A History of Asian-American Cinema

INTRODUCTION TO ASIAN-AMERICAN CINEMA 

Very little has been written about the involvement of Asian-Americans (and Asian-Canadians, also discussed here) in the production of film. Even though their contributions are usually overlooked, Asian-Americans have played significant roles in the formation of America’s film culture since the early 20th century. In the early silent

Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong
Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong

era, before the rise of “Hollywood,” anyone who could afford to could make a film and Marion Wong and Joseph Sunn Jue made films starring Asian-Americans. Silent-era actors Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa became veritable stars although with the rise of the Hollywood studio system, roles for Asian-Americans were often degrading and frequently filled by white actors in yellowface. Some Chinese-Americans found success on the Vaudeville-like Chop Suey Circuit, but film and television roles for Asian-American actors were few and far between. Asian-American playwrights and theater companies began to flourish in the 1960s. In the 1970s, filmmakers including Robert Akira Nakamura, Loni Ding, and Curtis Choy began directing films and slowly but surely, a truly Asian-American cinema emerged in the 1980s. In the 1990s, with the rise in profile of independent cinema, conservative Hollywood grew increasingly irrelevant, artistically if not commercially. In the 2000s, following the increased accessibility of internet sites like YouTube and improved, affordable filmmaking technology, Asian-Americans’ involvement in the production of filmmaking has exploded, even if it remains under-discussed and under-recognized within the mainstream.


ASIAN-AMERICANS IN SILENT CINEMA

In the early days of west coast film production, there were few roles for Asian actors except as unflattering stereotypes or anonymous background work. Nonetheless, a small number pursued careers in front of and behind the camera, intersecting and influencing Hollywood’s embryonic phase. Although most worked in near complete obscurity, two — Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa — became veritable superstars. They still were virtually unable to find roles to their liking, since most of the lead roles (still usually degrading) went to actors in yellowface or brownface — practices that continued long after blackface became completely taboo. Wong and Hayakawa used their earnings to attempt to improve opportunities for less famous Asians by creating more positive depictions, following black cinema’s lead. However, with immigration restricted and laws preventing citizenship and property ownership, even the few rich, famous Americanized Asians faced considerable challenges.

Dragon Painter
The Dragon Painter (1919)

In the silent era, most of the Asian-American-related films were low budget, forgettable Chinatown mysteries and crude yellow peril thrillers but they do remain interesting for multiple reasons, including their reflection of changing American attitudes as well as documents of the efforts of the country’s second largest racial minority to break into a system who viewed them as subhuman at worst and as generally as exotic, inscrutable aliens at best.

It would be more than fifty years before the flourishing Asian-American cinema of today would become possible and profitable, following the amendment of immigration law, civil rights struggles, an influx of refugees and the subsequent growth of the Asian American population in the 80s/90s. But the valiant efforts of early Asian-Americans (and a few non-Asian Hollywood insiders like Thomas Ince and William Worthington) shouldn’t be overlooked in their pioneering efforts to allow Asian Actors to play roles other than androgynous opium sots, waiters, tongs, dragon ladies and lotus blossoms.

ASIAN-AMERICAN ACTORS OF THE SILENT FILM ERA

Ah Wing (not pictured) was born 12 July 1851 in China. He made eight films. He died 27 February 1941 inWeimar, California.

Anna Chang was born in San Francisco on 21 August 1910 and began singing on stage at age six. She made her debut film appearance in Hollywood with Two Little Chinese Maids (1929) and followed with Singapore Sue (1932). By 1941 she was back in San Francisco, headlining at the Jade Palace where she was billed as the “Chinese Princess of Song.”

Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong (nee Wong Liu Tsong) was born 3 January 1905 in Los Angeles on Flower Street to second generation parents who ran a laundry. As a nine-year-old girl, she begged filmmakers for parts as they shot around downtown and was dubbed “CCC” (Curious Chinese Child). After she was cast in several films, she received top billing in The Toll of the Sea (the first film shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor process) and thereby became the first Chinese-American movie star (and the first internationally known Asian American movie star). In 1924, Anna May Wong created Anna May Wong Productions with the intention of producing films based on Chinese legends but, after discovering her business partner engaging in dishonest business practices, dissolved the company.

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Anna May Wong in In Old San Francisco

Frustrated with the roles Hollywood offered Chinese Americans, Anna May Wong moved to Europe in 1928, where she was warmly received by critics. After making several films abroad, Paramount offered her a contract and the promise of lead roles.

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Anna May Wong in Toll of the Sea

Wong returned to the US in 1930, first appearing on Broadway in On the Spot. She continued working onstage and in Europe, still frustrated by Hollywood, especially after being denied a role in The Son-Daughter for being “too Chinese to play a Chinese.” Although she continued to accept stereotypical roles, she was outspoken in the press about the need for positive portrayals of Chinese characters.

Wong’s last two starring roles were in the Poverty Row anti-Japanese propaganda films, Bombs Over Burma and The Lady from Chungking, before she began accepting occasional roles on television programs, including one written created especially for her, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first television series with an Asian-American star. She died in Santa Monica, California on 2 February 1961.

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Bessie Wong (middle) with Lulu Wong (left) and Anna May Wong (right) — (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bessie Wong appeared in The White Mouse (1921) and Tipped Off (1923).

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Bo Ling (Berenice Park) with James Hall (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bo Ling (real name Berenice Park) was born on 18 December 1908. Her sister was also an actress and singer, Bo Ching. The sisters were the children of actor Edward and Florence Park and grew up in Berkeley before moving to Los Angeles around 1926. The sisters formed a “three-gal act, singing, dancing, and playing piano and accordion” with fellow performer, Helen Wong Jean. She had roles in The Fifty-Fifty Girl, Life’s Like That, and Red Wine (all 1928); Golden Stairs (1929); and International House and Myrt and Marge (both 1933).

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Bo Ling and Bo Ching in Golden Stairs (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bo Ching (real name Winnie Park) was born on 21 April 1911. Her sister was fellow actress and singer Bo Ling and her father actor Edward L. Park. She appeared in Golden Stairs (1929) and Why Leave Home? (both 1929); and International House, and Myrt and Marge (both 1933).

Charles A. Fang
Charles A. Fang

Charles A. Fang acted in 24 films, often as “Charlie Fang.”

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Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohoa Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku (né Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohoa Kahanamoku) was born 24 August 1890 in Honolulu, Kingdom of Hawaii. He competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, and the 1924 Paris Olympics, winning medals at all for various swimming competitions. He is also famous for popularizing surfing. In 1925, whilst living in Newport Beach, he saved eight people from a capsized fishing vessel (seventeen died), using his surfboard to rescue them. He acted in fourteen films, usually playing a Hawaiian king. He died 22 January 1968.

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Edward L. Park (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Edward L. Park was the first Chinese-American to play Charlie Chan. He was born in San Francisco in 1876. His wife, Florence, was the mother of actresses Bo Ling (née Berenice Park) and Bo Ching (née Winnie Park) and he acted as “Oie Chan.” Edward Park worked as an interpreter at Angel Island before moving with his family to Los Angeles around 1927.

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Etta Lee

Etta Lee was born 12 September 1906 on Maui, Kingdom of Hawaii. She acted in fourteen films, playing both maids and slaves several times. She died 27 October 1956 in Eureka, California.

Frank M. Seki (not pictured) appeared in The Hope Diamond Mystery, The First Born, and The Purple Cipher.

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Frank Tokunaga

Frank Tokunaga (aka Frank Tokawaja aka Bunroku Tokunaga) was born 7 July 1888 in Japan. He married Japanese silent film actress Komako Sungata. After acting in 21 films, mostly in the US, he returned to Japan where he directed six silent films, with the intention of returning to America to further Japanese-American cinema. He died in 1967 in San Joaquin, California.

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George Kuwa

George Kuwa (né Keiichi Kuwahara) was born 7 April 1885 in Japan. He was the first Asian-American actor to play Charlie Chan and acted additionally in sixty films. He passed away 13 October 1931, in Japan.

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Goro Kino (right)

Goro Kino (aka as Gordo Keeno) was born 2 June 1877 in Japan. He acted in 17 films and he was one of the earliest Asian-American actors. He died 4 February 1922 in Los Angeles.

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Hatsu Kuma in a production of Tokio Blues (dated 1927)

Hatsu Kuma may’ve been Japanese rather than Japanese-American (I’m not sure). She made only known film appearance (alongside Anna Chang) in Two Little Chinese Maids (1929), which was an American film, at least.

Henry Kotani (not pictured — and aka Hanoki aka Henry Katoni) was born in 1887 to Japanese immigrant parents in the US. At a time when few Asian-Americans were employed in film crews, Kotani apprenticed at Jesse L. Lasky Company under “Papa” Wycoff, the “Father of Cameramen.” Although he acted in only six films, he also worked as a cinematographer, produced, wrote and filled other roles in many films. In the middle of his career, he relocated to Japan, where he tried to introduce American cinematic flavor to Japan, insisting on directing in English, and never providing scripts to his his actors or crew. After directing six films which failed to find an audience, he returned to America where he died in 1972.

IrisYamaoka
Iris Yamaoka

Iris Yamaoka was born in 1911 in Seattle. She appeared in six films: China Slaver (1929), Hell and High Water (1933), Pursued (1934), Petticoat Fever (1936), High Tension (1936) and Waikiki Wedding (1937). Yamaoka was interned at the Heart Mountain relocation camp in Cody, Washington during World War II. She died aged 49 on 28 November 1960 in New York City.

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Jack Yutaka Abbe

Jack Yutaka Abbe was born 2 February 1895 in Miyagi, Japan. After acting in ten American films, he went back to Japan and directed 25 films as “2.” He died January 1977 in Kyoto, Japan.

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James B. Leong

James B. Leong (né Leong But-jung) was born 2 November 1889 in Shanghai, China. He chose the name James Leong after moving to the US at 24 in 1913. After attending college in Indiana, he found work as an assistant director and interpreter with Chinese extras for the likes of DW Griffith and Park Frame. He ultimately acted in 81 films. He died 16 December 1967 in Los Angeles.

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James Wang

James Wang was born in 1863 in China. In the US, he acted in 32 films. He died 20 April 1935 in Los Angeles.

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James Wong Howe

James Wong Howe (né Wong Tung Jim) was born 28 August 1899 in Guangzhou, China. His father moved to Washington when James was one, and James joined him when he was five. He bought a Kodak Brownie camera from a drugstore at the age of twelve. After moving to Los Angeles, he worked as a commercial photographer but was fired when he was caught making fake passports. He got hired by the Jesse Lasky Studios‘ photography department for $10 a week where he was paid to pick up scraps of film. He next worked as a slate boy for Cecil B. DeMille. He first worked on a film as a cameraman in 1919, and then as a cinematographer in 1923, where he became known for his masterful use of deep focus and shadow. He began wearing a button declaring “I am Chinese,” as did his friend James Cagney in solidarity. Due to anti-miscegenation laws, he couldn’t marry his white girlfriend until 1949. He died 12 July 1976 in Hollywood.

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Joe Sunn Jue (right) with actress Patricia Joe (Chow Kwun-ling) and cameraman Joseph Jue

Joseph Sunn Jue directed his first film, the Cantonese-language Yaomo Zhi Yue (The Demon’s Cavern) in 1926. It was the first film produced by Xue Pinggui quan zhuan (Chinese Educational Film Company), a company whose vice president was Jun You Jew, the director’s father. In 1933 Jue went on to form his own film company, Grandview Film Company, based in San Francisco.

