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Asian-American Cinema Part I - The Silent Era

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 3, 2009 03:00pm | Post a Comment
The first of a nine part series on Asian-Americans in front of and behind the camera

ASIAN-AMERICANS IN SILENT FILM


In the early days of west coast film production, there were few roles for Asian actors except as unflattering stereotypes or anonymous background work. Nonetheless, a small number pursued careers in front of and behind the camera, intersecting and influencing Hollywood's embryonic phase. Although most worked in near complete obscurity, two -- Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa -- became veritable superstars. They still were virtually unable to find roles to their liking, since most of the lead roles (still usually degrading) went to actors in yellowface, a practice that continued long after blackface became taboo. Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa used their earnings to attempt to improve opportunities for less famous Asians by creating more positive depictions, following black cinema's lead. However, with immigration restricted and laws preventing citizenship and property ownership, even the few rich, famous Americanized Asians faced considerable challenges.




ASIAN-AMERICANS IN THE SILENT FILM ERA

In the silent era, most of the APA-related films were low budget, forgettable Chinatown mysteries and crude yellow peril thrillers but they do remain interesting for multiple reasons, including their reflection of changing American attitudes as well as as documents of the efforts of the country's second largest racial minority to break into a system who viewed them as subhuman at worst and as generally as exotic, inscrutable aliens at best.