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Filmmaker Arthur Dong talks representation, intersection, and Hollywood in new book

“Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films”

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Arthur Dong, gay news, Washington Blade

Arthur Dong (Photo courtesy of Arthur Dong)

If any proof is needed of the intersectionality of the LGBT community, look no further than award-winning filmmaker Arthur Dong.

As a gay Chinese American (he’s a native of San Francisco’s Chinatown), Dong is keenly aware of each of his identities – something that has informed his work, not only an award-winning documentary filmmaker, but as a historian, author and curator whose work centers on Asian American, and LGBTQ stories.

One of America’s first transnational filmmakers, Joseph Sunn Jue established Grandview Film Company in 1933 in San Francisco Chinatown and branched out to Hong Hong two years later (photo ca. 1948. Courtesy the Jue Family Archives).

His first book, “Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs 1936-1970,” received the American Book Award. Now, he’s followed it up with “Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films,” a comprehensive yet intimate look at the Chinese American role and influence in Hollywood.

From some of the earliest films set in America’s Chinatowns to the contemporary artists remaking the face of Hollywood, Dong takes the reader on a guided tour of Chinese American film history, from the hyper-stereotyped portrayals of Chinatown Tong Wars to the exoticized romances starring glamorous actresses like Anna May Wong and Nancy Kwan. He highlights the issues and challenges of Hollywood’s history. Filled with extensive imagery from the author’s extraordinary personal collection, the book unearths hidden gems from film history, bringing to light the work of Chinese and Chinese American artists whose work in film around the world has been all but lost to history, and enhancing his narrative with extensive interviews with Hollywood actors, directors, and producers, including Ang Lee, Nancy Kwan, Justin Lin, James Hong, Joan Chen, Wayne Wang, and David Henry Hwang, and writer Amy Tan.

We talked to Dong about his book, and why he believes the history it presents is relevant to everyone, and not just the Chinese American or Asian American communities. Read our conversation here, and then pick up a copy of his book, now available from Angel City Press, to peruse it for yourself.

 

San Francisco-born filmmaker Esther Eng, center, directs Marion Quon (Lai Yee) and Wong Hock Sing in “Lady from the Blue Lagoon(1947, Grandview Film Company. Courtesy the Jue Family Archives).

LAB: Your book is obviously intended, first and foremost, to record and preserve these histories while also bringing them into wider public attention. Were you trying also trying to offer a particular perspective on them?

AD: There wasn’t one definitive perspective, it’s a complex story to tell – but to simplify, you could say I wrote my book as a film lover and a film historian first, and then as an Asian American and a gay Asian American as well. To be specific, I wanted to inject Chinese American stories as an integral part of American film history, which they haven’t really been on the whole. I wanted to fill that void. As a member of the gay community, I wanted to integrate that aspect too. With my work, wherever I can, I try to infuse a LGBTQ sensibility, and in this book, I was able to do that, both subliminally and through the story of someone like Esther Eng, who was a filmmaker that lived and worked openly as a lesbian in the thirties and forties – which is incredible, when you think about it, especially within the confines of the Chinese American community in San Francisco. I also wrote about growing up in San Francisco Chinatown and watching Chinese language films where cross-dressing by actors was a norm, and how that affected my feelings about gender fluidity. In my selection of images, I emphasized same-gender attraction when possible, for example the poster from Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain”; I didn’t choose the more widely-used poster where the men are facing different directions, but rather the poster where they’re embracing to show their affection for each other.

LAB: You also look at Hollywood’s history of “yellowface” performances by white actors in Asian roles, like the infamous case of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Mickey Rooney gave a heavily-stereotyped performance as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese landlord.

AD: That was a comical portrayal, and it provides an easy excuse for the producers to say, “Well, this was just a comic character, we didn’t know what we were doing.” In the book, I’m trying to trace are the more subtle yellowface portrayals, like the ones in “The Good Earth,” where MGM Studios and the producer, Irving Thalberg, really tried to create a sensitive portrayal of the Chinese. They cast the main characters in yellowface, but in the thirties, this was common practice – this was what Hollywood did. In 1937, when the film was released, a San Francisco Chinese American publication, “The Chinese Digest,” actually endorsed it as a good chance for Americans to get a more sensitive look at what the Chinese were all about. So, in historical context we can see that not only did mainstream white Americans embrace “The Good Earth,” some of the Chinese American community did, as well.

