A series of programs entitled “Hollywood Chinese: The First 100 Years” is continuing through Nov. 22 at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, 6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.
Series introduction by filmmaker Arthur Dong, guest programmer: “Bruce Lee and I were born in the same San Francisco hospital. In Chinatown, to be exact, where there were five movie theaters, all showing Chinese films from Hong Kong. The characters may have been Chinese rather than Chinese American, but growing up and seeing faces like mine projected, larger than life, helped to nurture a multifaceted self-image.
“I eventually discovered art houses showing Hollywood classics like ‘The Good Earth’ (1937) and ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ (1932). Rather than an offense to my identity, these cinematic (mis)representations of the Chinese struck me as a curiosity for further study, and would lead to the creation of my ‘Hollywood Chinese; documentary, book, exhibitions, and now, this film series.
“Here, I’ve programmed films from cinema’s first 100 years to both critique and celebrate Hollywood’s depictions of the Chinese, as well as spotlight groundbreaking Chinese and Chinese American artists who have navigated an industry often ignorant of race. There are studio blockbusters curated alongside forgotten gems—some films are extraordinary, others downright abhorrent. Movies immerse audiences in real time, and by experiencing these films in a contemporary setting, I hope we might gain insight to what was then, and what is now. As Bruce Lee suggested, ‘Be water.’”
Advisory: Some films in this series include racist stereotypes and tropes, including yellowface and offensive slurs.
Friday, Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m.: Dragons: Two Leading Men. Pre-screening conversation with Nancy Kwan, who will discuss working with James Shigeta and Bruce Lee.
“Walk Like a Dragon” (1960). James Shigeta was a Japanese American singer whom Hollywood studios recruited to shape into a leading man — even casting him opposite white lovers. In the western “Walk Like a Dragon,” Shigeta portrays a Chinese immigrant who defies racism in 1870s California, winning a shoot-out against Mel Tormé and winning the girl, a formerly enslaved Chinese woman (Nobu McCarthy) who was previously saved by Jack Lord’s character Linc Bartlett.
Lead roles for Shigeta diminished after “Flower Drum Song” (1961) as the Hollywood studio system faded — but that didn’t stop Shigeta from working, including as the iconic Joseph Takagi in “Die Hard” (1988).
“Enter the Dragon” (1973). Martial arts films were popular with Chinese audiences since the 1920s but it took Bruce Lee’s star power for the genre to catch fire worldwide. Born in San Francisco, Lee ignited his movie career in Hong Kong, experienced a frustrating career in the U.S., and returned to Hong Kong, where he directed and starred in hit films that caught the attention of Warner Bros. This all culminated with Lee’s seminal blockbuster,” Enter the Dragon.”
“For Asian Americans, Bruce Lee wasn’t just exciting and cool. He was somebody who very deeply moved us, because he was us.” — Nancy Wang Yuen, media scholar
Saturday, Nov. 12, 2 p.m.: Six Early Films, 1900-1929.
For much of the history of Hollywood filmmaking, movies often portrayed Chinese as the “other” in a “them vs. us” hierarchy. Early movies, in particular, exploited this dichotomy, illustrated by the now-absurd—but no less damning—examples in this program. Yet, this era also saw productions from pioneering Chinese American filmmakers who aspired to elevate onscreen representations of themselves.
“Massacre of the Christians by the Chinese” (1900). Produced by one of early cinema’s most prolific studio heads, Siegmund Lubin, “Massacre of the Christians by the Chinese” re-enacts fictionalized scenes from the Boxer Rebellion in China. Within a 30-second running time, this film flames fears of barbaric Chinese inciting the destruction of Western civilization. Laughable today, this writer wonders if a 1900s-era audience, watching movies for the first time, may have been shaken by the scenes of decapitation.
“The Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teachers” (1904). The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, an influential and respected studio during the silent era, produced this short where Chinese laundrymen and church members share cultural traditions: Bible studies and opium smoking. The film illustrates the immoral consequences that innocent white women would suffer under the lure of “inscrutable” Chinese men — all this in three minutes.
