Sunday, February 8, 2009

Asian Americans & The Vietnam War: 4 Films

Josh Paul | photographer
Don Lau, a combat correspondent during the Vietnam War and a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

5/24/08 Northwest Asian Weekly: “‘The Battle for Hearts and Minds’ goes on for Asian American veterans,”
By Ann-Marie Stillion
Tony Chan’s DVD collection of four related documentaries concentrates on personal stories to tell the tale of war and the impact of racism.
“Asians in the West” begins with Don Lau, who served as an army journalist, turns to the combat experiences of Cole Lew, and ends with the story of combat nurse Lily Lee Adams, who returned to the U.S. to become a veterans advocate.
Although not explicitly stated in the work itself, all three have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not clear how the interviewees were chosen for the story, but it is clear that each one experienced not only the battles in war, but the racism of fellow soldiers and the system they found themselves in, along with a lack of understanding from their peers at home and in everyday life. In the end, whether due to lack of services or an indifferent society, each was forced to come to terms with the demons left behind.
In training, Lau was used as a stand-in for the enemy, dressed in a coulee hat and pajamas because he was Asian American. Authorities, attempting to train soldiers unfamiliar with Asians, pointed to him and said, “This is what the enemy looks like.”
Now, decades later, Lau — who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his photography of Patty Hearst while working for the San Francisco Examiner — twists in his chair as if restrained by an invisible tether as he speaks. “If I ever see that guy again — ” his voice trails off.
Lau describes the terror of walking the streets with the constant threat of being detained as the enemy or worse. In the interview, the decades-old pain is palpable.
Lau says that even though he was a journalist, the intensity of his memories have remained despite the fact that he did not fight.
In another interview, Lew, who eventually received his doctorate from the University of Hawaii , talks about the value for him of being close to other soldiers. He says he went into the army to find out who he was.
“If you talk to Vietnam veterans, this was the first time they ever became close, you talk about intimacy, having friends you could call buddies in a short period of time … it was beautiful in that way, it was nice … now in civilian life, nobody is that close anymore.”
Along with the others, he relived war memories for a long time, refusing to sit with his back to the door, suddenly believing that the enemy was nearby. Trained as a psychologist and working with vets now, he says that many Asian Americans don’t even know they have PTSD.
Issues of shame complicated their seeking help. They had to face the possibility of shaming the family, and at the same time, getting help from the Veterans Administration was inadequate as Asian Americans were frequently not viewed as Americans, Cole says. “What are you doing here?” some administrators said.
Producer/director Tony Chan, who also teaches at the University of
Washington , began the series with “American Nurse” in 1992 and finished that last one, “Lily Goes Home”, in 2007.
The two other stories, “Sweet Heat,” 1998, and “The Insanity of It All,” 2002, cover the interviews with Lau and Lew.
For Adams , nursing was one of the logical choices of a career for women in that era. Inspired by Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech, she decided to serve in Vietnam .
The young combat nurse came to hate what she was doing in Vietnam . “When I first saw war injuries, I couldn’t move,” she recalls. Stationed in the southern part of Vietnam near the border of Cambodia , she gradually came to see the face of racism in the war, that the people America was fighting were her cousins.
“Although most of our lives, we were told that we were inferior to men, by the time we hit Vietnam , we had realized that we were very strong emotionally,” Lee said.
Produced independently on a shoestring budget, these spare DVDs with nothing more than gunfire at times for a sound track are full of human treasure, of lives examined in the light of personal insight and history.
What rings true are the sounds, sights and smells of an era, and the shape of the lives left behind in the wake of the war.
“American Nurse” aired on KCTS Seattle in 1993 and received an award at the Hiroshima Film Festival on Peace. “American Nurse” and “Sweet Heat” were screened at the Vietnamese Film Festival in Toronto .
Documentaries are available separately from distributors Video Out,, and Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre,

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Worth of a BA Degree

Metro Morning CBC Radio Interview, April 28, 2008

How much is a BA degree worth?
Host Andy Barrie speaks with Donald Ainslie, the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, and Tony Chan, an associate professor with the Department of Communications at the University of Washington, currently on a research leave in Toronto.

