A Conversation with Arthur Dong

A Conversation with Arthur Dong

Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese explores Chinese representation in Hollywood, weaving together personal stories from key players throughout the years, including Ang Lee, Nancy Kwan, Joan Chen, B.D. Wong and more.

By Ada Tseng

After watching Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese, it's hard not to feel enlightened and proud. That's not to say the documentary glosses over the difficulties of being a minority in Hollywood -- far from it -- but as Dong points out: "It's important to chart where you are in the continuum. For Chinese Americans in Hollywood, there have been ups and downs. But it's not always just downs. There have been a lot of milestones, a lot of things to celebrate."

Hollywood Chinese has been Dong's passion project for the better part of a decade. Growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown, he remembers that there were five movie theaters in the area. Four of them showed Cantonese imports from Hong Kong, and one showed Shaw Brothers films. Because Dong had been watching Chinese films since he was a baby, he says that he was brought up with a firm foundation of Chinese representation on screen. Dong's first Hollywood film was Flower Drum Song, an all-out Asian American musical production from 1961 starring two camera-friendly actors named Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta.

After Flower Drum Song, Dong remembers watching other Hollywood films that lacked Asian American representation. As a kid, he wasn't offended by it necessarily, but he remembers finding it odd. Having scoured through over 90 films to put together Hollywood Chinese, he suggests that, in some ways, Hollywood has not progressed as much as you would think it would have.

"There was Sessue Hayakawa, but in terms of Asian American romantic leads, there was James Shigeta and Nancy Kwan," he says. "They were the first and last."

But, of course, it's more complicated than that.

In Hollywood Chinese, Dong speaks with some of the leading Chinese American writers, actors, and directors over the years and listens to their personal stories about working in Hollywood. We hear about how many of the early pioneers themselves questioned the caricatures they had to play, but did so to put food on the table by embracing any opportunity they got to work on their craft. In his research, Dong discovered footage of Curse of Quon Gwon (1916-17), so far considered the earliest known Chinese American feature film. Dong also tracks down Turhan Bey, Christopher Lee, and Luise Rainer, three Caucasian actors who famously acted in yellow face.

Writer Amy Tan and director Wayne Wang provide insight about The Joy Luck Club, while David Henry Hwang talks about M Butterfly. Joan Chen presents the ingénue story, a girl from Shanghai who was lauded in Hollywood for The Last Emperor but eventually headed back to Asia to direct, due to the lack of roles in Hollywood. Justin Lin represents the younger generation, providing footage of the much-talked-about Better Luck Tomorrow Q&A, where Roger Ebert stands up and yells at an audience member for insinuating Asian Americans should "represent" our community in a certain way.

And of course, Ang Lee, the golden boy of all Chinese people everywhere, is there -- just being Ang Lee.

On the occasion of the film's theatrical release -- Hollywood Chinese is out in New York (May 2nd) and Los Angeles (May 30th) -- APA chats with director Arthur Dong about his experiences making and promoting this documentary.

Asia Pacific Arts: Hollywood Chinese has been a ten-year project for you. How did you envision this project in the very beginning?

Arthur Dong: It was all kind of accidental. It's funny; I know the exact moment. It was 1996. My film, License to Kill, about killers of gay men, had just been accepted into Sundance, so we're rushing around trying to finish it. So NAATA, which is now CAAM [Center for Asian American Media], had this new initiative especially for veteran producers -- this big chunk of money. So the executive director and media funds director at the time called me in and said, "You're going to submit something, aren't you?" And I said, "Are you kidding?!" [laughs] "You want me to write a proposal? I'm too busy trying to get License to Kill done." And then they asked, "Well, but don't you have a dream project that you always wanted to do?"

And I did. But at that time, I had envisioned a four-part miniseries on all the APA groups. Everybody. Hmongs, Cambodians etc. You can't leave one out, because if you leave one out, you're in trouble. So it started like that: it was very ambitious, and it would take millions of dollars to do. Long story short, I didn't get the grant, but the idea was there. And I spent a couple years developing the idea, but I realized that it was too big. I'd make more enemies than friends because I'd have to leave things out. And in the end, every group has its own story. The Cambodian story is far different from the Chinese experience, so I don't think it serves any group well to have this collective story -- because then it'll just be superficial.

So I decided that what I was most passionate about personally was Chinese representation. Because I am Chinese, and I know this topic. It's my roots. So I thought I'd just go with my gut and make a single documentary on Chinese representation. By focusing it on one group, I could dig deeper and look into the complexities.

APA: One of the things I liked about your documentary was that it gave different perspectives and resists giving one singular explanation for anything.

AD: Because there are none. I think it's easier to make things black and white. Or yellow. But life is not like that, and history is not like that. And I think it requires more of us to try to look into the gray areas and piece it all together. There have been plenty of documentaries of media representation of marginalized groups, whether it is gays or Hispanics or Asians. But when it gets to be didactic and argumentative, then it's not very enjoyable, because it doesn't allow me, the individual, to think. It doesn't allow me to also be a part of the process of discussion. As a filmmaker, I try to give it enough breathing space to allow that.