“That Chink at Golden Gulch” (1910). One of D.W. Griffith’s shorts before he directed his controversial feature about the Ku Klux Klan, “Birth of a Nation” (1915), “That Chink at Golden Gulch” was supposedly a take on racial intolerance (despite the obvious racial epithet in its title). The story focuses on a Chinese laundryman who is rescued from racist taunts by a white man, and by the end of the film he becomes a pushover in service to his white savior. At least one review from the time considered the film a call for understanding, arguing, “Perhaps if everyone could see such heroic self-sacrifice in a Chinaman as this one displayed, the aversion which most men feel toward them would disappear.” (Moving Picture World, Oct. 22, 1910)
“The Curse of Quon Gwon” (1917). Marion Wong’s film is the earliest known feature made by an Asian American, and one of the few American silent features directed by a woman of any ethnic background. Produced in and around Oakland, where Wong resided, the film focused on Chinese American characters and their bicultural values. It was never distributed, and only two reels of perhaps seven resurfaced when family members brought them to the attention of this writer in 2004. The Academy Film Archive eventually preserved the surviving nitrate elements, and in 2006, the National Film Registry added the title to their esteemed catalogue.
“Lotus Blossom” (1921). Producer James B. Leong’s career started in the silent era, first as a China technical advisor for studios like Lasky and Ince, and subsequently acting in over 80 films until the 1960s. “Lotus Blossom” was his only finished production, a color-tinted silent film that embodied his ambitions to make movies about the Chinese. It starred Lady Tsen Mei, a vaudeville singer of mixed Chinese, white, and Black heritage, who had been publicized as “The Screen’s First and Only Chinese Star” for her 1918 debut film, “For the Freedom of the East” (1918) — four years before Anna May Wong’s breakthrough film “The Toll of the Sea” (1922). Preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive, only one of “Lotus Blossom’s” five reels has survived.
“The Letter” (1929). One of Paramount’s first sound films, “The Letter” is “Lotus Blossom” actor Lady Tsen Mei’s final known feature film appearance. She’s cast as a conniving nightspot proprietor (opium and slave girls are on the menu, of course) caught in a deadly lover’s triangle. Adapted from a W. Somerset Maugham play set in the East Indies, “The Letter” also stars former Ziegfeld showgirl Jeanne Eagels, whose performance as a murderess was nominated for a posthumous Best Actress Oscar. There are racist slurs and stereotypes throughout, but stay seated for Lady Tsen Mei’s impassioned lashing of Eagels and her white conceit.
Saturday, Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.: “The Tong-Man” and “Year of the Dragon.” Special guests: Actor Dennis Dun and filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña in conversation prior to the “Year of the Dragon” screening. Piano accompaniment for “The Tong-Man” by Michael Mortilla.
Ever since the Chinese began arriving in America in the 1800s, racist paranoia has long colored Chinatowns as exotic dens of vice and violence. The two films here, produced six decades apart, both illustrate Hollywood’s interminable obsession with tong wars and also point out the Chinese American community’s resistance.
“The Tong-Man” (1919). Japan-born silent screen idol Sessue Hayakawa produced and starred as the titular Tong-Man. Ostensibly a love story set in San Francisco Chinatown, the film’s infusion of lurid hatchet murders and opium tong wars sparked the first legal action known to be filed by the Chinese American community against Hollywood’s depiction of the Chinese. The effort failed, and instead created free publicity and soaring box office receipts. Ironically, the film was supposed to be Hayakawa’s path away from racialized Hollywood typecasting.
“Year of the Dragon” (1985). With a screenplay co-written by Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino, this violent vision of 1980s New York Chinatown gang wars triggered nationwide protests by the Asian American community for its racist and sexist portrayals. Bowing to pressure, distributors added a disclaimer denying any intent to denigrate Asian Americans. No yellowfaced white actors were used, but Asian American cast members were caught in a controversial crossfire. The film, ultimately, was a box-office flop.
Sunday, Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m.: “7 Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964). Special guests: Pre-screening conversation with visual effects artist Ellen Poon and make-up artist Tym Buacharern.
