'One small wind can raise much dust'
Filmmaker Arthur Dong and editor Martin Wong talk about Asian images in popular culture at Pacific Asia Museum’s Active Cultures series
By Jana J. Monji 12/09/2010
What’s as Chinese as chop suey?
A lot of Hollywood movies, according to documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong.
Dong and Giant Robot magazine co-founder and co-editor Martin Wong are featured speakers Friday at the Pacific Asia Museum’s Active Cultures lecture and conversation series.
Dong explains that chop suey isn’t really Chinese at all, except in America, but “Chop Suey” is the name of one of the dance numbers from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s famous 1958 stage musical “Flower Drum Song.” Based on Chinese-American author C.Y. Lee’s 1957 novel, that musical was later made into a movie in 1961 starring Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta and Miyoshi Umeki. The movie was unusual at the time because of its predominately Asian and Asian-American cast, including the lead roles.
In Dong’s provocative documentary “Hollywood Chinese,” the controversy generated by the movie is discussed, as are the images of China and Chinese Americans — both as portrayed by themselves (from 1916’s “The Curse of Quon Gwon” to “Better Luck Tomorrow”) and the Hollywood establishment (“The Vengeance of Fu Manchu”).
Remember all those Charlie Chan movies featuring a white actor in yellowface? Do you cringe at the mention of James Clavell’s “Tai-Pan?” Joan Chen was widely vilified for her portrayal of the lead character’s Chinese mistress. But acting is a precarious job, something that Chen and Nancy Kwan, star of “The World of Suzie Wong,” discuss in the film.
“Instead of vilifying I wanted to understand them as artists,” explains Dong, adding that that, context notwithstanding, the Charlie Chan character of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s was “a breakthrough for portrayal of Chinese Americans.”
Before “Hollywood Chinese,” Dong looked at the nightclub that inspired “Flower Drum Song” in his 1989 “Forbidden City U.S.A.,” noting that some of the stars of the club were ashamed of that scandalous period of their past. From the clips, however, you can see that Asians can dance and sing.
With Deep Focus Productions, Dong has recently put out a limited edition DVD collection: “Stories from Chinese America.” He’ll be showing clips and photos from that Friday night.
Pacific Asia Museum is at 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena. Admission is $10, but free for museum members. Museum galleries are open until the first speaker at 8pm. Starting at
7 p.m. there will be a cash bar and free appetizers.