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Komato Sungata

Komato Sungata (aka Komato Sunata) came to the US as five-year-old. She was later promoted as the “Japanese Gloria Swanson.” Her first film role was as an extra in an Essany film at the age of fourteen. She met Japanese-American actor Frank Tokunaga on the set of a film and they married when she was nineteen. In 1923, the couple traveled to Japan, hoping to translate their experiences into Tokunaga-directed, Sungata-starring films, with the desire of potentially elevating the quality of representations of Japanese in Hollywood.

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Kunihiko Nanbu

Kunihiko Nanbu (aka K. Nambu) was born 29 November 1890 in Tokyo, Japan. He acted in six films.

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Lady Tsen Mei (right)

Lady Tsen Mei was born 28 March 1888 in Guangzhou, China. She first found work with Betzwood Film Company in Pennsylvania. In The Lotus Blossom, for which she received top billing, she was billed as “The screen’s first and only Chinese star.” However, having acted only in that film, The Letter, and For the Freedom of the East, her stardom never really approached the level of fame of fellow Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. She died July 1985 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Louie Cheung (not pictured) acted in four silent films: A Tale of Two Worlds, The Concert, The Branding Iron, and The Girl from Outside.

In 1916, Oakland resident Marion Wong makes the first Chinese-American film, The Curse of Quon Gwon. It, however, proved something of a false start when it was shelved before its release. It was discovered and restored in 2006.

Misao Seki (aka M. Seke and not pictured) acted in eight films between 1918-1923 before moving to Japan where he acted in 17 more.

Mrs. Wong Wing
Mrs. Wong Wing (right)

Mrs. Wong Wing was born 21 November 1892 in China. She acted in eight films and died 30 September 1966 in Los Angeles.

Mr. Yoshida (not pictured) appeared in just three films: Domino Film Company‘s 1914 pictures Nipped, A Relic of Old Japan, and The Courtship of O San.

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Olive Young

Olive Young was born 21 June 1907 in St. Joseph, Missouri. She moved to Shanghai and, as 杨爱立, began appearing in silent films in 1926 and was billed as “The Chinese Mary Pickford.” Returning to the US she acted in Trailin’ Trouble (1930), Ridin’ Law (1930), and The Man Who Came Back (1931). She died suddenly, on 4 October 1940 (age 33) in Bayonne, New Jersey after collapsing in the dressing room of a night club where she’d just performed.

Sessue Hayakawa
Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa (nee Kintaro Hayakawa) was born 10 June 1889 in Nanaura, Japan, the son of a governor/member of the samurai class. Although he wanted to join the navy, he was rejected because he’d ruptured his eardrum. Having thus disappointed his father, he attempted to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the chest over thirty times before being stopped.

Hayakawa subsequently studied political economics in Chicago before returning to Japan where he pursued a career on the stage in an acting company that returned him to the US in 1913. Spotted by Thomas H. Ince in a Little Tokyo production of The Typhoon, he was offered a movie contract. He appeared in The Wrath of the Gods and The Typhoon in 1914 and, on 1 May, he married actress Tsuru Aoki.

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Hayakawa in The Cheat (1914)

In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 film for Famous Players-Lasky, The Cheat, Hayakawa became the first Asian-American superstar (receiving $200,000 for a film at the height of his career, driving a gold-plated Pierce-Arrow and, on one occasion reportedly shrugged off a million dollar gambling loss in Monte Carlo), although the film was protested by Japanese-Americans who tried to prevent its re-release in 1918.

After the success of The Cheat, Hayakawa started his own production company, producing many films starring his wife and himself, earning on average $2 million a year and becoming an outspoken critic of stereotypical Asian roles. He then moved to Japan but failed to establish a career there. In France and the UK, he proved more successful.

Hayakawa returned to the US in 1931 and made his talkie debut with the other Asian-American film star of the day, Anna May Wong, in Daughter of the Dragon. Like many silent actors, his speaking voice was reportedly not to the liking of filmgoing audiences and he again returned to Japan and then France, where he made several more films and joined the French Resistance.

After World War II Hayakawa tried again to re-establish himself in Hollywood and appeared in several big films, including Tokyo Joe, Three Came Home, and Bridge on the River Kwai. After the death of his wife in 1961, he returned once again to Japan where he became a Zen Buddhist priest and private acting teacher before dying on 23 November 1973 in Tokyo of cerebral thrombosis.

Sojin
Sojin

Sojin (ne Sôjin Kamiyama) was born 30 January 1884 in Sendai, Japan. After working on the stage in the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo, he moved to the US. There he married Ura Mita and had a son, Edward, in 1909. Beginning a few years later, he began acting in films, usually as a villain, but also as one of three Asian-American actors to play Charlie Chan. After 26 roles, with the advent of talkies, his accent proved an obstacle to getting further film work in Hollywood. After acting in a French film, he returned to Japan where he continued to act, notably having a part in The Seven Samurai. He died 28 July 1954 in Tokyo, Japan.

Tetsu-Komai
Tetsu Komai (left)

Tetsu Komai was born 23 April 1894 in Kumamoto, Japan. He acted in 64 films, almost always playing Chinese characters. Though usually acting in lesser films, in 1932 he was singled out in a Time review of War Correspondent for his performance which was said to have risen above the sentimental material. He died 20 August 1970 of congestive heart failure in Gardena, California.

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Togo Yamamoto (left)

Tôgô Yamamoto was born 4 November 1886 in Yokohama, Japan. In 1930, after appearing in fourteen American films, he returned to Japan where he acted in sixteen more.

