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Hollywood Chinese

Nearly a decade before #OscarSoWhite made racism in Hollywood a national headline, Hollywood Chinese (2007) examined representations of Chinese and Chinese Americans in US films throughout the twentieth century. Academy-Award nominated filmmaker Arthur Dong insists, “at its core, the film is about race relations in America.” Using a combination of clips and interviews to tell this history, the documentary challenges persistent stereotypes and caricatures from multiple perspectives on and off screen.

Dong is a natural historian who chronicles nearly a century of cinema from Marion Wong’s The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916) to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) in the span of a feature film. Not seen in the film is Dong’s expansive mental archive. He draws from the personal history and experience of growing up watching “real Chinese films,” a knowledge of which made the racial stereotypes and caricatures he saw in Hollywood films stand out all the more. “It’s not so much that I was offended,” by these portrayals Dong explains, “it was a matter of inquiry. Like, how did they get this image? I knew what the other image was, the one that came from China or Hong Kong.” The collection of images from a lifelong interest in Chinese and American cinema that Dong developed for years finally materialized in this alternative film history. By framing the documentary around the personal stories of many of the actors and actresses who portrayed these figures, the film portrays the experience of “how it is to be Chinese in America.”

Now a part of Hollywood history in its own right, the award-winning Hollywood Chinese is regularly shown in classrooms throughout the country. It even recently debuted in China as part of a new series focused on Chinese American films and the film’s archive of images and memorabilia has been turned into an exhibit. When asked about how the film continues to resonate nearly 10 years after it debuted, Dong says that one need look no further than the recent controversy over anti-Asian jokes at the Oscars in 2016. Such examples emphasize the importance of the struggle for complex representations of racialized characters that documentaries like Hollywood Chinese interrogate.

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