Listen. Listen (Runs 8:34)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

China: A Poem 2008

A Poem Published by the Washington Post
When we were the Sick Man of Asia,
We were called The Yellow Peril.
When we are billed to be the next Superpower, we are called The Threat.
When we closed our doors, you smuggled drugs to open markets.
When we embrace Free Trade,
You blame us for taking away your jobs.
When we were falling apart,
You marched in your troops and wanted your fair share.
When we tried to put the broken pieces back together again,
Free Tibet you screamed, It Was an Invasion!
When tried Communism, you hated us for being Communist.
When we embrace Capitalism, you hate us for being Capitalist.
When we have a billion people, you said we were destroying the planet.
When we tried limiting our numbers, you said we abused human rights.
When we were poor, you thought we were dogs.
When we loan you cash, you blame us for your national debts.
When we build our industries, you call us Polluters.
When we sell you goods, you blame us for global warming.
When we buy oil, you call it exploitation and genocide.
When you go to war for oil, you call it liberation.
When we were lost in chaos and rampage, you demanded rules of law.
When we uphold law and order against violence, you call it violating human rights.
When we were silent, you said you wanted us to have free speech.
When we are silent no more, you say we are brainwashed-xenophobics.
Why do you hate us so much, we asked.
No, you answered, we don't hate you.
We don't hate you either, But, do you understand us?

Of course we do, you said, We have AFP, CNN and BBC's...
What do you really want from us?
Think hard first, then answer... Because you only get so many chances.
Enough is Enough, Enough Hypocrisy for This One World.
We want One World, One Dream, and Peace on Earth.
This Big Blue Earth is Big Enough for all of Us.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Naming the "Oriental" CBC Metro Morning

Politically Correct Terminology
Guest host Jane Hawtin spoke with Tony Chan. He is an author and associate professor of communications at the University of Washington.
Listen. Listen(Runs 6:37)

Outdated term 'Oriental' has no place at city hall: prof

Last Updated: Friday, March 7, 2008 | 1:41 PM ET Comments5Recommend23

It's time for elected officials in Ontario to retire the term "Oriental" because it's outdated and offensive, says a university professor who has written on the subject.

Anthony Chan, a former broadcaster who works as a Canadian studies professor at the University of Washington, made the comment after a Toronto city councillor referred to "Oriental people" this week in a debate about shopping on statutory holidays.

Coun. Rob Ford said: "Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines. That's why they are successful in life."

Ford went on: "I'm telling you, Oriental people, they're slowly taking over.… They're hard, hard workers."

Ford has apologized for his choice of words, but Chan, who obtained his PhD from York University in Toronto, said the term is really an ethnic slur that should be laid to rest.

Chan said he understands the term "Oriental" continues to be part of some people's lexicon but the acceptable, and more accurate, term to use these days is "Asian."

Oriental refers to the Orient, which has been used to refer to the Far East. Historically, the Orient was a term used in Western culture to refer to Asia.

Chan said, at the very least, Ford has raised an important issue by using the term. "I love a guy like that because he brings out what we need to think about," he said.

But he said using such a term undermines all the talk in Toronto about diversity. "When you start demeaning people, the whole diversity and the whole attitude of equity and fairness and social justice is just not there," he said.

Chan first raised the issue of the inappropriate use of the word "Oriental" in a paper he wrote in 1978, while a student at York University.

Chan, currently on sabbatical from his job at the University of Washington, is a filmmaker and author. He works at the Canadian Studies Centre of the university's Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Anna May Wong, Los Angeles Times

Re: Rediscovering Anna May Wong

An uneasy success
Anna May Wong hit the screen when Asian American stars didn't exist. Her mystique, and the stereotypes, endure.

By Scarlet Cheng, Special to The Times

She was the first Asian movie star in the West, and her career spanned four decades, bridging the silent films to talkies, and even venturing onto stage and into early television. Anna May Wong was a woman in the right place at the right time.

Born in Los Angeles to traditional Chinese parents in 1905, her star-struck ambition and her svelte good looks coincided with a taste for Oriental exotica on stage and screen in the U.S. and in Europe in the '20s and the '30s. Her career rose meteorically, yet she would find it hard to escape the crater of stereotyping into which she too easily tripped. "Rediscovering Anna May Wong," presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archive from Friday through Jan. 25, includes 12 features from the apex of her stardom. They range from the silent film "Toll of the Sea" (1922), her first starring role, to "Shanghai Express" (1932), her most famous, to rarely seen B pictures like "Daughter of the Dragon" (1931) and "Daughter of Shanghai" (1937) that were her staple.