We look at some of these portrayals, and we say, “Well that’s just ridiculous, how did that happen?” There was a reason for it, and I think that’s important to look at, if we want to understand the complexity of yellowface casting as we see it today.

 

LAB: Many people today might think of representation as a contemporary issue; but there have always been objections to these kinds of casting choices and the cultural stereotypes they project, haven’t there?

 

AD: It’s not very well documented, but there’s a long history of protests and objections – all the way back to 1919, with the film “The Tong Man,” starring Sessue Hayakawa. It was a love story, but it was steeped in Tong wars, opium dens, hatchet murders, and some of the worst characterizations of the Chinese in America at that time. The Chinese community in San Francisco launched the first legal protest against a film, as far as I know, and they filed an injunction to stop it from being shown. Unfortunately, the presiding judge at the time refused to honor that injunction, and let the film be shown – and the local theater there in San Francisco, the Rialto, exploited this situation, and actually put out an ad to convince the public to come and  see this movie before the Chinese community had it pulled away. People flooded the theaters and it broke box office records. That showed the hunger of the general public for this type of storytelling, and it also showed producers and theater owners how lucrative it was to tell these kinds of stories – and that kind of storytelling was perpetuated.

In 1962, there was a film called “Confessions of an Opium Eater.” It was about opium dens, it was about slavery, it was about lecherous Chinese men after girls, and the local Chinese American activist community, here in Los Angeles, protested that film – and it ended up being the catalyst for the formation of the East West Players, which is a still an active, very prominent theatrical troupe.

So, the current protests didn’t come out of nowhere, they were already happening – but that kind of storytelling is still perpetuated, even up to the present day.

 

LAB: How do you think that we can persuade the entertainment industry to do better?

AD: We need to recognize that Hollywood is a big machine; it’s a mix of commerce and art, and we have to understand that if we want to deal with it. And we need to deal with Hollywood because issues of representation affect many different communities, and the images created by the film industry, the stories they tell, go all around the world. We need to be observant of what those stories are, and be pro-active about the images that are projected to audiences.

Ramon Novarro and Helen Hayes perform in yellowface for “The Son-Daughter,” a melodrama set in San Francisco Chinatown (1932, MGM. Courtesy DeepFocus Productions, Inc.).

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For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

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Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.

******************

Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

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First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' courtesy of Amblin Entertainment & 20th Century Studios

HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.

The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.

DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

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The Associated Press: Oscars Special, editor’s picks

For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Hollywood’s’ Dolby Theatre

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

NEW YORK – As the entertainment, motion picture and film communities gather in Los Angeles for the 94th annual Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday evening, the editors of the Associated Press have curated the news agency’s top six stories prior to this evening’s gala.

Oscars set for return to normal, except all the changes

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a…Read More

The Oscars are tonight. Here’s how to watch or stream live

The 94th Academy Awards are right around the corner with just enough time to squeeze in watches of some of the 10 best picture nominees before the lights go down in the Dolby…Read More

Oscar Predictions: Will ‘Power of the Dog’ reign supreme?

Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, Associated Press Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle share their predictions for a ceremony with much still up in the…Read More

List of nominees for the 94th Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nominees for the 94th Academy Awards, which were announced Tuesday via a livestream. Winners will be announced on March 27 in Los Angeles. Best actor:…Read More

Oscars to celebrate ‘Godfather,’ ‘Bond’ anniversaries

LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Bond didn’t get an Oscar nomination this year, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be part of the ceremony. It’s the 60th anniversary of the first…Read More

Oscars celebrate May, Jackson, Ullmann and Glover

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elaine May was the last to arrive and the first to leave at the Governors Awards on Friday in Los Angeles. Her fellow honorees, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv…Read More

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