One of the first stops for a visitor to Los Angeles is the TCL Chinese Theatre. You can find the old building right next to the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame.
It opened in 1927 and, at first, was known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It is a sign of the American film industry’s interest in Asia in the early days of Hollywood.
“When film was first invented — and we’re talking about the late 1800s, early 1900s — it expanded the visual minds of its audiences,” notes Arthur Dong. He added that movie-goers could actually see images of far-away places, like China, and that fueled interest in the area.
Dong, a Chinese American, is a filmmaker and writer. On the day he spoke with VOA, he was hanging old pictures of Chinese American actors on the walls of the Formosa Café, a once famous Hollywood nightclub and bar. The business opened in 1939.
Now, the back room of the Formosa Café looks like a museum that honors the work of Chinese Americans and their work in Hollywood.
“I was always curious about the Chinese or Asian actress I saw on screen, whether films from the early part of cinema history up to today,” Dong said. But the men were always playing servants or unskilled laborers. And if they were women, he added, they were either servants or sex workers.
In his new book, Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films, Dong looked at Hollywood’s use of Chinese characters and the Chinese culture.
Stereotypes of the Chinese in America were strengthened by the otherness of U.S. Chinatowns in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where people had different customs.
There was an idea of “the Chinese as the ‘yellow peril’…the Chinese that you couldn’t trust. And that resulted in the character called Fu Manchu,” Dong explained.
Fu Manchu was an evil character who wanted to destroy the Western world. He appeared in movies and in a television series.
In 1926, Charlie Chan, a Chinese investigator from Hawaii, appeared for the first time in a movie. This created a different, yet still problematic Asian stereotype.
“He was quiet. He was smart — smarter than anybody else…yes — but it was used in a stereotyped way. He spoke in broken English,” Dong said.
‘Yellow face’ actors
Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu may have been Chinese characters, but the actors were usually white men made up to look Asian. Actors Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter Ustinov and Ross Martin all played Charlie Chan.
“Yellow face — meaning they actually, literally yellowed up their skin,” said Nancy Wang Yuen. She is a sociology professor at Biola University in California. She also wrote a book called Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.
White actors also played the lead characters in The Good Earth, a 1937 film about Chinese farmers. Asian actors had parts in the film, but “they needed bankable actors, and there were no Asian American bankable actors,” Yuen said.
Chinese American actress Anna Mae Wong wanted to play the female lead in The Good Earth, but she did not get the part.
“The reason why Anna Mae Wong wasn’t cast was because of this production law that was part of Hollywood... that you could not have interracial romances on-screen,” Yuen added.
Asian actors in modern-day Hollywood
Over the years, Asian and Chinese Americans did find work in Hollywood, and a few earned a star on the Hollywood Walk for Fame. They include Anna Mae Wong, Keye Luke, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu.
The 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians had mostly Asian actors and an Asian American director. The film became important for many Asian Americans.
“The sensation of Crazy Rich Asians, both in its critical and box office success, is a sign that things are changing,” Arthur Dong said. “What is different is that the Asian American community won’t sit back.”
Technology is also opening doors for Asian Americans to tell stories on their own terms.
With Asian Americans being the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, a new generation of Asian American artists can use different platforms to tell stories that are not a stereotype.
The China factor
Hollywood is also changing the way it presents the Chinese culture because of what is being called the China factor.
As the biggest market for movies outside the U.S., Hollywood has been making films that will not insult movie-goers in China or the country’s government. The industry has been careful not to show the Chinese as evil.
Co-productions between Hollywood and Chinese companies, such as the new film Abominable, put Chinese characters and China in a favorable or satisfactory way.
“That’s where I would like to see the future of Chinese-U.S.” projects. So that both countries can feel like there’s something familiar to them, Yuen said, adding that it would create more jobs for Asian Americans in the film business.
I’m Susan Shand.
VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
audience – n. a group of people watching or listening
museum – n. a place where objects are shown to the public
curious – adj. a marked desire to investigate and learn
screen – n. a flat surface where a movie or pictures are shown
stereotypes – n. an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things
smart – adj. intelligent
romance – n. a love story
box office – n. the ability to interest people to buy movie tickets
platform – n. an operating system
familiar – adj. often seen, heard, or experienced