In spite of a history that spans centuries – especially in California – Hollywood has long remained an elusive destination for Asian Pacific Americans seeking not always celluloid glory, but at the very least, mere participation and fair representation. From immigration restrictions, limited casting opportunities, miscegenation laws, and blatant racism, even in the 21st century, APAs in Hollywood remain rare.
Part historical record, part neighborhood photo album, this slim volume provides an introductory, skeletal overview of Chinese Americans in front of as well as behind the camera. From the early 1900s through Ang Lee’s stupendous second Best Director Oscar in 2013, “[t]his book … examines how Hollywood functions not only as a geographical area but also as a conceptual idea as the entertainment capital of the world,” the two-page “Introduction” opens. Over 200 black-and-white photographs are divided into chronological chapters, beginning with the silent “Early Years” featuring Marion Wong, the first Chinese American woman who wrote, produced, and directed her own films, to the first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, to the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (which has since morphed into TCL Chinese Theatres, complete with IMAX 3D).
“1930s and 1940s” introduces the one of Hollywood’s most respected cinematographers, 10-times nominated, twice Oscar-winning James Wong Howe, who also ran the Ching Howe Restaurant in North Hollywood. Benson Fong also did double duty as restaurateur and Hollywood icon as “Number Three Son” in the era of Charlie Chan yellowfacing: Walter Oland and Sydney Toland were not Asian. Neither were Paul Muni and Luise Rainer who starred in The Good Earth, based on the Nobel Prized Pearl S. Buck novel; in spite of the unconvincing makeup, the 1937 film was a multi-Oscar winner, including Best Actress for Rainer and Best Picture.
“Gotta Dance and Sing” opens with Nancy Kwan in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song, stops briefly at her birthday on the set of The World of Suzie Wong, and ends with her practicing high kicks with then-stunt advisor Bruce Lee. “New Generations” features an iconic shot of Lee as the unparalleled martial arts legend, includes APA theater history with the founding of East West Players and the early success of David Henry Hwang, the seminal founding of Visual Communications. The chapter moves quickly through to contemporary Chinese American media achievements from Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club, to crossover stars Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat and directors John Woo and Wong Kar Wai, to (almost) household names Lucy Liu, B.D. Wong, and Justin Lin.
Ironically, although not surprisingly, the shortest chapter is the last – “Academy Awards” – but Ang Lee’s gratitude to the heavens filled with such joy is also a hope-filled final image surely promising more achievements to come.
Tidbit: Chinese in Hollywood makes for a perfect companion title to Arthur Dong’s extensive documentary, Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult