Do you think Jackie Chan generally plays a chop-socky stereotype of a wisecracking, karate-chopping macho weirdo? Well, the good news is that’s nothing new! Movies have long stereotyped Asians, generally pegging them as either inscrutable, evil, or stoic, and as villains, detectives, or whores. Arthur Dong‘s documentary Hollywood Chinese—opening here in May—beautifully captures the range of Hollywood’s reflection of Asians, from Charlie Chan, who talked in fortune cookie aphorisms, to Susie Wong, the exotic prostie you ordered, with egg drop soup, from column B. Dong has assembled a top bunch of talking heads like Ang Lee, Nancy Kwan, and Amy Tan, who speak more with wry bemusement than with anger about Hollywood’s cultural limitations. It’s also stimulating to see Oscar winner Luise Rainer talking about how as a Causcasian playing an Asian in The Good Earth, she went for the inner truthfulness of the role rather than any outer verisimilitude, adding that today things are way too literal. Maybe, but as Dong shows clips of weirdly cast stars like John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, and Walter Houston embarrassing themselves as Asians, you really long for the literalness.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 25, 2008