Hollywood Chinese’s Placid History


The most jarring thing about Hollywood Chinese, Arthur Dong’s survey of Chinese representation in American film from the silent era to the present, is its lack of fury—that and Ang Lee’s belief that he’s a subversive. Half of the running time is devoted to clips both expected (The Good Earth) and refreshing (Marion Wong’s undiscovered The Curse of Quon Gwon), the other to the musings of politely enraged talking heads. Dong spotlights Chinese stars throughout Hollywood’s history, suggesting at one point a parallel between the tragedy of Anna May Wong’s thwarted stardom and Joan Chen having to follow The Last Emperor with Salute to the Jugger. Luise Rainer and Christopher Lee appear to rationalize—if not exactly apologize for—their contributions to the legacy of yellow face, and though Hollywood’s racial insensitivity is largely written off as a product of its time, Stephen Gong, the obligatory university scholar, and B.D. Wong up the ante somewhat, the latter exploring the nexus of sexuality and race in his life and regretting having cashed in on the “Asian-American Desexualized chip.” Dong never suggests that we need fewer middlebrow Chinese-American filmmakers like Lee and Wayne Wang, but at least he’s ballsy enough to spotlight one interviewee’s point that minorities shouldn’t rely on the majority to give accurate cinematic expression to their lives.