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Tokuko “Taku” Nagai Takagi

Tokuko “Taku” Nagai Takagi was born in 1891 in Tokyo, Japan and was the first Japanese to appear professionally in American film. In 1906, the fifteen year old maid at the Bank of Japan married Chimpei Takagi, who returned to Japan from California after the Great Fire of San Francisco. After the two moved to the US, Taku appeared in four American films: The East and the West (1911) (as C. Taka), The Birth of the Lotus Blossom (1912), For the Mikado (1912), and Miss Taku of Tokyo (1912). All were made for Thanhouser Film Corporation, who were then attempting to exploit the growing Japanese-American population by making Japanese-oriented films. After the outbreak of World War I, the Takagis returned to Japan where Taku died of a  cerebral hemorrhage in 1919 whilst on tour as a dancer.

Toshia Mori (née Toshiye Ichioka) was born 1 January 1912 in Kyoto, Japan. She came to the US when she was ten and acted in eighteen films. She was the only non-white person ever chosen to be a WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) “Baby Star,” in 1932. Mori married a fellow Asian-American actor, Allen Jung. Toshia Jung, billed as Shia Jung (and leading to frequent confusion with the Shia Jung who acted in Chinese Tarzan films) acted in three more films: Charlie Chan at the Circus, Charlie Chan on Broadway, and Port of Hate, after which she retired from film. She died 26 November 1995 in the Bronx.

Toyo Fujita (not pictured) operated a theater in Little Tokyo. It was there, in a production of The Typhoon, that Sessue Hayakawa was noticed and propelled to superstardom. After Hayakawa began the pioneering Asian-American film company Haworth Pictures, Fujita acted in several films before he broke out into extra work for other studios, ultimately appearing in thirteen films.

Tsuru Aoki was born 9 September 1892 in Tokyo, Japan. She moved to Los Angeles with an aunt and uncle in 1903. She began her acting career on Toyo Fujita’s stage in Little Toyko where she and Sessue Hayakawa acted sided by side. After being noticed by Thomas Ince, he placed her under contract. With a debut film performance in 1913’s The Oath of Tsuru San, she became one of the first Asians to appear on screen in Hollywood. Afterward, she invited Ince to a play at the Little Tokyo theater she’d worked in for a performance of The Typhoon starring Hayakawa. Ince employed both actors in 1914’s O Mimi San and the two actors began a relationship and married on May 1.

The Wrath of the Gods

Appearing in a total of 44 films, her career faltered as Hayakawa’s rose and she retired from film to raise their two adopted children. After returning to film in 1960 and acting alongside her husband in Hell to Eternity, she died 18 October 1961 in Tokyo of acute peritonitis.

Yukio Aoyama (né Massajiro Kaihatsu and not pictured) was born 15 March 1888 in Nagoya, Japan. After being schooled in Japan, he attended drama school in Chicago. He married Kuwa Kosaki and the couple had five children. In addition to acting in seven films, he was an editor of the Japanese Daily News for five years and a drama critic and writer. He also acted on the stage and worked as an assistant or technical director in over sixty films. In 1934, he owned the Oriental Costume Company in Hollywood and worked on The Japanese Movie Magazine. He died 11 December 1939 in Los Angeles.

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Willie Fung

Willie Fung was born 3 March 1896 in Guangzhou. Despite acting in 128 films (probably more than any other Asian-American actor of the silent era), he almost always played unnamed characters. Despite little information available on him, just looking at his credits illustrates the reasons for Asian actors’ frustrations with the Hollywood system. In 24 films he played a restaurant employee, in six he played a servant and in three, a laundryman. When he was named, he played a character named Wing three times, Wang four, and Wong ten! He died 16 April 1945 in Los Angeles from coronary occlusion.

Other Asian-Americans who appeared in at least one Silent Film era film about whom I could find no other information include: Hoo Ching, Lee Gow, Lin Neong, and Tom Hing.

ASIAN-AMERICAN SILENT FILMS

Silent films relevant to Asian-American cinema include The Ambassador’s Envoy, The Courtship of O San, The Curse of Caste, The Death Mask, The Geisha, The Last of the Line, Mother of the Shadows, Nipped, O Mimi San, The Oath of Tsura San, A Relic of Old Japan, Star of the North, A Tragedy of the Orient, The Typhoon, The Vigil, The Village ‘neath the Sea, and The Wrath of the Gods (all 1914); The Cheat, The Chinatown Mystery, and The Famine (all 1915); Alien Souls, Broken Fetters, The Curse of Quon Gwon, The Honorable Friend, The Soul of Kura San, and The Yellow Pawn (all 1916); The Bottle Imp, The Call of the East, Each To His Kind, The Flower of Doom, Hashimura Togo, and War of the Tongs (all 1917, although production of War of the Tongs began in 1914); The Bravest Way, The Chinese Musketeer, The City of Dim Faces, For the Freedom of the East, Her American Husband, The Hidden Pearls, His Birthright, The Curse of Iku, The Japanese Nightingale, The Midnight Patrol, and Mystic Faces (all 1918); Bonds of Honor, Broken Blossoms – or – The Yellow Man and the Girl, The Dragon Painter, The Gray Horizon, A Heart in Pawn, Mandarin’s Gold, The Pagan God, The Red Lantern, and The Tong Man (all 1919); Dinty, Li Ting Lang, Outside the Law, Pagan Love, and A Tokyo Siren (all 1920); Black Roses, The Cook, The First Born, Lotus Blossom, Shame, The Swamp, A Tale of Two Worlds, What Ho, and Where Lights Are Low (all 1921); Boomerang Bill, East Is West, Five Days to Live, The Toll of the Sea, and The Vermillion Pencil (all 1922); Drifting, Haldane of the Secret Service, The Remittance Woman, and Thundergate (all 1923); The Danger Line, The Great Prince Shan, and Sen Yan’s Devotion (all 1924); East of Suez (1925); Eve’s Leaves, The Silk Bouquet (aka The Dragon Horse), A Trip to Chinatown, and Yaomo Zhi Yue (The Demon’s Cavern) (all 1926); Mr. Wu and Old San Francisco (both 1927); The Crimson City and Chinatown Charlie (both 1928), and China Slaver (1929).


