Hollywood films and seeing how Asian/Chinese American characters were portrayed on screen as waters/servants, laundromat owners/workers and sex workers. But now thinking back it it is important to know what were their lives like living in the US during the 1930s and 40s, what choices did they have and where did they come from. “
The book is really a personal history collection he is sharing with the world, and a testament to his youth growing up Chinese American in San Francisco Chinatown of the 1960s,
“Well, I was born and raised in San Francisco Chinatown. It was pretty much a self contained community, particularly back in the 1950s and 1960s. Nowadays if you walk down Grant Avenue you will find all the tourist style shops, but it wasn’t like that when I was growing up. Back then it was the place to buy all your Chinese groceries and all the butcher stores, bakeries etc catered to all the Chinese American families living in the neighborhood. It was a very tight knit community, and I guess that is what peaked my interest in Chinese American films and collect everything I could on this topic. I remember when I was a kid there were five movie theaters showing all Chinese films – so this was the environment I was bought up in. Over the years I have been reading a lot of Hollywood and general film history from the silent era till now, and I noticed that there wasn’t really a book talking about Chinese American film history, so that is why I decided to write it.
To truly understand Dong’s labor of love for film-making and writing, one must remember where he came from and what was it like growing up Chinese American in a time where talking about being a filmmaker to your Chinese migrant parents was unheard of – and really if you think about it, some of those sentiments still exist today within our Asian/Chinese cultures. Dong tells me that where his parents were not like super overjoyed at his decision to study film, they were always supportive of his choices and always found the money to pay for his tuition fees and the equipment he needed.
“It is interesting that you ask me this question because as you can probably tell from what I said about collecting iconic film images (for the book) I have always wanted to be a film historian ever since I was a kid, but the idea of being one was a novel idea back in the 1960s and not like what it is today – an actual established study area. It really clicked for me when I went to high school and my art teacher who was also taking a film class himself had homework to have some of his students make a film. So one day he got four of us students to his desk and told us to make a film and appointed me as the director. At the time I didn’t know what it was to be a director but I absolutely loved it and that was really my turning point.
“Being first generation born in the US I wasn’t sure how my parents would react to me wanting to be a filmmaker. Both my parents worked as laborers – my father was a waiter and my mother worked as a sewing factory worker and they both did six day weeks, twelve hours a day so that us kids could have a better life and in education which didn’t require us to work as hard as them. When I told my parents I wanted to go to film school, my father in particular was always supportive and never said anything bad about my choices. I guess I was lucky because my older brother did the whole “Chinese” thing and was the scholarly engineer so when it came to me being the baby of the family, my parents, particularly my father was more lax with my study/career choice.“
Finally, Dong and I had a lengthy conversation about the recent changes in Chinese American film and he mentioned the last two chapters of the book were one of his favorite parts because “it really delves into the interviews he had with some of the present day filmmakers/directors like Justin Lin and Ang Lee, playwrights like David Henry Hwang, actors and actresses like James Hong ( who is also a producer and director), Nancy Kwan and Joan Chen who are also producing films“. He says he got many insights from them and they provide an alternative narrative which can “empower other Asian Americans to continue on their film-making journey”. We ended our interview with something which had stuck to him since the 1980s and it was something his father said to him when he was nominated for an Oscar. Mind you, this was in 1984 and it was a time where not many Asians/Asian Americans was nominated for an Oscar,
“There was an important moment I will never forget when I was nominated for an Oscar and of course I was so excited considering at the time (1984) there were not many Asian Americans in my shoes. I remember my father’s reaction to my nomination and he said to me: “they will never give the award to a Chinese”. And he was right because I didn’t get it, but I was really surprised about his reaction because he really never talked to us kids about racism and discrimination that he and my mother probably experienced since they migrated to the US. That was the first time he expressed being the “other”.”
I feel most if not all of us who are “first generation” Asian Americans/ diaspora can relate to what Dong mentioned about our own parents not really talking about their own experiences of racism and discrimination, and I would say this feeling for Dong was what really inspired him to achieve so much and to get this book out – which is publicly released today (October 17).
If you would like to purchase a copy of Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films you can order it from Angel City Press or find it in other bookstores.
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