In the last decade several of these have been beautifully restored — most recently "Piccadilly" (1929), which was Wong's last silent film and one in which she plays a cheeky scullery maid who becomes the glittering headliner at a swank London nightclub. In this and countless other films, she does her obligatory Oriental-style shimmy, here a concoction with Thai and Balinese flavors, in a scanty Oriental-style costume while desire-filled white men look on.

"For a good 10 years she received top billing, she was a huge international star," says Mimi Brody, who programmed the UCLA series. "For an Asian American actress there's no comparison for the scope of her career."

During World War ll, Wong announced her retirement and did fundraising for the United China Relief Fund. But she couldn't stay away from show business and in the 1950s she made several television and movie appearances. She was gearing up for a movie comeback and was slated for a key role in the movie version of "Flower Drum Song" when she died of a heart attack in 1961.

Lotus Flower key role

Anna MAY WONG started out in the business taking on bit parts while still a teenager and living at home helping out in the family laundry business. Then she landed the starring role in "Toll of the Sea." Set in some Hollywood-lot China and borrowing heavily from "Madame Butterfly," the film had the young actress playing willowy Lotus Flower, who falls in love with a white merchant.

After impregnating her, the merchant abandons her, then later returns with his white wife. Naturally, Lotus Flower has to fling herself into the sea in disgrace, the first of many films in which Wong was obliged to die — by her hand or at the hand of others — by the close of the film. (Poisoning and stabbing were particularly popular denouements for her characters.) Sometimes she takes this drastic measure because of thwarted love, especially when she realizes she is no match for the white female interest of the white male hero ("Toll of the Sea," "Java Head," "Dangerous to Know"). For even though she entices the man, she rarely gets him, consistent with the contemporary bias that while miscegenation was titillating, it wasn't really acceptable.

The actress' next big break came from silent superstar Douglas Fairbanks, who cast her as the slave girl/Mongol spy in "The Thief of Bagdad" (not in the UCLA series). But while the film made her famous, she was slotted into a series of small roles in Hollywood until she decided to jump-start her career in Europe.

German director Richard Eichberg had offered her a five-picture film contract, and in 1928 she moved to Europe, chaperoned by her sister. Two years later she had learned enough German and French to make three versions of Eichberg's "The Flame of Love" — in English, German and French, with three different leading men.

When she finally returned to Los Angeles, she was in demand, eventually tallying some 60 features, most of which have been lost. Nearly all played heavily on racial and cultural stereotypes. During the Depression there was a huge appetite for foreign accents, foreign people and foreign locations, preferably with scenes of high living and untold luxury thrown in, but in the end the morality of the time would have to reassert itself.

Centennial approaches

The fascination for Anna May Wong continues, perhaps in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of her birth.

There are three new books about Wong: Anthony Chan's "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961)" was published last October, and soon to come are another biography, Graham Hodges' "Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend," and a well-researched reference book, Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane's "Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work."

Chan, a former journalist who teaches at the University of Washington in Seattle, will give an illustrated talk about Wong at UCLA on Saturday. Speaking by phone, he acknowledges that Wong fell into highly stereotyped roles but admires what she achieved. "Through racism and patriarchy she was [still] able to succeed," he says.

In fact, she succeeded partly because she played into racism and patriarchy, Chan believes. Typically, she was made up to look like a China doll, with straight-cut bangs, pencil eyebrows and heavy eyeliner, often dressed in some exotic get-up, high-neck tunics and embroidered robes. She had two main roles, each delivered in a highly mannered way: the Dragon Lady whose evil machinations cause death and destruction and the Lotus Blossom who's all too eager to please her man.

Wong was aware of her uneasy position. As early as 1925 she said in a newspaper interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, "It is hard to get into the pictures, but it is harder to keep in them. Of course, it is nice enough if one gets a five-year contract as some of the actors do, but freelancing which I do is not easy. You see, there are not many Chinese parts."

Now and then we get glimpses of what Wong was capable of and could have become had she had better material and better directors. Take her role as Hui Fei, the Chinese woman sharing a train compartment with the notorious Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich), in "Shanghai Express." While Wong had her usual sullen demeanor and few speaking lines, director Josef von Sternberg brought out the spark of her inner life. In one brief scene an elderly passenger barges in on them, announcing that she is running a "respectable" boarding house in Shanghai.

