PROPS AND DAGGERS #2: Hollywood Chinese film and exhibit at CAM
In 1986, I attended UCI. I had just finished a year at a horrible established and accredited acting “college” which exported essentially acting robots. For their part, they didn’t like me either. Upon finishing my first scene in drama class at Irvine, I was succinctly told that roles for Chinese queens were few and far between. Instantaneously my hopes to play the first gay Asian bitch on Dynasty were crushed. Alexis and Dominique Devereaux surely would miss out.
We were in the midst of an Asian wave back then. A year-long Asian story arc on General Hospital followed on the heels of Tiffany Chin, Miss Teen USA Kelly Hu, and double gold medalist Greg Louganis as well as Year of the Dragon and the Karate Kid pics. The Last Emperor, Tai-Pan, Golden Child, and Noble House were on the near horizon.
I actually tried out for the GH part that eventually went to Dustin Nguyen. I was hopeful that somewhere somehow a tide pool would be created in the mainstream for me, but I was not delusional.
Encouraged by my instructor, I began to write character vignettes and solo pieces to forge my own performance path. One of the characters was Penny Pang, an Asian actress who has died so many times on film she is suffering from mental rigor mortis. She, as I, was all too aware that relegating oneself to a stereotypical role was “de facto survival.”
And it is this sentiment that is relayed by several long-time APIA actors in Arthur Dong’s Hollywood Chinese, a curator presentation and film screening of which I attended recently at the Chinese American Museum.
The museum showing, an exhibition of Dong’s movie artifacts dealing with Chinese in Hollywood, is startling as one looks at the marketing of the racist images, the deviousness in manipulating whether the audience should either covet or hold in contempt the Asian (pseudo-Asian) characters, and the politicized act of making palatable hate and disenfranchisement.
The film delves into some historical context linking social and political conditions with the filmic images at the time. As a devout “On Visual Media Racism”-ite, I wanted Eugene Franklin Wong to whip out his “racist cosmetics,” “lateral stratification,” and “racial displacement” terms. But the film was more the performers’ stories, and it was interesting and inspiring how the level of consciousness of the implications of the roles played has progressed from Nancy Kwan compared to Bradd (B.D.) Wong’s. Kwan tells the same story she told twenty years ago in Slaying the Dragon (“How dare she!”) about being confronted for her choice of roles while B.D. relays his struggle with a role that could be viewed as continuing the feminization of Asian men. Dong interestingly focuses on the lives and thoughts of the individual performers in order for us to make our conclusions about our future. It’s quite striking to compare Luise Rainer’s “we’re all the same” to Ang Lee’s similar sentiment that arose from entirely different contexts and experiences.
And so just as powerful as E.F.W. was the eloquence of Justin Lin, Wayne Wang, Joan Chen, and David Henry Hwang discussing their journey, their desire, and their intent on presenting their own positive images with full awareness of the responsibility they hold to future APIA’s as well as to themselves and the work. This with economic realizations fully comprehended.
Great art incites and takes one on a journey. With the CAM exhibit and Hollywood Chinese film one does go on a journey from the past to the present. It incites to push for something for the future.
I, as I was in the 80s and especially in the climate of violence against APIs presented as humor, remain staunch in that APIs as a community have to come together to take a united stand against negative images, relegation to the background, racist cosmetics, and racial displacement. Taking one of these jobs because of one’s own de facto survival is not only selfish but thinking short term. If we take a stand now as a community, we will become more economically empowered and viable in the present and future.
Due to overwhelming response to the exhibit, Hollywood Chinese: The Arthur Dong collection has been extended until November 7, 2010.