It really wasn't all that long ago Hollywood thought audiences wouldn't pay money to see a movie with an Asian lead. So producers would cast non-Asian actors -- replete with yellow-face makeup -- in these roles. In fact, Luise Rainer won a best actress Oscar as a Chinese peasant in 1937's "The Good Earth," while Katharine Hepburn made a very Yankee-esque Chinese woman in 1944's "Dragon Seed." And many people adored "Charlie Chan," "Mr. Moto" and "Mr. Wong," mysteries in which the title characters were played by such white actors as Warner Oland, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff.
The casting of non-Asians is one of the many subjects explored in Arthur Dong's new documentary, "Hollywood Chinese," opening Friday, which examines a little-known chapter in film history: the Chinese in American film.
"I feel I have been researching this all my life," says Dong, "because of my personal fascination with film history and personal interest in Chinese American history."
Dong admits that he loves those old "Charlie Chan" movies. "I love Boris Karloff in 'Mr. Wong.' He's just so goofy," he says. "Life would be boring if we didn't have our own guilty pleasures. I wanted to put [them] in a context that doesn't judge, but put it out there and say this is what it was like in this period it was made."
Featuring clips from more than 90 films -- the earliest from the 1890s -- "Hollywood Chinese" shines a light on the accomplishments of the Chinese, from the first American film produced in the U.S. by a Chinese American in 1917 to director Ang Lee winning the Academy Award two years ago for "Brokeback Mountain."
Among the Chinese and Chinese Americans profiled in the film are Lee, Wayne Wang, Joan Chen, David Henry Hwang, B.D. Wong, James Hong and Nancy Kwan. Dong also talks with the ninetysomething Rainer about playing an Asian and to Christopher Lee, who played Fu Manchu in several British films.
During the film's 10-year production, Dong discovered two nitrate reels of what is now acknowledged as the first Chinese American film, 1917's "The Curse of Quon Gwon," which was written and directed by the San Francisco-based Marion Wong and starred her sister Violet.
"The surviving daughters of the actress heard about my film and looked me up and said, 'We have these reels of a film that my mother was in,' " Dong recounts. "The reels were sitting in a closet and they were trying to find a home for it."
Dong, who happened to be working with the Academy Film Archive on documentary preservation projects, went to San Francisco to see what was on the reels. Much to his amazement, not only did the highly flammable nitrate material survive the decades, the film was in good shape. Academy Film Archive
Meanwhile, cable's Turner Classic Movies is also planning to examine how Asians have been depicted in films with its "Race and Hollywood: Asian Images in Film" festival, airing every Tuesday and Thursday in June. The programming will be hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne and Peter X. Feng, editor of "Screening Asian Americans."