Changing portrayals of Chinese in Hollywood
From films like The Good Earth, a story about a Chinese family played by American actors to recent productions such as the Kung Fu Panda series, China has always been an aspiration for Hollywood. Though there was a lack of Asian faces on the big screen a few decades ago, many Chinese people in the film industry have become universal household names, such as Ang Lee and Jacky Chan, to name a few.
"Don't forget a film can be a reflection of the time we are living in," said Christopher Lee in Hollywood Chinese. Lee played the evil genius in the Fu Manchu series. The changes on the big screen reflect changes in society, in both China and the US.
Beijing American Center held a screening this Monday for the film, Hollywood Chinese (2007) directed by Chinese American Arthur Dong.
This documentary, which includes interviews with director Ang Lee, actress Nancy Kwan from The World of Suzie Wong, actress Joan Chen and many other industry insiders in Hollywood, focuses on the portrayal of Chinese in feature films and the experiences shared by Chinese and Chinese-Americans working in Hollywood.
According to film historian Stephen Gong, in earlier times, China was limited to two kinds of subjects, either a representation of the oldest civilization in the world or a depiction as the "other" in big cities, like Chinatown.
The impression of Chinese people in Hollywood movies used to be either unfavorable stereotypes like the Fu Manchu character or a caricature of a submissive person who needed to be saved.
Director Wayne Wang recalled that earlier films like The Inn of Sixth Happiness and The Sand Pebbles all portrayed Westerners going to China to save the people.
"But this will get better and is already better than before," said Vivian Wu.
Known for her roles in films such as The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club, The Pillow Book and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Wu is a respected Chinese actress in Hollywood. She has been content with the roles she played.
Roles for Chinese actors have gradually become more well rounded and less stereotypical.
"Lisa Lu was part of the first generation, I would say. In her time, roles were strange," Wu said.
She said that Asians account for a small percentage in US, but they are a substantial group.
"I can only try to communicate and let them know what I know about China. Sometimes they take your advice, and sometimes they don't," Wu said.
She added that she was fired once, for giving too much advice on how to portray a Chinese policewoman on a TV show.
Wu said that it is sometimes difficult to judge a representation.
"Amy Tan, the author of The Joy Luck Club, never spent any time in China while she was writing the book. But I loved her book and it didn't matter how true it is, because some messages are universal," said Wu.
Nicole Ding, who works in Hollywood as a freelance photographer said she didn't think representations have changed much, though portrayals reflect how a society feels about Chinese audiences and Chinese culture.
"In the end, it is up to us to [counter] negative or boring portraits of Chinese people in films and for us to make changes," Ding said.