Arthur Dong’s Films Spotlight Asian American And Queer History
By Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt
When I was an impressionable 14-year-old, my mom’s side of the family went to an independent theater to see Arthur Dong’s Hollywood Chinese (2008). My family always made a point of seeing movies that featured prominent Asian actors — for example, I remember we watched Memoirs of a Geisha together (which was, understandably, a disappointment to all of us). But Dong’s work was different; it was a documentary, one of the first I’d seen.
Arthur Dong’s work as a filmmaker and historiographer has been central to my own understanding of Asian American cinema, labor, and identity. It took me a while to realize that all the great documentaries I’d been recommending to Chinese American friends — who, like me, were disappointed by the lack of Asian American representation in film and the perceived lack of Asian American filmmakers — were created by Arthur Dong. While Hollywood Chinese taught me that the film industry had not and might never truly support Chinese or Asian American artists or care about us as filmgoers, it also showed me that there was progress to be made while keeping an eye on the past. It gave me the historical framework I needed in order to understand what “whitewashing” means and why representation matters.
That documentary was the springboard for my interest in film history, Asian American history, and popular media through the lens of critical race theory (which eventually led to a senior thesis on actress Anna May Wong). Hollywood Chinese seems especially pertinent today, given the ongoing conversation about the whiteness of Hollywood and what should be done about it. It’s easy to feel disenchanted with what’s missing from the media we consume; to feel weary of the evolution and repetition of stereotypes based on race, culture, gender, and class. It’s because of these problems that I return again and again to Arthur Dong’s work, especially Hollywood Chinese and Forbidden City, USA (1989): His films remind me of the artists that have come before us, the labor they undertook.
Dong’s original goal was to be a film historian. “A love for film history has influenced my films, [which] are archival-based [and] history-based,” he tells me in a phone interview. “When I was younger (and even today), I’d watch vintage movies. I would be transported to a period decades before I was born. That’s fascinating. It’s magical.”
Dong’s respectful treatment of historical documents, as well as his clear delight in including them, is most striking in Hollywood Chinese, which includes a segment on the first Chinese American silent film. The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916–17), directed by Marion Wong, was entirely produced by Chinese Americans in Oakland. While it is only partially preserved, Dong uses many clips of the film to give an overall sense of the plot while also showcasing its aesthetic and formal achievements. The historical weight of Marion Wong’s work — and Dong’s own work to bring it to light for a more contemporary audience — was not lost on me, even at the age of 14. As an Oakland native whose grandmother lives in Oakland’s Chinatown, I remember how affirming it was for me to learn the story of a Chinese American woman who wrote, directed, and starred in her own film in my community.
I still find extraordinary comfort and inspiration in the fact that, a full century ago, Chinese American filmmakers were striving to make media specifically for and about us. A complaint you often hear from some in the Asian American community is that “they” won’t “let us” have starring roles in movies and television shows; that there are, in short, no options for us. In Hollywood Chinese, Dong shows us the importance of remembering and preserving Asian American history, media, and art. The work he has done to excavate and share this history should remind us that we cannot rely on big-budget studios to give us the roles we want: we have to engage with and be aware of our own history, and tell our own stories.
The next time I was exposed to Arthur Dong’s work was in a class I took on Asian Americans and the media at UC Santa Cruz. My professor showed us a clip of Dong’s film Forbidden City, USA, which I was also fortunate enough to hear Dong speak about during a panel at the Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest in 2015. One of the first Chinese American nightclubs in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Forbidden City was novel in its swing music and revue acts featuring Chinese American performers. Beyond the sheer delight of seeing vintage glamor shots of Chinese American faces in this film, there’s something quite novel — even now — in seeing Chinese Americans tap-dance, or sing like Frank Sinatra with a big band.
While Dong’s film tells the stories of a handful of surviving performers, in our interview he told me that it chronicles a small slice of gay and lesbian Chinese American history as well. Even though this film addresses only one brief chapter in Chinese American history, Dong tells me that a few queer scholars have also picked up on the gay and lesbian performers in the film. “In sections that reflected a gay sensibility [in the subject of the film], I’d find a way to project that, even without saying the word ‘gay,’” he tells me. There were moments, he explains, when an interview subject for the film would ask Dong not to include discussion of their sexuality in the film: “They would turn the mic off, you know, and say, ‘This is just for you.’ And I had to honor that request. When I create someone’s story onscreen, I need to keep in mind that they honored me by opening up to me.”
The film was especially important to Dong as a gay Chinese American director from San Francisco’s Chinatown. Dong asked that the premiere of Forbidden City, USA, which was to be held at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, be co-hosted by CAAM (then the National Asian American Telecommunications Association) and a LGBTQ organization. “I wanted to bring these two communities together,” he says, “so [CAAM] agreed, and they worked with [a local] AIDS organization, and it was wonderful.”
Dong later directed the 1994 film Coming Out Under Fire, which tells the story of gay and lesbian soldiers who served in World War II. When it was shown at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, Dong urged Asian American media organizations to support it. It was very important to him that Asian Americans filmgoers see “a gay film made by a gay Asian filmmaker” — because, as Dong says, “I straddle these two communities.” Several of his other works, such as Licensed to Kill, The Question of Equality, and Family Fundamentals, have shone a spotlight on queer history and issues affecting the LGBTQ community.
In 2015, Arthur Dong’s most recent film, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, was released, and he also received spotlight recognitions from CAAM, Visual Communications, and Asian CineVision. [The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor will be shown this month as a part of DOCWorld, a new showcase of nonfiction storytelling from around the globe. It will air September 18, 2016 on public media’s WORLD Channel; check listings for more information.]
At a time when the whitewashing of social justice movements, cinematic history, and contemporary movies remains so common, revisiting Arthur Dong’s work offers both comfort and food for thought. His films reanimate different pieces of history and encourage contemporary viewers to examine our present. What Dong has shown us throughout his career as a filmmaker and historian is that our desire for media representation for our communities doesn’t necessarily have to begin or end with Hollywood feature films. There’s plenty of material, plenty of stories, and plenty of history we can already access.
“History gives me a sense of where we are today, and it also gives us perspective,” Dong says. “So to be a progressive, to be a fighter for change, it’s important to know your history.” As we think about how far we still have to go in terms of representation in film, perhaps we can find some solace in the important historiographical work that Arthur Dong has already done for us — and let it inspire us to strive for better.
Images: Arthur Dong and cameraman Allan Barrett filming on location in London, courtesy of Young Gee and Arthur Dong; Mai Tai Sing, Jade Ling, Larry Ching, Diane Shinn, and an unidentified performer at the Forbidden City Nightclub in the 1940s, courtesy of Arthur Dong.