Tony Randall portrays multiple identities in George Pal’s fantasy set in 1800s Arizona. The film features Randall in yellowface as he cunningly switches between broken and code-speak English to challenge corruption and intolerant attitudes. Artist and sculptor Wah Ming Chang served on the team that created the film’s Oscar-nominated special visual effects (Jim Danforth received the nomination for this achievement). Chang was also on the team responsible for the Oscar-winning visual effects in “The Time Machine” (1960). An honorary Oscar was awarded to William Tuttle for his makeup work on “7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” yellowface included.
Friday, Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m.: Gay Night @ Hollywood Chinese: “M. Butterfly” and “The Wedding Banquet.”
“M. Butterfly” (1993). A cross-dressing Peking opera performer-cum-spy and a delusional French diplomat are unlikely lovers in David Henry Hwang’s explosive re-visioning of East/West sexual dynamics. Based on Hwang’s Tony Award-winning play set during China’s Cultural Revolution, John Lone and Jeremy Irons portray two men who convolute Western ideals of femininity and masculinity, where the East is submissive and the West is dominant, and where Asian men are feminized and more desirable as female than as male. David Cronenberg directed this richly designed production, which was inspired by a true story.
“The Wedding Banquet” (1993). Before Ang Lee directed his heartrending examination of repressed homosexuality in the Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), he directed this playful comedy of manners involving a gay Chinese American New Yorker and his white boyfriend who fake a heterosexual marriage to quell nagging parents. The scheme sets the stage for lighthearted explorations of family, self-identity, cultural values, and sexual politics. The U.S./Taiwan co-production earned an Academy Award nomination for Best International Feature Film, propelling Lee’s career worldwide.
Sunday, Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m.: “The Sand Pebbles” (1966).
Robert Wise’s follow-up to “The Sound of Music” (1965) netted eight Oscar nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor mention for Mako’s endearing portrait of a Chinese coolie. Hong Kong and Taiwan provide the locations for this widescreen spectacle — an exotic 1920s China in revolutionary turmoil, where Chinese women are prostitutes and Chinese men are ruthless, where colonialism and missionaries are the norms, and the leading man is always a white savior. “The Sand Pebbles” kick-started Mako’s distinguished career in film, stage, and television, and as co-founder of the nation’s leading Asian American theater group, East West Players, in Los Angeles. Fellow founders James Hong and Beulah Quo also appear in “The Sand Pebbles.”
Friday, Nov. 25, 7:30 p.m.: All Dancing! All Singing! All Asian! (Almost): “Flower Drum Song” (1961). Special guests: Post-screening conversation with actresses Nancy Kwan and Irene Tsu.
“Flower Drum Song” represents a Hollywood milestone for Chinese American representation with its all-dancing, all-singing, and almost all-Asian cast, headlined by James Shigeta, Oscar winner Miyoshi Umeki (“Sayonara”), Jack Soo, Benson Fong, Patrick Adiarte, and Nancy Kwan in her follow-up to “The World of Suzie Wong” (1960); Juanita Hall reprised her yellowfaced Broadway portrayal of Madame Liang. This lavish romantic comedy gave many Americans their first look at Chinatown beyond tourist facades, and was later inducted into the National Film Registry for its stories of immigration and cultural assimilation. The musical, with joyful tunes by Rodgers and Hammerstein, earned five Oscar nominations for art direction, cinematography, and costumes, as well as its music scoring, and sound. Hermes Pan choreographed the lively routines.
Saturday, Nov. 26, 3 p.m.: Hollywood Chinese Kids: “Our Gang: Baby Blues” and “Charlie Chan in Honolulu.”
“Our Gang: Baby Blues” (1941). “Every fourth child is born Chinese.” This questionable almanac factoid ignites Our Gang member Mickey’s fears that his unborn sibling will end up being Chinese. What’s he afraid of? Perhaps he’ll learn something from Eddie and Jennifer Lee, two veteran Hollywood movie extras who portray the parents of a boy rescued from racist bullies by the kids in Our Gang. The Lees’ real-life daughters, Faye and Margie, appeared as Charlie Chan’s kids in “Charlie Chan in Honolulu.” Anti-Asian violence, racial slurs, Confucianism, and white saviorism: it’s all packed into this ten-minute short that, in the end, is a call for tolerance.
