Skip to main content

Chinese Box Set: Dong's Docs on Asians in America Compiled

By Frako Loden

The limited edition Stories from Chinese America: The Arthur Dong Collection, Vol. 2 establishes multi-prize-winning filmmaker Dong as the pre-eminent documentarist of Chinese America. This is not his only specialty; in Vol. 1, Stories from the War on Homosexuality, he released three documentaries that brought to life the historical underpinnings of the recently repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy (Coming Out Under Fire) and examined anti-gay hatred among Christian fundamentalists (Family Fundamentals) and convicts imprisoned for the murder of gay men (Licensed to Kill). The Los Angeles-based Dong's sensitive, well-crafted films fill essential gaps in the people's American history--particularly those who have been marginalized and misrepresented in popular discourse.

Volume 2 (four discs) brings together Dong's award-winning work in the field of Chinese-American popular culture. His short films from the 1980s make up the Toisan Trilogy disc. Toisan, or Taishan, is a region in present-day Guangdong province in southern China whose people, among them Dong's family, were the first Chinese to immigrate to the US in large numbers. Included in the disc are the director's 2010 cut of his 1981 San Francisco State University student film, Living Music for Golden Mountains, a loving tribute to his butterfly-harp teacher--a product of Chinatown's "bachelor society," in which immigrant husbands were forbidden to send for their wives. The fictional drama Lotus (1987) examines the consequences of a bound-foot mother's decision not to mutilate her own daughter's feet.

The best of the trilogy is the 1982 film Sewing Woman, based on the life of Dong's immigrant mother and other women; the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 1984 and has been unavailable to the general public until now. The warm voiceover of Joy Luck Club actress Lisa Lu, who also plays a role in Lotus and has a long résumé in Hollywood, relates an early married life spent in China as her immigrant husband fights on the American side in World War II in Europe. Her chance to enter the US with a false "war bride" status requires that she leave her first son behind, but after ten years of separation, a government amnesty program allows her to confess her lie and be reunited with the boy. This kind of dramatic compromise typifies the life of an immigrant mother, who, after successfully unifying three generations of the family in San Francisco, basks in the peak glory of her eldest son's wedding to a nice girl.

Dozens of such nice Asian-American girls braved social ostracism to sing and dance at a San Francisco nightclub after the Depression in Dong's fabulous documentary Forbidden City, U.S.A., the real-life backstory for the fictional characters in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. Disc 2 is the collector's edition of this groundbreaking 1989 film, which catches the performers from those days reminiscing in still rare form. Entrepreneur Charlie Low's boîte, named after the sanctum sanctorum in Beijing where, in his words, "all the treasures are, where the kings and queens live," was a few blocks from Grant Avenue, seemingly safe enough for Caucasians who were curious but fearful of an imagined Chinatown full of opium dens, hatchet men and white slavery.

Here patrons could eat fried chicken and catch acts like the "Chinese Sophie Tucker" (Toy Yat Mar) or the "Chinese Fred Astaire" (Paul Wing), marveling that Asian-Americans could tap dance or can-can. Like Harlem's Cotton Club, the Forbidden City profited by luring Anglo patrons with the promise of a closer, more risqué look at the exotic "other." That implied the legend that Chinese women were anatomically differently from white women, enigmatically alluded to by one dancer as being "like eating corn on the cob."

Performers who took their act on the road faced more of the racism of that era. In the South, they had to choose between rest rooms for blacks and whites. And although they were American citizens, they encountered the kinds of dramatic compromises that the marginalized often faced. Just as Wing and his "Chinese Ginger Rogers" partner, Dorothy Toy, were offered a major break in their careers with a Hollywood bandleader, Toy had to choose New York to avoid being interned in a concentration camp, since she was Japanese-American.

Maybe the outdated term "Oriental," which the elderly performers use in their reminiscences, is appropriate after all for those who consciously catered to, and made livings from, whites' stereotypical perceptions of them. There was not much else Asian-American performers could do to survive on stage or on the screen even decades later, as seen in Dong's 2007 documentary Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films. This overview of Hollywood representations of Chinese and Chinese-Americans, which takes up Discs 3 and 4 of the boxed set, is an improvement over Jeff Adachi's 2006 The Slanted Screen, which was only about images of men, and a much-needed updating of Deborah Gee's 1988 Slaying the Dragon, about media stereotypes of Asian and Asian-American women.

Dong demonstrates that a history of Hollywood racism can be humiliating and yet entertaining, packed with the images that both antagonized and attracted whites to the Forbidden City. The film includes an analysis of The Good Earth (1937), which "should have been our Gone With the Wind," but instead turned out to be "the graveyard of all our dreams and aspirations" because of the use of famous Caucasians Paul Muni and Luise Rainer (who won her second Oscar for her performance) wearing makeup, or yellowface, to play Chinese peasants. Hollywood Chinese ponders the reasons for the success of the yellowface detective Charlie Chan and mastermind Fu Manchu, incidentally noting all the great actresses who have played the villain's daughter. There's passing mention of Chinese Americans who excelled behind the camera, such as special effects artist Wah Ming Chang and cinematographer James Wong Howe.

Then there's the phenomenon of Nancy Kwan, whose brilliant performance in The World of Suzie Wong won her crossover acclaim. She starred in Flower Drum Song, the film that in many ways got Chinese Americans right. As a boy, watching her sing "I Enjoy Being a Girl," says Stephen Gong, now head of San Francisco's Center for Asian American Media, "really made me want to grow up." The three-plus hours of bonus footage on this disc include many hilarious, if ultimately sad, anecdotes about the cheesy stereotypical roles that actors like Kwan and James Hong had to take.

The self-evident conclusion Hollywood Chinese reaches is that Chinese Americans must create their own stories and produce their own films. It was only a recent revelation to learn that, 65 years before Wayne Wang amazed critics with his 1981 film Chan Is Missing, a Chinese- American woman had done just that. In 1916, Marion Wong and her Oakland family shot The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West, a melodrama about Chinese-American newlyweds torn between a modern California life and a tyrannically traditional mother-in-law (played by Wong herself). The film was never shown publicly and the Wong family erased it from their history until the 1980s, when a nephew was told to dig it up from storage.

Dong helped salvage the original 35mm nitrate elements of the film and brought them to the Academy Film Archive for restoration. Thirty-five minutes of The Curse of Quon Gwon survive in excellent condition, and the Library of Congress added the film to its 2006 National Film Registry of films "to be preserved for all time." It is included in the Hollywood Chinese disc with a new original music score, an inspiring example of Chinese Americans telling their own stories from the earliest era of cinema.


To order Stories from Chinese America: The Arthur Dong Collection, Vol. 2, click here.

Frako Loden is a Berkeley-based writer who teaches ethnic studies and film history.