LOS ANGELES - One of the first stops for a tourist in Los Angeles is the TCL Chinese Theatre next to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Originally called Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it opened in 1927 and is a remnant of Hollywood’s fascination with the Orient in the early days of the U.S. film industry.
“When film was first invented — and we’re talking about the late 1800s, early 1900s — it expanded the visual minds of its audiences,” said Chinese American filmmaker and author Arthur Dong. He added, “Audiences were given this exotic glimpse of a land unknown to them, and I think that it started there.”
Dong curated old photos of Chinese American actors for the newly restored Formosa Café, an iconic Hollywood nightclub and bar that opened in 1939. With red leather booth chairs and tables surrounded by old photos on the walls, the back room of the Formosa Café looks like a museum commemorating the work of Chinese Americans and their role 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, “especially the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s, where I saw Chinese characters on screen. But they were always playing servants, coolies, laundry man. And if they were women, they were prostitutes or servants.”
In his new book, “Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films,” Dong looked at Hollywood’s portrayal of Chinese characters and the Chinese culture. Stereotypes of the Chinese in America were perpetuated by the otherness of U.S. Chinatowns in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where people had different customs.
During that time in history, political tensions between the West and China climaxed with the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, an uprising against the spread of Western influences in China.
WATCH: Hollywood Movies Reflecting Changes in How Asians are Portrayed
“With all of this history came a perception of the Chinese as the ‘yellow peril,’ the sinister Chinese, the Chinese that you couldn’t trust. And that resulted in the character called Fu Manchu,” Dong explained.
Fu Manchu, a villain who wanted to destroy the Western world, ended up on the big screen and in a television series.
In 1926, Charlie Chan, a Chinese detective from Hawaii, appeared on the big screen. It was a role that created a different, yet still problematic Asian stereotype.
“He was smart and wise, but he was also very Oriental in the worst sense in that he was passive,” Dong said. “He was quiet. He was smart — smarter than anybody else, which is a good attribute, 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 they were largely played by Caucasian actors made up to look Asian. Actors Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter Ustinov and Ross Martin all portrayed Charlie Chan.
“Yellow face — meaning they actually, literally yellowed up their skin,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.” “They usually slanted their eyes with prosthetics. They did it in a way that was to make fun of, that was to make Chinese and Asians look as sinister or as buffoonish as possible, and that kind of portrayal reproduced the stereotypes that were existent in society. But I would say also exacerbated the nativism and xenophobia that people had.”
Caucasian actors also played the lead roles in the 1937 film about rural Chinese farmers, “The Good Earth.” Though Asian actors received parts in the film, “it’s overshadowed by this yellow-face casting of the main actors,” Dong said. “In the ‘30s, that was a norm. That’s what Hollywood was doing. Part of it was because they needed bankable actors, and there were no Asian American bankable actors.”
Chinese American actress Anna Mae Wong wanted to play the female lead in “The Good Earth,” but she did not get the role.
“The reason why Anna Mae Wong wasn’t cast was because of this production law that was part of Hollywood. The industry itself put up a production law, and part of the clause was this anti-miscegenation clause that said that you could not have interracial romances on-screen,” said Yuen.
Asian actors in modern-day Hollywood
Over the decades, Asian and Chinese Americans did find work in Hollywood, and a few earned a star on the Hollywood Walk for Fame, such as Anna Mae Wong, Keye Luke, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu.
However, some movie fans have recently been critical on social media about movies where white actors are cast in leading roles that they believe should have gone to Asian actors. The movies include “Aloha,” the 2015 film where Emma Stone played Allison Ng, a character of Asian descent, and the 2017 film “Ghost in the Shell,” where Scarlett Johansson played a leading role based on a Japanese anime character.
The 2018 movie “Crazy Rich Asians” hit the big screen with a majority Asian cast, an Asian American director and an Asian as one of the writers. The movie became a milestone 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,” Dong said. “What is different is that the Asian American community won’t sit back. Filmmakers are being nurtured. Attitudes are being nurtured and strengthened where we won’t take that yellow-face casting anymore, where we won’t take that kind of whitewashing attitude of making an Asian character white.”
People on social media are not only holding Hollywood accountable for its portrayal of Asians, technology is also opening doors for Asian Americans to tell stories on their own terms.
“We have so many more platforms. There’s the Netflix. There is the Amazon Primes and the Hulus. And we have streaming platforms. We have YouTube,” Yuen said.
With Asian Americans being the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., a new generation of Asian American artists can use the different digital platforms to tell stories without being boxed in a stereotype.
The China factor
Hollywood is also changing its portrayal of Chinese and the Chinese culture because of the China factor.
As the biggest consumer market outside the U.S., Hollywood has been making movies that would not offend Chinese audiences. The industry has been careful not to portray the Chinese as villains.
Joint productions between Hollywood and Chinese production companies, such as the animated feature film “Abominable,” put Chinese characters and China in a favorable light.
“That’s where I would like to see the future of Chinese-U.S. collaborations, is that there is more space for both. So that both countries can feel like there’s something familiar to them. And I think that would open up more roles for Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, in general,” Yuen said.