Asian-American Cinema Part IV - Asian-American Cinema - 1970s and 1980s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 25, 2009 04:16pm | Post a Comment

After short-lived attempts in the silent era to establish an Asian-American Cinema, for most of the in the first and second halves of the studio era, Hollywood single-handedly created and controlled almost all celluloid images of Asian-Americans. With the beginnings of Asian-American theater in the 1960s and its growth in the 1970s coinciding with the decline of the Hollywood studio system, all that began to change with the rebirth of Asia-American Cinema, albeit slowly at first. Only in the 1990s and 2000s has a large and diverse Asian-American cinema, Asian-American theater and Asian-American comedy scene truly flourished -- offering a viable alternative to Hollywood's continued stereotypes and ongoing homogeneity.

Orphaned Cambodian Children Vietnamese Boat People


In the 1970s, more than 130,000 refugees arrived from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, drastically changing the make-up of the Asian-American population. Broadly speaking, this wave of immigrants had more in common socio-economically speaking with most blacks, Latinos and Natives; therein challenging the mid '60s-born concept of Asians as "the model minority."


The growth of Asian-American theater provided an outlet for APA Actors who found themselves out of work in Hollywood after a brief post-war fetishistic period in the studio era. During the decade, new APA theater groups including New York's Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and Asian American Theater Company and San Francisco's Theatre of Yugen encouraged a new generation to pursue acting. As a result,  first time in many years Asian-Americans began to appear on TV and films in increasing numbers, in roles that occasionally challenged the stereotypes and bit parts they'd been relegated to in mainstream America.
Frank Chin Wakako Yamauchi


On TV in the '70s, Hawaiia Five-0, Kung-Fu and M*A*S*H often featured Asian-American actors, albeit most often in non-recurring bit parts. However, Mr. T & Tina, starring Pat Morita, became only the second American TV series to star an Asian-American actor. Frank Chin's Year of the Dragon and Wakako Yamauchi's And the Soul Shall Dance were both adapted for television productions from plays.


Following the popularity of San Francisco-born Bruce Lee, many APA actors found themselves cast in  martial arts-centered roles and still usually as portraying foreigners rather than Americans. But with the rebirth of Asian-American Cinema (actually made by Asian-Americans) that would begin to change.

Robert Akira Nakamura
Robert Akira Nakamura

In 1970, Robert Akira Nakamura founded Visual Communications, which is today the oldest community-based media arts center in the US. The acclaimed filmmaker and teacher is sometimes known as“the Godfather of Asian American media.” Nakamura was previously a photojournalist who switched to documentary film, Manzanar (1972), an examination of the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans.

Loni DingLoni Ding
Loni Ding

In 1974, Loni Ding produced and directed Willie Lobo: Manchild about a black Vietnam vet. It was the first feature film directed by an Asian-American since (coincidentally, another Chinese-American female) Marion Wong's The Curse of Quon Gwon in 1916.

Curtis Choy
Curtis Choy

In 1976, Curtis X Choy (aka Chonk Moonhunter) began directing documentaries, beginning with Dupont Guy – The Schiz of Grant Avenue, an examination of Chinese-American culture.

In 1978, the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) was founded in New York City. 

Before long, other Asian-Americans filmmakers followed in these pioneers' footsteps, telling stories with their own voices and offering a growing alternative to Hollywood.


Art Malik Christina Kokubo  Clyde Kusatsu
             Art Malik                                Christina Kokubo                                                       Clyde Kusatsu 

Dana Lee Evan C. Kin Freda Foh Shen
                    Dana Lee                                      Evan C. Kim                                           Freda Foh Shen 

George Cheung Huanani Minn James Saito
                      George Cheung                                                   Haunani Minn                                    James Saito 

Joan Chen Keenan Shimizu Ken Narasaki
            Joan Chen                                     Keenan Shimizu                                                 Ken Narasaki

Marilyn Tokuda Michael Paul Chan Moe Keale
            Marilyn Tokuda                                    Michael Paul Chan                                                   Moe Keale

Peter Kwong Ranjit Chowdry Richard Lee-Sung
            Peter Kwong                          Ranjit Chowdhry                                          Richard Lee-Sung

Rosalind Chao Sab Shimono Shizuko Hoshi
                         Rosalind Chao                                  Sab Shimono                                     Shizuko Hoshi 

Takayo Fishcer Tzi Ma Wood Moy
        Takayo Fischer                            Tzi Ma                                                                  Wood Moy

Not pictured: Denice Kumagai, Diane Takei, Michael Hasegawa, Pat Li and Peter Yoshida


The Hawaiians 1970 One More Train to Rob  Nakamura's Manzanar
The Hawaiians (1970), One More Train to Rob (1971), Manzanar (1971)

Tino's Lost Horizon 1973 The Dynamite Brothers
Tino's (1972), Lost Horizon (1973), The Dynamite Brothers (1974)