“Charlie Chan in Honolulu” (1939). Just one of over 40 films in the popular Charlie Chan detective franchise, “Charlie Chan in Honolulu” emphasizes family, with the plot bookended by the birth of a grandchild. A raucous family meal with Chan’s kids opens the film, pushing the patriarch to command, “Save football tactics for gridiron!” Audience members who cringe at the sight of yellowfaced white actors might want to wear blinders and earplugs when Sidney Toler appears as Chan, replete with slanted eyes and dubious aphorisms, in order to enjoy some spirited scenes with Victor Sen Yung and Layne Tom Jr. as his all-American sons.
Saturday, Nov. 26, 7:30 p.m.: Calling the Shots: “The Joy Luck Club.” Special guest: Producer Janet Yang.
In the history of Hollywood studio films, only a handful have centered on contemporary Chinese American characters and cast with mostly Asian actors: “Flower Drum Song” (1961), “The Joy Luck Club” (1993), “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), “The Farewell” (2019), and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022). Based on Amy Tan’s novel about mother/daughter relationships, “The Joy Luck Club” was guided by Tan as co-producer and co-writer and Janet Yang as executive producer, with auteur Wayne Wang directing what became his pivot into mainstream studio filmmaking. Hiring white performers in yellowface was off-limits, and the film boasts an ensemble cast of trailblazing Asian American actors from two generations: veteran actresses Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, and France Nuyen portrayed the mothers, while Rosalind Chao, Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom, and Ming-Na Wen played the daughters.
Sunday, Nov. 27, 2 p.m.: Escape from Hollywood: “The Arch” and “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.” Special guest: Post-screening conversation with writer/director Joan Chen.
Success for female Chinese actors in Hollywood demands perseverance to confront not only sexism, but also racialized exotification. For two such women — Lisa Lu and Joan Chen — paths away from Hollywood were key to artistic fulfillment.
“The Arch” (1968). Lisa Lu’s first Hollywood role was as a bar girl in “China Doll” (1958). Frustrated with typecasting, Lu travelled to Hong Kong for “The Arch,” portraying a woman in 1700s China confined by rules of chastity. The film was made by one of Hong Kong’s earliest female directors, Tang Shu Shuen, and considered the region’s first art film to reach international audiences. Mixing naturalism with techniques like freeze frames and double exposures, the black-and-white film was co-edited by Les Blank and co-photographed by Satyajit Ray’s frequent cinematographer Subrata Mitra. “The Arch” launched Lu’s distinguished acting career in Asia, which then thrived transnationally in America (“The Last Emperor,” “The Joy Luck Club,” “Crazy Rich Asians”).
“Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl” (1998). After her breakthrough appearance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” (1987), Joan Chen was offered parts that mainly exploited her ethnic allure. She recalled, “If I didn’t leave Hollywood, I would have never directed ‘Xiu Xiu’” — and leave she did to direct and co-write “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.” The independently produced film centered on a young girl relocated to the countryside during China’s Cultural Revolution. Exquisitely shot on location in Tibet, “Xiu Xiu” won seven Golden Horse Awards, including director and writer nods for Chen.
Sunday, Nov. 27, 7:30 p.m.: “The Last Emperor” (1987). Special guest: Post-screening conversation with actress Joan Chen.
In 2015, #OscarsSoWhite went viral and fueled a movement that exposed the decades-long scarcity of Academy Award nominations for people of color in acting categories. In the Oscars’ 94-year history, only three Best Picture winners featured mostly Asian casts, and none of these received any acting nominations: “Parasite” (2019), “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), and “The Last Emperor,” which won nine of nine nominations. This presentation not only celebrates the breathtaking imagination of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic vison of China, but also gives audiences a chance to reconsider the Academy’s omission of honors for its brilliant cast.
Reservations required. For ticket information, go to: https://www.academymuseum.org/en/tickets