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Tracing A Century-Long Tradition Of Chinese American Film

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, got snacks? The Academy Awards are today, the capstone event to the awards season in Hollywood that began with the Golden Globes.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2020 GOLDEN GLOBES)

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: And the Golden Globe goes to Awkwafina.

MARTIN: She was accepting best actress in a musical or comedy for her role in "The Farewell," a Chinese American family drama. With the win, Awkwafina became the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe in a lead actress category. But this was just the latest milestone in the century-long tradition of Chinese filmmaking in America. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch podcast has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Historian and documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong's entire career has been propelled by the passion to answer one question.

ARTHUR DONG: Where in the history of entertainment do Chinese and Chinese Americans fit in?

BATES: He's attempted to answer that through the years via several documentaries, including "Hollywood Chinese" and a new book by the same name that looks at Chinese and American feature films. Dong was born and raised in San Francisco's Chinatown in the '50s and '60s. He says it was a thriving community that gave him cultural reinforcement daily.

DONG: Within a five or six-block radius, we had five movie theaters, and all of them played Chinese-language films imported from Hong Kong and then from Taiwan afterwards.

BATES: These films were made for Chinese audiences and often drew on Chinese books or plays. But even before that, Dong says, films were being made in Chinatowns for immigrant audiences. For example, San Francisco-born Marion Wong produced "The Curse Of Quon Gwon" during World War I. Dong says Marion Wong did everything.

DONG: She produced it. She directed it. She wrote it. And she also was an actress in it.

BATES: But that drama about Chinese family life in the West never found a distributor. It will would four decades later that a film starring an all-Asian cast made its Hollywood debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLOWER DRUM SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) When I have a brand new hairdo with my eyelashes all in curls. I float as the clouds on air do. I enjoy being a girl.

BATES: "Flower Drum Song," the movie adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway hit, opened in 1961. Americans fell in love with lead actress Nancy Kwan and the film's romantic comedy of errors. In the documentary "Hollywood Chinese," playwright David Henry Hwang explains why it took so long to have Chinese leads in American films.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOLLYWOOD CHINESE")

DAVID HENRY HWANG: This whole idea of trying to grasp the notion that someone can be Asian and American seems to be a difficult conundrum, both for American culture as a whole and then reflected within movies.

BATES: Then came 1993, when Amy Tan's bestselling novel "The Joy Luck Club" became a movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JOY LUCK CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) My mother started The Joy Luck Club. For 30 years, these women feasted, forgot past wrongs, laughed, played, lost and won and told the best stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOLLYWOOD CHINESE")

AMY TAN: This was a test, I think, for Hollywood.

BATES: That's author Amy Tan in the documentary "Hollywood Chinese."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOLLYWOOD CHINESE")

TAN: And we were so gratified that the box office, the receipts, the ticket sales, the reviews were great.

BATES: Individual Asians and Asian Americans were working, but it would be 25 more years before another American big-budget movie with an all-Asian cast would be made, again to huge success.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIOUS")

SKYLAR GREY: (Singing) I feel glorious, glorious.

BATES: "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by John M. Chu, was the highest-grossing rom-com in almost a decade, more than $238 million worldwide. That certainly got Hollywood's attention, but for all its acclaim, another film with Chinese leads, "The Farewell," did not get a single Oscar nomination. Still, filmmaker Arthur Dong is encouraged.

DONG: Has the dam been broken? I'm not sure. But there are good things happening.

BATES: And he hopes that will continue. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.