 Making Up Yakuza 
Making Up (1974), Yakuza (1974), The Year of the Dragon (1975), 

Cruisin' J-Town Dupont Guy - The Schiz of Grant Avenue
Cruisin' J-Town (1975) Dupont Guy - the Schiz of Gray Avenue (1976)

 Go Tell the Spartans Manongs - Tenants of the I-Hote
  Go Tell the Spartans (1978) Manongs - Tenants of the I-Hotel (1979)

Not pictured: Chinatown 2-Step and Kung Fu (both 1972) Pieces of a Dream (1973) I Told You So, Judgement - The Court Martial of the Tiger of Malaya - General Yamashita, Men of the Dragon, Omai Fa'atasi - Samoa Mo Samoa and To Be Me - Tony Quon (all 1974) City, City, The Journey, Kites and Other Tales and Wataridori - Birds of Passage (all 1975) Farewell to Manzanar (1976) And the Soul Shall Dance (1978) and When Hell Was in Session (1979)


In the 1980s, the Asian-American population grew radically, with over 2.5 million immigrants joining the already large, native-born, Asian-American population. Nonetheless, Asian-Americans continued to be disproportionately underrepresented on the silver screen.


On the stage, David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly was the first Asian-American play to appear on Broadway. Other successful Asian playwrights followed, including Philip Kan Gotanda and Velina Hasu Houston. New APA theaters were founded too, including Cold Tofu Arts and Entertainment/Theatre in Los AngelesNew York's Ma-Yi Theater Company and National Asian American Theatre Company, and the Asian Story Theater in San Diego.


Whilst in Hollywood most Asian males were invariably cast as fortune-cookie mystics and ninjas, a new stereotype emerged for younger Asian males; the studious, awkward and almost always heavily-accented Asian nerd (e.g. Long Duck Dong, Data Wang, Toshiro Takashi, Vinh Kelly, &c). One notable exception to the young Asian nerd stereotype in Hollywood is Dustin Nguyen as Harry Truman Ioki on 21 Jump Street. In 1987, Pat Morita stars on the TV show Ohara, the third series with an Asian lead.


Asian American media arts organizations including Los Angeles' Visual Communications and New York's Asian CineVision began producing Asian American works.

                                  Wayne Wang                                                                               Steve Okazaki

Wayne Wang
's Chan is Missing, made in 1982, although not the first APA film, ushered in a new era. Not only was this feature film directed by an Asian-American, but it was the first to feature a mostly Asian-American cast since 1961's Flower Drum Song. But unlike that film, it was also made for a largely Asian-American audience and therefore didn't engage in exotification, dehumanization or fetishization intrinsic to Hollywood portrayals. 

                              Jon Moritsugu                                           Gregg Araki                               Roddy Bogawa

Several independent Asian-American directors began their career shortly after: Jon Moritsugu, Gregg Araki, Peter Wang, Roddy Bogawa and Steven Okazaki. Whereas some films, like Peter Wang's A Great Wall, followed the fairly formulaic traditions of the "assimilation drama," focusing on inter-generational conflict within Asian-America, the films of the so-called Bad Boys (Moritsugu, Araki and Bogawa) -- when they dealt with race -- generally favored an approach to the subject that was, at most, eliptical. The '80s were also the first documentaries began to appear that dealt with the indignities suffered by Asian-Americans in the past.

Christine Choy Renee Tajima-Peñ                                   Christine Choy                                                                         Renee Tajima-Peña

In the world of documentaries, Christine Choy debuted with 1984’s Mississippi Triangle, about black, white and Chinese-Americans in the delta. Renee Tajima-Peña made her directorial debut with collaboration with Choy, Who Killed Vincent Chin?


Ajay Naidu Alannah Ong Amy Hill
                 Ajay Naidu                                            Alannah Ong                                             Amy Hill 

April Hong Art Chudabala Bai Ling
                       April Hong                                        Art Chudabala                                            Bai Ling 

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa Chi Muoi Lo Chris Tashima
                Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa                                 Chi Muoi Lo                                   Chris Tashima  

Collin Chou Danny Kamekona Dante Basco
               Collin Chou                                                 Danny Kamekona                                      Dante Basco  

David Chung Dennis Dun Dustin Nguyen
             David Chung                                                    Dennis Dun                                                     Dustin Nguyen  

 Elizabeth Sung Emily Kuroda Eriko Tamura 
           Elizabeth Sung                                                   Emily Kuroda                                        Eriko Tamura  

Galen Yuen Gedde Watanabe Jacqueline Kim 
                Galen Yuen                                                  Gedde Watanabe                                   Jacqueline Kim 

Jason Scott Lee Jeanne Sakata Jeff Imada 
         Jason Scott Lee                                               Jeanne Sakata                                              Jeff Imada 

