Description from 2007 TIFF catalog by Thom Powers:

“Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown.” That haunting advice, delivered to Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown, encapsulates the western notion of Chinese as separate and mysterious. Hollywood did much to promulgate those stereotypes — when it wasn’t ignoring Asians altogether. Thankfully, director Arthur Dong won’t let us forget. In Hollywood Chinese, he pulls off a massive feat of remembering, not just for Chinese audiences, but for all film lovers.

He interviews top Chinese talent including Ang Lee, Joan Chen, James Hong and others, interweaving a dazzling array of film clips that span the past century. Dong uncovers the 1916 silent film The Curse of Quon Gwon and tells the fascinating story of its director Marion Wong. But her kind of success was rare. For the next several decades, Chinese talent grew accustomed to taking whatever they could get. Amy Tan tells the story of Anna May Wong’s disappointment at losing the Chinese lead in The Good Earth. Nancy Kwan recalls being criticized for playing a prostitute in The World of Suzie Wong. British actor Christopher Lee describes playing Fu Manchu, replicating the epicanthic fold of an Asian eye with painful latex makeup. There’s a surprising montage of other actors playing “yellow face,” including Anthony Quinn, Tony Randall and even John Wayne.

This is no white-washed history — literally or figuratively. Dong flushes out ironies and contradictions, such as the manner in which the franchise success of Charlie Chan felt compromised by its fortune-cookie dialogue. Or how Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song could simultaneously feature inspiring positive representations of Chinese Americans and induce cringes during a song like “Chop Suey.” Director Wayne Wang remembers how the popularity of Enter the Dragon earned him more respect on the playground as a kid, but he notes the kung-fu craze also ushered in a different kind of stereotype. Actor B.D. Wong wrestles with his pride at appearing in Father of the Bride while worrying that he’s “cashing in the Asian-American desexualized chip” for comedy. He observes that Chinese no longer need to take an “us versus them” approach to Hollywood, “we just have to do this for ourselves.”

About the director:
Arthur Dong was born in San Francisco. His documentaries include Sewing Woman (82), Forbidden City, U.S.A. (89), Coming Out Under Fire (94), Licensed to Kill (97), which won the documentary directing award at the Sundance Film Festival, Family Fundamentals (02) and Hollywood Chinese (07).

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