Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

A Chronicle of the Chinese in America

Highlights from Nancy Tong and Sze Wei Ang's presentation at Asia Society Hong Kong on Apr. 13, 2010. (9 min., 6 sec.)

Highlights from Nancy Tong and Sze Wei Ang's presentation at Asia Society Hong Kong on Apr. 13, 2010. (9 min., 6 sec.)

The evening continued with a detour to Chinese in Hollywood. Among the more popular cinematic images of Chinese on American screens was Fu Manchu, created by the British adventure story writer Sax Rohmer in 1913, who was typically portrayed by white actors in "yellowface" with green eyes. A more sympathetic character also emerged at about the same time—the super-detective Charlie Chan. "The character was popularized between [the] 1920s and 1950s, as a reflection of America's goodwill toward China, and the wartime alliance of the two countries against Japan," added Ang. As real Chinese actors rarely landed significant roles in Hollywood, Charlie Chan was first played by a Japanese actor, then a Swedish actor, and then an American actor of Scottish descent.

Anna May Wong, the subject of another of Tong's videos, was one of the best-known Hollywood Chinese actresses. But, prohibited by law from kissing any white actors on screen (not even one in "yellowface"), Wong's roles were limited to stereotypical butterflies or dragon ladies, and she never managed to achieve the stardom of her dreams in either America or in China. 

Tong briefly described the various challenges inherent in documenting so much history in a series of short videos. Because of the museum context they were intended for, Tong explained, "the videos should not dominate [their environment], and should not overwhelm the whole experience. So five minutes—no longer than five minutes. It was a real challenge, because all of these people had a full life—50, 60 years. How do you tell a story in 5 minutes?" To overcome this challenge, Tong's team of prominent screenwriters (which included Ha Jin and Maxine Hong Kingston) needed four months, not counting the additional time necessary for research on the stories all across the US, to finalize the narrative text for the 10 videos.

The subsequent two videos were narrated by the subjects themselves—Sheila Chin Morris and Helen Zia. Morris narrated her own family story, in which her father was a "paper son," one who came to America with papers claiming to be the son of an American Chinese "father" to whom he was unrelated. Like many other "paper sons," Morris' father left his Chinese family behind to go to America with a fictitious identity, only to be revealed when he had a second family formed in America. 

Post-1965 changes in immigration laws gave preference to professionally-trained immigrants, which led to a drastic change in the general perception of Chinese Americans. With the transfer to a knowledge economy in the late 20th century, Asian Americans were seen as desirable—while at the same time their supposed aptitude for economic development was perceived as a potential threat to American workers, Ang explained.

Zia rounded off the evening with a story on Chinese Americans' ongoing struggle to achieve equality and human dignity in contemporary America. "As China emerges as an economic and political power, and as the US economy faces great challenges, Chinese Americans must be both vigilant and outspoken as full participants in American democracy. We must always try to bring our special understanding and experiences in America to every issue that affects the society, because all issues are Chinese American issues, too," Zia concluded.

Reported by Winsome Tam, Asia Society Hong Kong Center

Related link:
Museum of Chinese in America