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A look at Hollywood's China syndrome

Among the earliest Chinese-American films made in Hollywood were 1916's ''The Curse of Quon Gwon,'' directed by Marion Wong (left) and starring Violet Wong (right), and 1921's ''Lotus Blossom,'' starring Lady Tsen Mei (below). Among the earliest Chinese-American films made in Hollywood were 1916's ''The Curse of Quon Gwon,'' directed by Marion Wong (left) and starring Violet Wong (right), and 1921's ''Lotus Blossom,'' starring Lady Tsen Mei (below). (Deepfocus Productions)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 27, 2009
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It's one of the great closing lines in movie history, "Come on, Jake. It's . . . Chinatown." Those words, spoken to Jack Nicholson in, of course, "Chinatown," suggest all too accurately the sheer otherness of the Chinese experience as seen by Hollywood.

That otherness has run the gamut. Patronizing, reductive depictions of China ("The Good Earth," say) have gone hand in hand with Chinese-American stereotypes (cooks and laundry operators mostly, with the occasional opium smoker, for variety's sake, and, more recently, kung fu masters). The most famous Chinese and Chinese-American characters have been shameless caricatures - Fu Manchu, for example, and Charlie Chan.

As for the industry itself, the place of Chinese-Americans has been limited, but also notable, unexpected, and perplexing. How notable? Although few might recognize the name of James Wong Howe, the two-time Oscar winner was a Chinese immigrant as well as one of the leading cinematographers of Hollywood's Golden Age. How unexpected? As early as 1916, Marion Wong, a Chinese-American actress, directed "The Curse of Quon Gwon." How perplexing? Chinese actors worked steadily during World War II - most often playing Japanese villains.

So this is a subject at once rich and complex, encompassing social history and racial politics no less than film history. It's a challenge to make sense of material that includes Bruce Lee, Ang Lee, and Christopher Lee (he starred in five Fu Manchu pictures). But "Hollywood Chinese," which airs tonight at 9 on Channel 2 as part of PBS's "American Masters" series, manages to do it. The documentary is smart, lively, and informative.

Certain key titles stand out. "The World of Suzie Wong" (1960) and "Flower Drum Song" (1961) were breakthrough films in their treatment of Chinese and Chinese-American characters, respectively. Yet how limited the breakthrough was is underscored by Wayne Wang's "Chan Is Missing" (1982) and "The Joy Luck Club" (1993), vastly more nuanced renderings of Chinese-American life.

Wang is among numerous talking heads featured in "Hollywood Chinese." So are Nancy Kwan, the star of both "Suzie Wong" and "Flower Drum Song"; Amy Tan, the author of "The Joy Luck Club"; actor-director Joan Chen; writer David Henry Hwang; actors B.D. Wong and James Hong (who offers a very nice Peter Lorre imitation); and film historian Stephen Gong, who is especially insightful.

It's startling to realize how many Western stars have had Chinese roles. (Christopher Lee is enlightening on how a bit of latex needs to be applied to the inner corner of the eyelid for a Westerner to appear Asian.) None of the actors who played Charlie Chan was Asian. We see clips of Boris Karloff, Anthony Quinn, Tony Randall, and Katharine Hepburn (!) acting Chinese. One of the highlights of "Hollywood Chinese" is getting to see Luise Rainier, still vigorous at 99, talk about her Oscar-winning role in "The Good Earth."

The global success of Chinese film has brought to Hollywood the likes of Ang Lee, John Woo, and Jackie Chan. Unlike Chinese-Americans, such figures have never had to deal with issues like dual identity or American stereotyping. "There's no Asian cultural dismissal in their lexicon," B.D. Wong notes. In some ways, it's easier in Hollywood today being Chinese than Chinese-American.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

AMERICAN MASTERS: Hollywood Chinese On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight 9-10:30.

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