Asian-American Cinema Part V - the 1990s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 26, 2009 11:55am | Post a Comment


In the silent film era, a few Asian-Americans braved decidedly limited opportunities and even attempted to create a cinematic outlet for their voices. By the dawn of the sound era, Asian-American cinema disappeared and Hollywood once again controlled depictions and roles. In the post-war era, roles for Asian-American actors grew in number, if not diversity. As a result, Asian-American theater arose to fill the void, ultimately leading to the rebirth of an authentic Asian-American Cinema that grew slowly over the next two decades before expanding rapidly in the '90s and continuing in the 2000s.


The 1990s were a time of tremendous growth in the Asian-American population, resulting in a notable demographic milestone when Monterey Park became the first Asian-American majority city on the US mainland. It was soon followed by several others, including Cerritos, Cupertino, Daly City, Milpitas and Rowland Heights in California as well as Millbourne in Pennsylvania.

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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."

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Asian-American Cinema Part III - Asian-Americans in Hollywood - The 1950s & 1960s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 24, 2009 04:58pm | Post a Comment
Before the dominance of Hollywood, most Asian-American actors roles were limited to the background and in offensive roles. Two APA actors, Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa, nonetheless became superstars. They and a few other pioneers attempted to produce a genuinely Asian-American Cinema in the silent era.

By the dawn of
the studio era, Hollywood was the dominant voice in American film and Asian-American actors were once again limited to stereotypical roles, often in supporting roles for white actors in yellowface. Largely due to the influence of Asian-American theater and the efforts of those APA players involved, an authentic Asian-American Cinema was reborn in the '70s and '80s, ultimately expanding and diversifying in the 1990s and 2000s.

Asian-American Cinema Part II - Asian-Americans in Hollywood - The 1930s & 1940s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 24, 2009 04:57pm | Post a Comment
If opportunities for Asian-Americans in silent film were decidedly limited, they seem to have actually worsened with the coming of sound. Several actors with Asian origins returned home, no doubt frustrated by the increasing lack of work available to them in American films. The attempts by Marion Wong, Sessue Hawakaya and Anna May Wong to create an alternative to the degrading roles and yellowface of Hollywood had fizzled. For most of the Hollywood studio era, there were few works made by Asian filmmakers and Hollywood controlled depictions of Asians (with the exception of some American made Cantonese-language films exhibited overseas). 

In the 1950s and '60s
, little would change. It wasn't until the decline of the studio system and the birth of Asian-American theater that there would Asian-American Cinema be reborn, ultimately expanding and diversifying in the 1990s and 2000s.

In the 1930s, series' like Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong furthered perceptions of Asian mysteriousness, whilst films like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Good Earth and others suggested that America’s taste for minstrelsy had simply taken on a new shade. Some Asian American actors nonetheless attempted to start careers. Merle Oberon was able to get starring roles after concocting a phony story about her origins and using skin whitening make-up. Philip Ahn, after rejection for speaking English too well, braved death threats after playing Japanese villains. Meanwhile, Anna May Wong worked abroad in less degrading roles.

Asian-American Cinema Part I - Asian-American Silent Film

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 3, 2009 03:00pm | Post a Comment
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 perhaps greater challenges.


In the end, early efforts to establish a viable Asian-American Cinema failed to take hold. Within a few years, the American film industry would be dominated by Hollywood, who during the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s were responsible for most depictions of Asian-Americans. An alternative Asian-American Cinema wouldn't appear until the '70s, taking off in the '80s before growing considerably in breadth and scope in the '90s and '00s.

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