On July 1, Dong will do a virtual book talk about Hollywood Chinese, sponsored by Friends of the American Chinese Museum, and moderated by veteran film producer Janet Yang (The Joy Luck Club, The People vs. Larry Flynt). This event is free, but registration is required. For information, click here.
What can you tell me about your childhood as a moviegoer, and how your tastes developed?
Ever since I can remember, I was taken to the movies by my parents. Now, we lived in Chinatown, San Francisco, and when I was much younger, when I was growing up—we’re talking about the 1950s and 1960s—there were five movie theaters in Chinatown. It was a small neighborhood, only a five or six block radius, and they all showed Chinese films, imports from Hong Kong. Those are the movies that I grew up with.
I’m bilingual. We spoke Chinese at home except with my siblings. We spoke English. With my parents, we spoke Chinese and I went to Chinese school, although I also went to English school as well, so I had both. So the movies I grew up with and knew since birth were Chinese movies. In terms of representation, my foundations were different stories and characters that were all Chinese, and they all looked like me, and they ran the gamut of representation.
As I got into my teen years, I started going to Hollywood films, and because particularly in San Francisco, there were a lot of repertory theaters at that time. We’re talking about the ‘60s now. They showed classic Hollywood films, so I started branching out my taste to Hollywood films. And also at that time, the 60s, TV was pretty much limited to the three big networks plus some local stations, but they always ran classic Hollywood films. I remember in the mornings, especially, that’s when I saw a lot of classic Hollywood films. I remember watching “Citizen Kane” in 1968 while I was watching the Chicago demonstrations at the Democratic Convention. Channel 7, ABC, ran the Apu Trilogy three weekends in a row, Sunday Night at the Movies. It’s crazy, right? So from childhood, having been brought up with a foundation of Chinese-language films and the full range of representation of characters that were played by Chinese, real Chinese, speaking Chinese on the screen, I grew up to also embrace Hollywood films, and with the help of TV and repertory theaters in San Francisco.
Was it kind of a reverse culture shock going from an early diet of Chinese cinema and then switching over to Hollywood, where there were so few people who looked like you?
I don’t remember a culture shock. I remember a thrill. The films that came out of Hong Kong, particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s…the budgets were limited. It wasn’t bad, the industry in Hong Kong, but compared to Hollywood films, Hong Kong films were shot pretty quickly. They didn’t have the luxury of months of production time. And what you saw on screen, especially in costume dramas, the production design and the costume design was oftentimes pretty lacking. With the Chinese films, I would notice that the extras in the background always looked pretty bored, like they were dragged out of the streets and paid a pretty miniscule amount of money to be on the sets. They didn’t look very happy. Sometimes the sets looked like papier-mâché cutouts. But the story was the thing, and the excitement of seeing characters was the main event.