Wong, who has been calmly and resolutely playing solitaire, hands back the woman's calling card with acid dripping in her voice: "I must confess I don't quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boarding house, Mrs. Haggerty." Toward the end of the film, she is playing solitaire again, this time after having exacted her revenge upon a rebel officer (Warner Oland, playing yellowface again) who has assaulted her. She throws down a card with emphasis. "Death has canceled his debt to me."

Apparently, Dietrich thought she'd been upstaged by Wong. There are those who see this luminous film who might very well agree with her.

'Rediscovering Anna May Wong'

When: Friday, Jan. 9, through Jan. 25

Where: James Bridges Theater, 1409 Melnitz Hall, UCLA, Westwood

Price: $7-$8

Contact: (310) 206-FILM or

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Perpetually Cool Anna May Wong

UCLA: Anna May Wong Film Retrospective

Nobody's Lotus Flower:
Courtesy of

Nobody's Lotus Flower: "Rediscovering Anna May Wong" Film Retrospective

Even during a period of intense anti-Chinese racism, Anna May Wong commanded the screen. Today, no other Asian American actress matches her success. Where are the Anna May Wongs of today?

By Shirley Hsu

Legendary Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961) once said she left cinema because she died too often. The first Asian American woman to become a Hollywood star, Wong seemed doomed to die tragically in nearly every role she played, whether shot by a jealous lover, accidentally impaled on a sword, or drowned in the ocean by her own hand. It seemed harmony could not be restored unless she, the foreign interloper, was killed - a potent message about the place of Chinese Americans in America during the 1920s and '30s.

And yet, onscreen, the stunning Wong commanded the camera. At 5'7", she stood several inches taller than Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932), and her charismatic manner and large, arresting eyes stole every scene from Gilda Gray in Piccadilly (1929). Again and again, she was typecast as the exotic and dangerous "dragon lady" or the innocent "lotus flower," but she brought subtlety and grace to her stereotypical roles, and attracted adoring fans from Hollywood and London to Berlin, Paris, and even Shanghai.

Now, the woman who "died a thousand deaths," as she joked, is being reborn. UCLA's twelve-feature film retrospective, titled "Rediscovering Anna May Wong," opened January 9 with the newly restored silent gem Piccadilly, and is part of a spurt of recent interest in Wong's life and works. Piccadilly, restored by the British Film Institute, played to a sold out crowd at the New York Film Festival, and will be screened in New York this weekend along with an accompanying five-film retrospective put together by the Museum of Modern Art. Three new books have been written about her life, and several documentaries on her life are in the works.

UCLA is an ideal location for the retrospective because of its extensive collection of Anna May Wong films (the largest in the country) and its large collection of films from Paramount, says Mimi Brody, UCLA film archivist who coordinated the event. "So many of Anna May Wong's films are so difficult to find on video, except for maybe Shanghai Express and Thief of Baghdad," says Brody. "Her films are very hard to see. You would have had to travel to Europe to see some of them."

The packed audience on opening night, which included a sprinkling of young people amidst the expected older crowd, shows that Wong's allure remains strong forty years after her death. "I was delighted to see so many young people [in the audience]," says Brody. "UCLA has a huge Asian population, and so I hope that students were able to rediscover her and appreciate her, and obviously they took an interest." The retrospective will end this Sunday with screenings of Java Head and Tiger Bay.

No other Asian American actress has come close to matching Anna May Wong's success. Over the span of her forty-year career, she appeared in over 60 films and starred in at least a dozen. She became the darling of Europe during her travels there in 1928; rumor had it that she was even invited to be presented to the British court (at the time, no Chinese woman had ever been introduced there). Writes Anthony Chan, author of "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong" and a lecturer at the retrospective, "She was one of the few shining stars in a European America that subordinated or dismissed the lives, labor, talents, and thoughts of Asian Americans as simply irrelevant."

Most importantly, she was able to surmount the stereotypical roles often handed to her to some degree, especially in the later years of her career. In 1937, she costarred with Philip Ann in Daughter of Shanghai, a groundbreaking film for Asian American cinema. In an unusual break from the exotic and dangerous Chinese villain, Wong and Ahn co-starred as the heroes of the day who defeat the criminals, and even end up being romantically involved - a remarkable breakthrough, considering the social taboos of the time.