ASIAN-AMERICAN CINEMA OF THE 1930s

Philip Ahn (left) in Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)
Philip Ahn (left) in Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)

If opportunities for Asian-Americans in silent film were decidedly limited, they seem to have actually worsened with the advent of sound. Several actors of Asian origin moved from the US to countries in Asia, no doubt frustrated by the increased lack of work available to them in American films of the sound era. The attempts by Marion Wong, Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong to create an Asian-American alternative to the degrading roles and yellowface of Hollywood had fizzled. Nevertheless, there were Asian-Americans whose Hollywood careers began in the decade and others who continued to work.

Publicity still from The Good Earth (1937)
Publicity still from The Good Earth (1937)

There were few films made by Asian-American filmmakers during the studio era and Hollywood firmly controlled the manner in which Asians were represented in American films (with the notable exception of some American-made Cantonese-language films exhibited that were primarily screened overseas). Films like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Good Earth, and series like series like Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong suggested that minstrelsy, far from vanishing, had simply changed color. Asian-American entertainers found more accepting audiences as live performers on the so-called Chop Suey Circuit, which truly took off in the 1930s.

Asian-American actors faced and sometimes overcame various obstacles. For example, Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon concocted several phony stories about her origins and used skin whitening make-up. Korean-AmericanPhilip Ahn, a native of Los Angeles’s Highland Park neighborhood, was required in many of his roles to attempt a phony Japanese accent. In fact, he supposedly played Japanese villains so often that he received more death threats than fan mail.

GRANDVIEW FILM COMPANY

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On the set of 1944’s She’s My Gal (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

One notable exception to the lack of Asian-Americans behind the camera was Joseph Sunn Jue‘s San Francisco-based Grandview Film Company, co-founded in 1933 with Moon Kwan. Chiang Kay wrote the screenplays and cameramen included Jue himself and Wong Hock Sing (aka Wong Hok-sing). Wong’s White Powderand Neon Lights (1941) was the first Cantonese-language film shot in color. Wong also managed San Francisco’s Grandview Theater, later renamed the Chinatown Theater. Grandview found success by distributing their films in Hong Kong, which they temporarily relocated to in 1935. After Japan invaded, however, the company returned to San Francisco where they made 21 more features between 1942 and ’47.

ESTHER ENG

Another notable Asian-American filmmaker of the era was Esther Eng (aka Ng Kam-ha), another native of San Francisco. In Hollywood, in 1935, she founded the production company, Gwong Ngai where she co-produced the company’s first film, Sum Hun (aka Heartaches), the first Cantonese-language film produced in Los Angeles. Sum Hun starred Cantonese actress Wai Kim-fong and was shown in both the US and Hong Kong. After that she directed five films in Hong Kong before returning to the US. With Grandview Film Company she co-directed (with Kwan-Man Ching) Golden Gate Girl (金門女) in 1941, which featured an infant Bruce Lee in his first film appearance (and for which Joseph Sunn was the cinematographer). Through the remainder of the 1940s she directed Blue Jade (1947), Back Street aka Too Late for Springtime (1948), and Mad Fire, Mad Love (1949). Her final directorial efforts were the New York sequences of the Hong Kong-US co-production, Murder in New York Chinatown (1961). Eng passed away in 1970. Her story has been told in S. Louisa Wei and Law Kar‘s documentary Golden Gate Silver Light Esther Eng: Story of a Pioneer Woman Director (伍錦霞: 華語電影之女性先鋒)

ASIAN-AMERICANS WHOSE FILM CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1930s

Not pictured: Benny Inocencio, Bruce Wong, Caroline Chew, Eddie Lee, George Kaluna, Hayward Soo Hoo, Joseph Jue, Kei Thin Chung, Maurice Liu, Oie Chan, Paul Singh, Paul Wing, Prince Leilani, Satini Pualoa, and Tom Ung.

ASIAN-AMERICAN FILMS OF THE 1930s

Other relevant films of the 1930s include Secrets of Wu Sin (1932); Chu Chin Chow (1934); The General Died at Dawn, The Leathernecks Have Landed, and Shadow of Chinatown (all 1936); The Rainbow Pass and West of Shanghai (both 1937); and Barricade and North of Shanghai (both 1939).


ASIAN-AMERICAN CINEMA IN THE 1940s

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Esther Eng (center) at work — image source: China Daily)

The US entered World War II on 7 December, after Japanese forces bombed an American colonial base at Pearl Harbor. As a result, a huge number of Hollywood war films were set in Asia, which meant an increase in roles for Asian-Americans. However, major Asian character roles were still routinely performed by white actors in yellowface whereas roles played by actual Asian-Americans were almost always supporting and frequently uncredited.

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Grandview Film Company ca. 1935 — image source: Fuck Yeah Asian/Pacific Islander History

Far fewer Asian-American actors began film careers in the 1940s than had in the previous decades. Of course, it didn’t help that Japanese-American actors weren’t available because from 1942-1946 since they — along with 110,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry —  were interred in concentration camps (except when they passed for non-Japanese, as did Dorothy Takahashi, who changed her name to Dorothy Toy).

WAH MING CHANG

Wah Ming Chang

Wah Ming Chang’s family moved to San Francisco in 1919, where his parents opened Ho Ho Tea Room, a popular hangout for artists and bohemians. His mother passed away when he was eleven and his father moved to Europe, leaving the child with Sloan and Mildred Taylor. Mildred introduced Wah Ming to puppet-making, a skill which he would employ when he eventually began working in film.  At sixteen, he worked as a set designer for shows at the Hollywood Bowl. In 1940, at 21 years old, Chang began working for Walt Disney where he worked on character designs for Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940). He went on to become a respected prop designer, widely recognized for his iconic designs on the television series Star Trek.

