Yellowface — Hollywood Chinese

Famed Asian-American rights activist Ngoc-Thu Thi Nguyen and I watched this documentary about depictions of Chinese in Hollywood film called … Hollywood Chinese. I love observing how Hollywood deals with all races and ethnicities. Sometimes it’s hilarious and sometimes it’s pretty appalling and then there’s the rare occasion on which it rings true, which usually catches me by surprise. The development of an Asian-American Cinema has interesting similarities and differences with more often discussed and documented minority film genres like Black Cinema and Gay Cinema, which sprang up to tap into markets Hollywood mostly ignored for decades. In the 1948 case of the U.S. vs Paramount the government ruled against the studios and they were no longer allowed to control the studios, the distribution and the theaters and Hollywood opened up, to a degree, to the minorities which they’d systematically ignored up to that point.

  Early Gay Films


Race Films

In the Classic Hollywood era, Chinese women (like all Asians) were generally played by white actresses as shy, subservient innocents totally devoted to their white lovers. Chinese men were usually portrayed as cruel, buck-toothed, long-fingernailed mystics who delighted in tormenting the white heroes who’d fallen for their women. Or, they were depicted as simple, asexual, buck-toothed peasants who almost always wear a queue. Either way, it’s only the women that are sexualized.

Of course, a lot of uncomfortable humor and unpleasantness arises from the way the actors portray Chinese, which Hollywood Chinese shows in great cringe- and laughter-inducing clips. One particularly funny scene in Arthur Dong’s documentary is taken from Dragon Seed, which features white actors speaking in a varied assortment of accents (none even attempting to sound stereotypically Asian), including Canadian, Austrian, Russian, Katherine Hepburnian, western accents and more. Once pointed out by the film, it proves so distracting you wonder how audiences were able to follow the dialogue at all.


It’s also shocking to see how actors like Lon Chaney (noted for his amazing observation and make-up skills) managed to make himself look more like a bespectacled macaque or a Westside Botox disaster than a human being of any variety. Only Christopher Lee seems to have the slightest awareness of epicanthic folds and even (especially) “well-meaning” portrayals result in discomfort for modern viewers.  Austrian-born actress Luise Rainer makes the argument that anyone should be able to play anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, as long as they’re able to portray them convincingly, which she feels she and her Jewish co-star did admirably, one supposes, in The Good Earth. In the Q & A after the screening, Nancy Kwan made the same argument, claiming that she was discriminated against recently when auditioning for a Latina role.

But the question is, who’s deciding what’s convincing? Nancy Kwan has a pretty thick Chinese/British hybrid accent and doesn’t look typically Latina by any stretch (although there are, of course, significant numbers of Latasians). Conversely, white actresses seem to find scooting around like a wind-up doll with furiously batting eyelashes a convincing depiction of Chinese women. Personally, if I were trying to pass as Chinese, I would talk only in an outdoor voice and ask my white friends to not park in front of my house, but that’s just my experience and I’m not an actor. Besides, the fact remains that there’s never been a shortage of Chinese actors willing to play Chinese extremely convincingly, just a shortage of roles in which they’ve been allowed to do so.

To me the most interesting revelation of Hollywood Chinese, as a lover of early film, was its discussion of recently discovered attempts at creating an independent Asian American film industry. The Curse Of Quon Gwon, filmed by Marion Wong in 1916, is now acknowledged as the first Chinese-American movie.


                          Curse of Quon Gwon                                                    Marion Wong

Had Wong’s films been successful, there may have been another interesting chapter in minority and independent films. From 1915 to 1947, black filmmakers and actors produced 500 “race films” which were among the first financially successful independent American films. Perhaps with a much smaller minority and, one assumes, smaller potential audience, Asian-American cinema somehow just wasn’t viable until Chan Is Missing.

The main shortcomings of the film are its reliance on a completely color-by-numbers Ken Burns-ish presentation which makes you feel like you should be watching it on PBS and not in a theatre. Talking heads, that incredibly familiar sort of clarinet-heavy score and lots of stills being panned across and zoomed in on upon make it feel made for TV. It’s always disappointing when a documentary chooses that easy, tired look. The information is good though. It’s great, however; to hear Nancy Kwan, James Hong, Wayne Wang, Christopher Lee, Ang Lee and the rest’s observations and anecdotes but it’s presented in such a visually dull fashion that it almost seems like it’d make a better book if it weren’t for the amazing clips (that I wish there were significantly more of).

I also wondered why they focus just on depictions of Chinese. The director is Chinese but the film made the point that once you’re in America, being Chinese is trumped by being Asian and Japanese play Chinese, Vietnamese play Indians, and (of course) white people play everything. The specifics of ethnicity are blurred, erased and distorted. Therefore I’d have liked the scope to open up a bit more and then we could’ve been treated to more perspectives (like France Nuyen!) and more clips illustrating the same issues (e.g. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi). I don’t think it would’ve drastically changed the nature of the film– just added some insight and accounts of a few more Japanese and Korean actors.

And my last gripe is that the structure seems rather haphazard. It bounces around, back and forth through time, dropping and then revisiting films again as they come up again randomly in different actors recollections. A small thing. Anyway, May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month so just wait until it’s on KCET or KOCE. The information is interesting, the look isn’t so much.

When it was over we went to Palms Thai. We saw Amy Tan eating.

I Pass For Chinese:


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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