APA: So did you know from the very beginning that you wanted to not only talk to Chinese actors in Hollywood, but also the Caucasian actors who played Chinese characters, back in the days of yellow face?

AD: Yes. I think people like Turhan Bay, Christopher Lee, Luise Rainer and others aren't heard from when it comes to this question of yellow face. And I thought it was only fair that we hear from them directly, as opposed to making up the answers for them. And I think, through them, we understand the social-cultural context which yellow face happened. That's really important to understand, because otherwise we put this contemporary point of view onto this bit of history and come up with contemporary analysis. And that doesn't always work. I think it's okay to analyze and interpret with contemporary values in mind, but I think it's dangerous when we judge using our contemporary values. And I thought, what better way to do that than to talk to people who did it. They were pretty candid, to my surprise.

APA: Did you think there would be resistance?

AD: I wasn't sure. The way I approached this project was that I explained: I want to know your point of view. The story you tell me is the story I want to hear. And I had questions, of course, but I wasn't out to skewer them. I was certainly not out to make them look like the villains, but I wanted to know how they felt, their motivation and their process of creating these characters. And all three had different points of view, too. It was pretty funny.

APA: It was interesting when Luise Rainer was talking about contemporary film and the importance of realism. How now, if a character is tall, they have to be played by someone who is tall. If a person is blonde, they have to be played by someone who is blonde. Whereas before, it might have been a bit more abstract...

AD: She's talking about colorblind casting. She really advocated colorblind casting, which is what [our community] advocates. But the problem is that it's not a two-way street yet. Colorblind casting, in certain circumstances, is creatively a great choice to make. But I mean, it wasn't like in the 30s, they were going for colorblind casting. It was policy. You're Asian, you don't get the main parts. It wasn't that they had any altruistic goals of diversity in mind. [laughs] It wasn't that at all. It's interesting because when Nancy Kwan saw the film, she really appreciated what Luise Rainer said. Nancy said, "As an actress, I feel that way too. Let me play Shakespeare. Give me that chance. If I feel the role, I should be given the opportunity to play that role."

APA: Right, because the artist's point of view is very different from the critical perspective.

AD: It's very different, and I think it should be part of the discussion.

APA: I also liked the interview with B.D. Wong when he talks about his role in Father of the Bride, which he probably got some flack for. He talks about how the role wasn't written for an Asian actor [The flamboyant character he plays, opposite Martin Short's equally flamboyant character, is named Howard Weinstein], and how he had competed for this role and earned it fair-and-square through colorblind casting. But then --

AD: Then it became, "Now I have to face the public..."

APA: Which is different than the idea of an executive coming down and saying: we want an Asian male character who acts like this. It's a bit more empowering to know that it was, in many ways, a victory for him as an actor.

AD: I think he would rather be an artist, and play these roles, and not have to answer to the politics of it. And the criticism often points to the actors, not to the system. The critique should really be about the system. It's like shooting the messenger. You can question the motivation of the actors, but really, if you want to make change, you have to work on the foundation, upon which these choices are made. And that's the system that perpetuates these caricatures. It's very complicated. We're talking about a lot of different factors.

APA: When we talk about these "Asian American" issues -- whether it be representation or exotification -- a lot of times it seems like there are cycles, or that these complaints are like a broken record. From your perspective, as someone who's familiar with the history, do you see a lot of the same things happening over and over again?

AD: I think that the representations just morph into something else. The frustrating caricature that I keep seeing is the Tong Wars characters, the hatchet men in the opium dens. In the early 1900s, late 1800s, the myth is that there were these Chinese gangs and these family associations who would fight each other, that these hatchet men would fight about opium and kidnap white women for slaves. So that was the popular caricature from that period of time. Today, in present time, if you look at any TV show that has a segment in Chinatown, you hear about the Triads. It's not opium anymore, it's heroin. But it's the same caricature. It's not the Tong Wars anymore, it's the Triads, and they come from Hong Kong now. And they have the gambling dens. You see that all the time.

Instead of Suzie Wong now, you have the [Asian American] reporter. You see a lot of the Connie Chung thing. And ever since the O.J. Simpson trial, with the Japanese American coroner, you always see the Asian coroner or medical expert on these cop shows.

APA: In the course of U.S. history, there have been waves of anti-Chinese/anti-Asian sentiment. How do you see that playing out in Hollywood?

AD: Well in 1949, the Chinese were "the Communists," and that was bad until Nixon in the 70s. In the late 50s/early 60s, we started seeing products about Hong Kong, which was an entity that was okay, because they were Chinese but they weren't Communists. They weren't "evil." You had Suzie Wong, with Nancy Kwan. But the China-bashing has never really left the culture. They're always the "other" entity. Americans see the threat of a big population; they see a country that's a major political force. Between Wen Ho Lee and the Gore funding scandal, the Chinese are often seen as spies or people we can't trust. It becomes about: what ties do they still have to the mother country?