TYRUS WONG

Tyrus Wong
Tyrus Wong

Tyrus Wong was born 黃齊耀 on 25 October 1910 in Taishan, China. When he was nine, he and his father moved to Sacramento, leaving behind his mother and sister, never to see them again. The father and son subsequently moved to Southern California where Wong attended Pasadena‘s Benjamin Franklin Junior High. It was there that his teachers noted his artistic ability and, after receiving a summer scholarship at Otis Art Institute, he left junior high. He graduated from Otis in 1930. Wong’s first job was painting a brassiere ad that would appear on a large building on Hollywood Boulevard. He was employed by Walt Disney in 1938 but his first creative work involved creating the lush, impressionistic backgrounds of Bambi. He quit the next year and moved to Warner Brothers. Today he makes kites. (UPDATE: Wong passed away, aged 106, on 30 December 2016).

Off-screen, several key laws were passed that affected Asian-Americans, especially of Chinese origin. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and replaced with the Magnuson Act which allowed for 105 Chinese to immigrate to the US annually and allowed Chinese already living in America to become naturalized citizens. In 1945, the War Brides Act allowed for Chinese-American veterans to bring their wives to the US. In 1946, grocer/restauranteur/attorney Wing F. Ong became the first elected state official when Arizona voters elected him to the state House. In 1946 the Luce–Celler Act of 1946 allowed Filipinos and Indians to naturalize as American citizens and increased their annual immigration quotas to 100 persons each. In 1949, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, 5,000 Chinese were granted refugee status.

ASIAN-AMERICANS WHOSE FILM CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1940s

Not pictured: Frank Wong, Keye Chang, and Leslie Fong.

ASIAN-AMERICAN FILMS IN THE 1940s 

Other Asian-American-relevant films from the 1940s include Secret of the Wasteland, Golden Gate Girl, She’s My Gal, and White Powder and Neon Lights (all 1941); Little Tokyo, U.S.A. (1942); China, Headin’ for God’s Country, Lady from Chunking, Night Plane from Chungking, and We’ve Never Been Licked (all 1943); The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); Back to Bataan, China Sky, and Samurai (all 1945); Tokyo Rose (1946); Intrigue (1947); Back Street aka Too Late For Springtime, Half Past Midnight, Women in the Night (all 1948); and Mad Fire, Made Love, and State Department: File 649 (all 1949).


ASIAN-AMERICAN CINEMA IN THE 1950s

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Hawaiian Eye with Poncie Ponce (right)

In the 1950s, Hollywood film roles for Asian-Americans continued to be limited. Women’s roles were usually limited to love objects in war time romances. On Broadway, there was a vogue for musicals set in the Far East such as The King and I, South Pacific, and Flower Drum Song although Asian characters were still nearly always portrayed by actors in yellowface. Asian stage performers continued to earn more attention on the Chop Suey Circuit.

Television was a slightly different story and in its early years, the small screen was a slightly more diverse place than the big one. The DuMont Network‘s The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which aired in 1951 and starred Anna May Wong, was the first television series to star an Asian-American. Hawaiian Eye, which debuted in 1959, co-starred Poncie Ponce (born Ponciano Hernandez) as a Honolulu cab driver.

ASIAN-AMERICANS WHOSE FILM OR TELEVISION CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1950s

Not pictured: Bill M. Ryusaki, May Takasugi, Ralph Ahn, Robert W. Lee, Tseng ChangWilliam Yokota, and Yvonne Shima.

ASIAN-AMERICAN FILMS OF THE 1950s

Other Asian-American relevant films from the 1950s include Go for Broke (1951); Feng ye qing and A Yank in Indo-China (both 1952); China Venture, Forbidden, and Target Hong Kong (all 1953); The Left Hand of God (1955); China Gate (1957); Ghost of the China Sea and South Pacific (both 1958); and Blood and Steel (all 1959).


ASIAN-AMERICAN CINEMA IN THE 1960s

The 1960s saw the growth of minority-minded civil rights like AIM, the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, and the Yellow Brotherhood but in Hollywood, after the decline of the studio system, Asian-Americans and other minorities remained as marginalized as ever. Shockingly, yellowface was still common, as seen in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

On stage, Asian-themed musicals were no longer in vogue, the Chop Suey Circuit was no more, and most Asia-American actors entertainers struggled to find work. On television the story was a little better, with series like Dragnet, Green Hornet, Hawaii Five-O, Hong Kong, I Spy, and Star Trek all featuring at least the occasional Asian character played by an Asian-American actor.

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Mako and June Koto Lu in East West Players’ 1965 production of Rashomon

In part born out of this struggle, however, Asian-American Theater began to flourish with the establishment of Los Angeles’ East West Players in 1965. EWP was followed by San Francisco’s Asian American Theatre Workshop, New York’s Oriental Actors of America, and Seattle’s Theatrical Ensemble. Playwrights like Edward Sakamoto, Frank Chin, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Momoko Iko, and Wakako Yamauchi wrote works which would form the basis of the Asian-American theater repertoire.

ASIAN-AMERICANS WHOSE FILM OR TELEVISION CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1960s

Not pictured: Alexandra Bokyun Chun, Alicia Li, Arthur Song, Baayork Lee, Brian Fong, Bruce Locke, Hans William Lee, James Shen, Lee Kolima, Linda Ho, Lindsay Price, Marc Marno, Reiko Sato, Robert Ito, Sharann Hisamoto, Tiko Ling, Tina Chen, Tracey Lee, Tsuruko Kobayashi, Tura Satana, Willard Lee, Yasuko Nagazumi, and Yoshio Yoda

ASIAN-AMERICAN FILMS IN THE 1960s

Other Asian-American related films of the 1960s include Hell to Eternity and The Wackiest Ship in the Army (both 1960); Seven Women from Hell and Visa to Canton (both 1961); Girls! Girls! Girls! and The Horizontal Lieutenant (both 1962); Donovan’s Reef (1963), 7 Women and Walk Don’t Run (both 1966); The Final War of Olly Winter, The Mystery of the Chinese Junk, The Sweet and the Bitter, and Thoroughly Modern Millie (all 1967); and The Green Berets (1968).