 Jennifer Paz Jim Lau Jonathan Ke Quan 
        Jennifer Paz                                                Jim Lau                                                      Jonathan Ke Quan            

Karen Tsen Lee Kelly Hu Kelvin Han Yee
         Karen Tsen Lee                                                        Kelly Hu                                        Kelvin Han Yee      

Lane Nishikawa Lauren Tom Les Mau
         Lane Nishikawa                                            Lauren Tom                                              Les J.N. Mau  

Long Nguyen Lori Tan Chinn Ming-Na
              Long Nguyen                                      Lori Tan Chinn                                               Ming-Na   

Paul J.Q. Lee Philip Moon Russell Wong
             Paul J.Q. Lee                                            Philip Moon                                                  Russell Wong

 Russell Yuen Sakina Jaffrey Sandra Oh
            Russell Yuen                                           Sakina Jaffrey                                              Sandra Oh  

  Shuko Akune Stan Egi Stephen Chang
             Shuko Akune                                        Stan Egi                                                   Stephen Chang     

  Tamlyn Tomita Traci Toguchi Veena Sood
                        Tamlyn Tomita                                         Traci Toguchi                                Veena Sood         

  Vivian Wu Youki Kudoh
                   Vivian Wu 
                                                     Youki Kudoh

Not pictured: Akira Takayama, April Tran, Clint Jung, Diane Cheng, Ed Hong-Louie, Emily Woo Yamasaki, Glenn Kubota, Henry Yuk,  Ho Lo, Jadin Wong, Jennie Yee, Kay Tong Lim, Kerry Yo Nakagawa, Marc Hayashi, Mohan Gokhale, Paul J.Q. Lee, Ronald Yamamoto, Saachiko Magwili, Shinko Isobe, Steven Chen, Steve Park, Vien Hong and Wai Ching Ho 

Hito Hata - Raise the Banner AfterbirthHito Hata - Raise the Banner (1980), Afterbirth (1981)
Chan is Missing Four Women Monterey's Boat PeopleChan is Missing (1982), Four Women (1982), Monterey's Boat People (1982)
On New Ground Sewing WomanOn New Ground (1982), Sewing Woman (1982)
The Fall of the I-Hotel Fool's Dance
The Fall of the I-Hotel (1983), Fools Dance (1983)

Jazz Is My Native Language - A Portrait of Toshiko Akiyoshi Dollar a Day, Ten Cents a Dance
Jazz Is My Native Language - A Portrait of Toshiko Akiyoshi (1983), Dollar a Day, Ten Cents a Dance (1984)

Dim Sum - A Little Bit of Heart The New Puritans - The Sikhs of Yuba City
Dim Sum (1985), The New Puritans - The Sikhs of Yuba City (1985), 
Unfinished Business (1985)

 The Year of the Ox - The 1973 Chinatown Livestock Show Snipers in Trees Yuki Shimoda - Asian American Actor
The Year of the Ox (1985), Snipers in Trees (1985), Yuki Shimoda - Asian American Actor (1985)

 All Orientals Look the Same Manilatown Lives! A Great Wall
All Orientals Look the Same (1986), Manilatown Lives! (1986), A Great Wall (1986)
China Girl movie poster Living on Tokyo time movie poster New Year
China Girl (1987), Living on Tokyo Time (1987), New Year (1987),

Who Killed Vincent Chin?Blue Collar and Buddha
Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), Blue Collar and Buddha (1988),

The Color of Honor Carved in Silence
The Color of Honor (1988), Carved in Silence (1988)
Dim Sum - Take-Out East of Occidental - The History of Seattle’s Chinatown
Dim Sum - Take-Out (1988), East of Occidental - The History of Seattle’s Chinatown (1988), 

In No One's Shadow - Filipinos in America Family Gathering
Family Gathering (1988), In No One's Shadow - Filipinos in America (1988), Family Gathering (1988)

Island of Secret Memories 1988 Lotus
Island of Secret Memories (1988), Lotus (1988), 

Slaying the Dragon China Diary
Slaying the Dragon (1988), China Diary (1989)

Color of Honor 1989 Eat a Bowl of Tea
 Color of Honor (1989), Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) 
Not Pictured: Frankly Speaking (1982), Freckled Rice (1983), Mississippi Triangle and Talking History (both 1984), Blind Alleys (1985), Conversations - Before the War/After the War and Permanent Wave (both 1986), Pak Bueng on Fire (1987) and The Price You Pay (1988)      
Become a fan of Eric's Blog on Facebook!

Relevant Tags

1970s (41), Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (53), Minorities (6), Asian-american Cinema (11), Asian-american Theater (4), Independent Film (5), 1980s (49), Asian-americans (37), Korean-americans (15), Television (44), Japanese-americans (14), Hollywood (75), Chinese-americans (15), Vietnamese-americans (12), Indie Film (4)