From Fu Manchu to Flower Drum Song

(Canscene) — Here comes a doc that makes social comment tinged with a sense of amusement .

Hollywood Chinese for all its ironic comment carries little rancour about the gross misrepresentation of Chinese people on Hollywood screens. Instead there’s a sense of amusement at the crassness of western producers in so frequently using non-Chinese actors, aided by eye makeup and costuming.

Hollywood Chinese is the work of documentarian Arthur Dong who has assembled a cast of characters such as actors Luise Rainer (still living at 92), Christopher Lee, Turhan Bey Nancy Kwan and Lucy Liu. Dong also includes interviews and comments from such Chinese producers, directors and writers as Ang Lee, David Henry Hwang, Justin Lin and Amy Tan.

Recalled super- villains include the sinister Dr. Fu Mancho, first portrayed by Hollywod’s Warner Oland (of Swedish origin by Boris Karloff (English) and later by Britain’s Christopher Lee (Anglo-Italian). Oland went on to play the famous Charlie Chan, Honolulu detective and after his death was followed by Sidney Toler and Lawrence Winters, both Westerners. We see all three in Hollywood Chinese.

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The opening and closing sequences of the film feature the Hollywood musical Flower Drum Song by Rogers and Hammerstein and featuring an “all Chinese” cast. Or rather a film whose characters are all supposedly Chinese residents of San Francisco but some are actors of Japanese origin like Miyoshi Umeki and James Shigeta. Some applauded the overall scope of the film whle others, like author Amy Tan deplored it.

The situation has improved somewhat with genre films featuring the Bruce Lees and Jackie Chans, and we are likely no more to see such major Hollywood productions as The Good Earth and Dragon Seed; In the former Paul Muni and Luise Rainer headed the cast of mainly westerners in a reverent adaptation of Pearl S. Bucks bestseller, whle the latter –made in wartime — starred Katherine Hepburn, Walter Huston and Turhan Bey. After Pearl Harbour, Japanese male characters were portrayed by Chinese actors due to the massive internment of Japanese Americans.

An interesting historical sidelight is the fact that in 1916 actress Marion Wong began making a series of silents featuring Chinese casts beginning with The Curse of Quon Gwon. During their brief lifetime these productions were enthusiastically viewed by Chinese audiences in America. Facts like these are what makes Hollywood Chinese such an important addition to film history.
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