The Evolution of Chinese and Asian Faces in Hollywood

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.The Formosa Cafe in Los Angeles first opened its doors in 1939 and was a frequent watering hole for people in the movie industry. It was renovated, restored and opened on June 28, 2019 serving Chinese food. (E. Lee/VOA)“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.”Chinese stereotypesIn 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
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“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.FILE – Author Kevin Kwan, right, and cast members Henry Golding and Constance Wu pose at the premiere for “Crazy Rich Asians” in Los Angeles, Aug. 7, 2018.Asian actors in modern-day HollywoodOver 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 Grauman’s Chinese Theatre opened in 1927 in Hollywood. It has also been named Mann’s Chinese Theatre and in 2013, it was renamed the TCL Chinese Theatre after a Chinese electronics manufacturer who has 10-year naming rights to the building.The China factorHollywood 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.