On one hand, the part of the "outsider" is based on historical fact. The sojourners in the late 1800s, who worked in the gold mines and railroad, had every intention of going back to China. Families in China might send one rep to America to make money and bring it back home, and that's historically how laborers came over. So these stereotypes usually aren't created out of nothing. But the problem is that it gets exaggerated and blown out of proportion, and then it becomes the main idea, and there's an imbalance.

APA: For me, watching the documentary, it was fascinating that so many of these moments in history still resonate in a very clear way. Even with Curse of Quon Gwon. The story is about a diety that was getting angry because the Chinese American family was integrating into Western society. And that idea seems very contemporary to me.

AD: It's amazing for that period of time. [Director] Miriam Wong was ahead of her time in a lot of different ways. She was trying to craft a story about Chinese American assimilation and the questions about that. As early as 1916. Besides the fact that she was a woman -- and a Chinese American woman -- doing this in 1916, that's just amazing. It's incredible.

APA: Have you noticed any trends in terms of Chinese American or Asian American audiences, when it comes to these films?

AD: [pauses] What I do notice is that, if we accept the premise that the industry is all about profit margin, which I don't think is far off, I would suggest that APA audiences just don't support their own product. You see a lot of African American film projects out there, and often they market it specifically toward their own communities. I'm not judging the quality of the films, but you see that out there, and they are made by major motion picture studios. And they give directors and actors good-paying jobs, because the African Americans come out and support it. They buy tickets and they buy the popcorn. I don't see that really happening with Asian American productions.

Consumers have power, and we as a consumer group aren't taking advantage of that power, for whatever reason. That's the trend I see, and that's questionable. Look at Finishing the Game. It didn't stick around for very long. From what I understand, it only stuck around for a week or two and then disappeared. With a film like Flower Drum Song and Joy Luck Club, they relied a lot on the mainstream audience. And now with Forbidden Kingdom, it was just number one in the box office, but who was the audience? Was it the APA audience?

APA: It was probably the mainstream audience. Families.

AD: So the Hollywood industry sees these success stories, and they keep trying to make the same success stories. So Jackie Chan consistently brings in big money, so they have to make something that's similar. Look at all the Rush Hours. As a consumer base, we have the power to tell the studios what we want to support.

APA: But, do you think that's enough though? Because when you just look at the Asian American population, it's just a fact that we don't have the numbers. Is it inevitable that we'd have to depend on the mainstream?

AD: Well, if you're looking at the amount of money per screening, a good week's gross is $10,000 to $13,000. So let's say you're in select screening, and you're on 2 screens. That's an average of $7,000 per screening, which is about 700 people. Let's say the tickets are around $10. So, I mean, we're not talking about that many people. If you get a screening at the DGA, that's about 600 seats. So consumers do have the power. Not all of us can write a script, act, or direct, but at least we can go out and buy tickets to influence change.

APA: Well, at least now, we're seeing more Asian Americans in commercials. Like the Home Depot commercials or credit card commercials.

AD: That's true. That's because we buy things. Asian Americans buy furniture and cribs, and we go to the bank, so you see these bank tellers in commercials. That's a good thing. There's profit to be made there, and executives recognize that we're a big consumer base in that market. And the representation in commercials isn't stereotypical. So I mean, consumers do have a voice. It's just not showing as box-office muscle for film yet.

APA: I wanted to ask you about the Golden Horse Awards. [Hollywood Chinese won for Best Documentary at the Taiwanese event.] I was wondering if you were surprised by the win. Because even though the awards are pan-Chinese, it's not often that an Chinese American film wins.

AD: It's very rare. I think they have different provisions now. The crew, cast, and themes must be predominantly Chinese. But I didn't know anything about this. They asked me for Hollywood Chinese. I had shown other films there before, and the director loved Hollywood Chinese and wanted to show it for opening night. And then after that, she told me she was going to nominate it for the Golden Horse Awards, and I said okay. And then it won.

APA: Do you think that your win at the Golden Horse Awards has any implications for Chinese American or Asian American cinema?

AD: No. Or it hasn't yet. I just got a statue.

APA: Did you get a sense of the Taiwanese community's reaction to the film, and whether they watched it from a different perspective than an American would?

AD: Surprisingly, a lot of Chinese Americans turned out to the screening. So it was all the ABCs [American Born Chinese], which made it easy because I didn't need a translator. [laughs] So it's funny. I didn't get a real sense of the reaction from the community there, because it was all ABCs. But I have talked to people here that are from China, and for them, it's a revelation. All these stories and images of The Good Earth and Flower Drum Song. Imagine if you were from China, it would be bizarre. Because there, they exotify Americans in the same way that Americans exotify the Chinese here. They want the blonde hair, blue eyes. Maybe it's human nature's way of dealing with "the Other." It's easier for the media to make shortcuts. As far as Chinese American identity goes, there are no ties to cultural ideas of what it is to be "Chinese." For me, it's whatever we choose it to be.