The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (enacted in 1968), abolished the National Origins Formula that had till then favored particular European immigrants above all others, and thus the door was opened to more immigration from Asia and elsewhere. In the 1970s, more than 130,000 refugees arrived from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, drastically changing the demographics of the Asian-American population. Broadly speaking, this wave of immigrants had more in common socio-economically speaking with most blacks, Latinos, and Natives than with whites or the existing Asian-American populations, and their arrival radically challenged the mid ’60s-born concept of “the model minority.”

GROWTH OF ASIAN-AMERICAN THEATER 1970s

During the 1970s, new Asian-American theater groups formed including New York’s Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and Asian American Theater Company, and San Francisco’s Theatre of Yugen. For the first time in years, significant numbers of Asian-Americans began to appear on television and in films, in roles (no less) that occasionally challenged stereotypes rather than reinforced them.

ASIAN-AMERICAN TELEVISION IN THE 1970s

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On television in the 1970s, Hawaii Five-0, Kung-Fu, and M*A*S*H featured Asian-American actors, albeit most often in small, non-recurring roles. Two series starred Asian-American actors. The first, the animated The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan debuted in 1972 with Asian-Americans providing all of the voices (except for that of Chu Chu the Dog). Later the voices were redubbed, mostly by white actors. The short-lived Mr. T & Tina, starring Pat Morita, aired five episodes from 25 September to 30 October 1976. Asian-American plays including Frank Chin’s Year of the Dragon and Wakako Yamauchi’s And the Soul Shall Dance were both adapted for television productions.

REBIRTH OF AN AUTHENTIC ASIAN-AMERICAN CINEMA

In the wake of Bruce Lee’s 1970s stardom, many Asian-American actors found themselves offered roles as Asian (rather than Asian-American) martial artists. With the rebirth of Asian-American Cinema (that is, Asian-American films actually made by Asian-Americans), however, that began to change.

In 1970, Robert Akira Nakamura founded Visual Communications, which is today the oldest community-based media arts center in the US. The acclaimed filmmaker and teacher is sometimes known as “the Godfather of Asian American media.” Nakamura was previously a photojournalist who switched to documentary film, Manzanar (1972), an examination of the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans. In 1974, Loni Ding produced and directed Willie Lobo: Manchild about a black Vietnam War veteran. It was the first feature film directed by an Asian-American since Marion Wong’s The Curse of Quon Gwon in 1916. In 1976, Curtis X Choy (aka Chonk Moonhunter) began directing documentaries, beginning with Dupont Guy – The Schiz of Grant Avenue, an examination of Chinese-American culture.

New York’s Asian CineVision began producing Asian American works as CCTV (Chinese Cable TV) in 1975. In 1978, the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) was founded in New York City. Before long, other Asian-Americans filmmakers followed in these pioneers’ footsteps, telling stories with their own voices and offering an alternative to Hollywood.

ASIAN-AMERICANS WHOSE FILM OR TELEVISION CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1970s

Not pictured: Calvin Jung, Caroline Junko King, Denice Kumagai, Dennis Chun, Diane Takei, Ed Hong-Louie, Esmond Chung, Jack Ong, Jean Marie Hon, Michael Hasegawa, Ling-Ai Li, Marika Yamato, Ming Lo, Pat Li, Peter Yoshida, Ranjit Chowdhry, Ron Nakahara, and Sam Chu Lin.

ASIAN-AMERICAN FILMS OF THE 1970s

Other Asian-American related films of the 1970s include Chinatown 2-Step and Kung Fu (both 1972); Pieces of a Dream (1973); I Told You So, Judgement – The Court Martial of the Tiger of Malaya – General Yamashita, Men of the Dragon, Omai Fa’atasi – Samoa Mo Samoa and To Be Me – Tony Quon (all 1974); City, City, The Journey, Kites and Other Tales, and Wataridori – Birds of Passage (all 1975); Farewell to Manzanar (1976); And the Soul Shall Dance (1978); and When Hell Was in Session (1979).


ASIAN-AMERICA IN THE 1980s

In the 1980s, the Asian-American population grew radically, with over 2.5 million immigrants joining the already large, native-born, Asian-American population. Monterey Park became the first mainland city to acquire an Asian-Majority (mostly Taiwanese) and before long, many suburbs of Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley became majority Asian-American. In nearby North Orange County, Little Saigon quickly emerged as the largest community of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. Despite these regions’ geographic proximity with Hollywood, Asian-Americans remained underrepresented in American films.

ASIAN-AMERICAN THEATER IN THE 1980s

On the stage, David Henry Hwang‘s play M. Butterfly was the first Asian-American-penned play to appear on Broadway. Other successful Asian playwrights followed, including Philip Kan Gotanda and Velina Hasu Houston. New Asian-American theaters were founded too, including Cold Tofu Arts and Entertainment/Theatre in Los Angeles, Ma-Yi Theater Company and National Asian American Theatre Company in New York, and the Asian Story Theater in San Diego.

ASIAN-AMERICANS IN HOLLYWOOD IN THE 1980s

Whilst in Hollywood most Asian males were invariably cast as fortune-cookie mystics and ninjas, a new stereotype emerged for younger Asian males; the studious, awkward and heavily-accented Asian nerd (e.g. Long Duck Dong, Data Wang, Toshiro Takashi, Vinh Kelly, &c). One notable exception to the young Asian nerd stereotype in Hollywood was Dustin Nguyen as Harry Truman Ioki on 21 Jump Street. In 1986, the short-lived series Gung Ho aired on television, featuring Gedde Watanabe, Patti Yasutake, Rodney Kageyama, Sab Shimono, and Scott Atari. The series Sidekick starred Ernie Reyes, Jr. as Ernie Lee, the “Last Electric Knight.” Pat Morita returned to television as the lead on Ohara, in which he played a martial artist.