Her achievement in the Paramount produced Daughter of Shanghai is even more staggering when you consider that even today, a movie starring two Asian American actors in positive roles who become romantically involved is conspicuously absent from mainstream Hollywood. Says Chan, "Today, if you have an Asian male and an Asian female hitting it off, romantically involved, what happens? It's an independent. It's not a Paramount."

The renewed interest in Wong comes at a time when Asian American cinema is jostling for its identity - sandwiched between Asian imports and mainstream Hollywood studios not quite ready to sign on APA stars. Asian American cinema remains largely in the realm of independent film. A star like Anna May Wong could be just what is needed to put APA cinema on the map.

But where are the Anna May Wongs of today?

Stars such as Nancy Kwan, Maggie Cheung, and Lucy Liu have seen some measure of her success, but no single Asian American woman has achieved Wong's prolific success and name recognition.

Most amazingly, Wong's stardom fell under one of the worst periods in history for Chinese Americans. In a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, Congress passed the Immigration Exclusion Act of 1924, effectively barring all classes of Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Chinese Americans faced special taxes levied especially for them, and they were prohibited from testifying in court against whites. The ethos of the time seemed decidedly anti-Chinese, and yet audiences couldn't get enough of Wong.

Perhaps this very paranoia and fear of the "yellow peril" helped propel Wong to stardom. Americans, both threatened and intrigued by the Chinese could satiate their curiosity in the safety of a theater seat. Brody surmises, "At this time, there was definitely a preponderance in Hollywood of this sort of naïve, exotic depictions of 'the Orient,' and these Orientalist fantasy films were in vogue in the 1920s and '30s. Certainly, there were more roles available for someone like Anna May Wong."

The screen seemed to provide a way to explore and release the anxieties of the day. Fear of miscegenation was a common theme in Wong's films, and stories that involved Wong's character becoming sexually involved with Caucasian men always ended in Wong's murder or suicide. In real life, Wong could never marry - she explained that a Chinese man would not support her film career, while law forbade marriage to a Caucasian man.

Other films more blatantly explored the fear that the "yellow peril" could be right at your doorstep, literally. In Daughter of the Dragon, Wong plays the daughter of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, who plots to fulfill her father's vendetta against the Petrie family by killing John Petrie, who happens to live conveniently next door to her.

Discrimination against Chinese Americans comes more discreetly today, and one of its subtle forms is the lack of diverse, thoughtful roles for Asian American actors and actresses. Even today, the "dragon lady" and "lotus blossom" molds are hard to break, and yet, in the 1930s, Wong did break out of these molds. In Shanghai Express, Wong plays the cool, detached Hui Fei who kills the communist rebel Henry Chang to become the heroine and makes off with twenty-thousand dollars in reward money. Wong's biographers insist that she tried to bring authenticity to her acting by studying Chinese culture. Offscreen, she used her influence to denounce the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and to raise funds for the China Aid Foundation.

Perhaps this, then, is the lesson that Wong holds for us today: that if she could succeed in the 1930s, than certainly Asian American actors and actresses can accomplish the same today. Next year marks Wong's centennial, underscoring the disturbing reality that nearly a century after the star's birth, no Asian American actress has taken her place.

In 1936, Wong was passed over for the prized role of O-lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, a role which she coveted. When the role went to German-born Luise Rainer, who performed with a cast of other Caucasian actors in "yellowface" makeup, a disillusioned Wong left Hollywood again, this time bound for China. Her journey was recorded on film and years later, narrated by Wong on the television program "Bold Journey: Native Land" (1957). During her visit, Wong was berated by the Chinese government for portraying the Chinese in a negative light, but also treated to a hero's welcome in many locales. Wong later recalled the elaborate, forty-course meals she was treated to, and the gazes of wonderment from many locals who had previously believed she wasn't real - that she existed only on film.

The cameras follow as Wong tours her ancestral lands. She is radiant, smiling at the camera as she explores the open-air markets and climbs the steps to a Buddhist temple. She rides in a rickshaw and is dressed in a traditional chi pao she ordered upon arrival, tailor-made with fabric she chose. Finally, it is time for the long awaited reunion with her father, who had moved back to China many years ago. As she joyfully reunites with him, she is, for a moment, neither Chinese, nor American; she is no longer the exotic temptress, the submissive lotus flower, the femme fatale or the freewheeling flapper. She is only Anna May Wong - and that was the secret to her success.

Asia Pacific Arts