ASIAN-AMERICAN FILMS IN THE 1980s

Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing, made in 1982, ushered in a new era of Asian-American film. Not only was this feature directed by an Asian-American, but it was the first to feature a mostly Asian-American cast since 1961’s Flower Drum Song. Several independent Asian-American directors began their career shortly after, including Jon Moritsugu, Gregg Araki, Peter Wang, Roddy Bogawa, and Steven Okazaki. Whereas some films, like Peter Wang’s A Great Wall, followed the fairly formulaic tradition of the “assimilation drama,” the films of the so-called “Bad Boys” (Moritsugu, Araki and Bogawa) generally favored an approach to the subject of race that was less obvious.

In the field of documentaries, Christine Choy made her debut with 1984’s Mississippi Triangle, a film about black, white and Chinese-Americans in the Mississippi Delta. Renee Tajima-Peña made her directorial debut with Who Killed Vincent Chin?, in collaboration with Christine Choy.

ASIAN-AMERICANS WHOSE FILM OR TELEVISION CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1980s

Not pictured: Akira Takayama, Ako, Alexis Rhee, April Tran, Bea Soong, Blas Lorenzo, Ching Valdes-Aran, Chris Yen, Cindera Che, Clint Jung, Craig Ng, Cynthia Gouw, Dann Seki, Diane Cheng, Donald Li, Duncan Bravo, Emily Woo Yamasaki, Felicia Lowe, François Chau, Glenn Kubota, Henry Yuk, Ho Lo, James Pax, Jeanne Mori, Jee Teo, Jennie Yee, Kay Tong Lim, Kerry Yo Nakagawa, Lea Salonga, Lily Mariye, Marc Hayashi, Mohan Gokhale, Nina Zoie Lam, Noel Izon, Patrick Ng, Paul J.Q. Lee, Raymond Ma, Robin Shou, Ronald Yamamoto, Rummel Mor, Saachiko Magwili, Sandrine Holt, Shinko Isobe, Simon Sinn, Steven Chen, Steve Park, Suleka Mathew, Victor Jih, Vien Hong, Wai Ching Ho, Yin Chang, and Yuji Okumoto.

Other Asian-American films include Frankly Speaking (1982); Freckled Rice (1983); Mississippi Triangle and Talking History (both 1984); Blind Alleys (1985); Conversations – Before the War/After the War and Permanent Wave (both 1986); Pak Bueng on Fire (1987); and The Price You Pay (1988).


ASIAN-AMERICA IN THE 1990s

The 1990s were a time of tremendous growth in the Asian-American population. By then, California cities like Cerritos, Cupertino, Daly City, Milpitas, and Rowland Heights all had Asian-American majorities, as did Millbourne in Pennsylvania.

ASIAN-AMERICAN THEATER IN THE 1990s

Broadway and Hollywood depictions of Asian-Americans, however, remained few and almost always crude. Not surprisingly, then, Asian-American writers continued to write more for the stage than film. Prominent new APA playwrights included Chay Yew, Diana Son, Euijoon Kim, Han Ong, Ji Hyun Lee, Mrinalini Kamath, Ralph Peña, and Sung Rno. By the decade’s close there were about forty APA theater companies. Ones founded in the 1990s include The Bay Area‘s Naatak; Chicago’s Pintig Cultural Group; Nevada City‘s Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra; Los Angeles’ 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, Propergander Theatre, and TeAda Productions; Minneappolis‘s Mu Performing Arts; New York’s In Mixed Company, Ma-Yi Theater Company Second Generation, National Asian American Theatre Company, PEELING, The Slant Performance Group, and Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America; Philadelphia‘s Asian Arts Initiative; Sacramento’s InterACT, Sinag-tala Filipino Theater and Performing Arts Association; San Diego’s Asian American Repertory Theatre; San Francisco’s Bindlestiff Studio; San Jose‘s Contemporary Asian Theater Scene; and Seattle’s Aono Jikken Ensemble, Isangmahal Arts Kollective, and Pork Filled Players.

ASIAN-AMERICAN TELEVISION IN THE 1990s

On television, Margaret Cho‘s All-American Girl became the first series with a cast entirely comprised of Asian-Americans since 1972’s The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. In 1999, Canadian series Relic Hunter debuted, starring Hawaiian-born Pinay, Tia Carrere.

ASIAN-AMERICAN COMEDY IN THE 1990s

Something novel happened in the 1990s and Asian-Americans went from almost always being the butt of jokes to the ones delivering them. Henry Cho and Margaret Cho were undoubtedly the highest profile Asian-American comics but new Asian-American comedy troupes formed as well, including Chicago’s Stir-Friday Night and Los Angeles’s OPM. Comedian Steve Park was added the cast of In Living Color for the 1992-1993 season.

ASIAN-AMERICAN FILMS IN THE 1990s

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Anne Misawa behind the camera

Despite the rebirth of Asian-American Cinema in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it truly took off, part of the larger boom in independent film. Some films, like Joy Luck Club, enjoyed a great deal of crossover success with non-Asian audiences. In Hollywood, Rush Hour became one of the first mainstream films to star no white actors in decades. Perhaps an unintended consequence is that whilst Jackie Chan‘s newfound Hollywood stardom may’ve opened doors for Hong Kong compatriots like Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and others, it reinforced notions about all Asians as foreigners and martial artists and mainstream film roles for Asian-Americans playing Asian-Americans remained frustratingly few and far between. Behind the camera, M. Night Shyamalan had made two previous films which hadn’t garnered much attention (Praying with Anger and Wide Awake). With 1999’s Sixth Sense, however, he briefly became a celebrated household name.

ASIAN-AMERICANS WHOSE FILM OR TELEVISION CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1990s