TV Week

A Chinese Legacy in Tinseltown

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By Susan C. Young
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nancy Kwan sips her coffee in a Los Angeles hotel lobby, still the lithe, delicate beauty who won fans around the world almost a half-century ago.

She reflects on the difficulties she faced as a Chinese actress in Hollywood, recounting a lunch in Hong Kong years ago with rising star Bruce Lee. She didn't want to squelch his dreams or ambitions, but she knew his hope of starring in the 1972 TV series "Kung Fu" was never going to happen.

"He said, 'No. No. I'm going to do this.' And I said, 'Bet,'" Kwan said of the role that went to Caucasian actor David Carradine. "I had to collect my 10 bucks.''

Despite her own phenomenal success in two early 1960s box office hits, "The World of Suzie Wong" and "Flower Drum Song," Kwan watched as Hollywood cooled on the notion of Asians carrying major films or TV shows. Kwan and other prominent Chinese actors, directors and filmmakers -- including Joan Chen, James Hong, David Henry Hwang and Ang Lee -- talk candidly about the history and future of Chinese talent in Arthur Dong's documentary "Hollywood Chinese."

Dong's film made the festival rounds but is being shown for the first time on television as part of PBS's "American Masters" on Wednesday.

The 90-minute documentary delves into complex race issues in an exploration that includes scenes from a rare silent classic, "The Curse of Quon Gwon" (1916) by Marion Wong. It also examines the popularity ofKwan's signature roles and the recent success of Oscar-winning director Ang Lee("Brokeback Mountain") in breaking away from doing ethnic films.

Actor James Hong, 80, who has several hundred acting credits ("Chinatown," "Seinfeld"), established the East West Players in 1965 to offer non-stereotypical roles to Asian actors.

"There was a lot of work then, almost like a factory, because all these prominent stars had Western series and there was a big demand for laundrymen and servants. I was always getting rescued by Richard Boone or Clint Eastwood.I perfected the pathetic laundryman," Hong said.

"Looking back, I see what has changed, but [also] what has not. We didn't want to do cliché roles, but that's all there was," Hong said. "Now, things are a little better, but still there aren't any big Asian stars on film or carrying TV shows."

B.D. Wong, who won a Tony for "M. Butterfly" and now co-stars in "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," said he's tried to analyze why there has not been a breakout star like Will Smith or Eddie Murphy for the Asian community.

"I think we just don't interest [mainstream audiences]. Our stories seem foreign, and just don't appeal to them," Wong, 48, said. "You had a great film in 'Joy Luck Club,' based on a best-selling book, but not one of the wonderful actresses starring in that movie ever broke out on their own."

He believed Margaret Cho, who starred in the first all-Asian TV show "All American Girl" in 1994, might have cracked that juggernaut if things had gone differently. He criticized network executives for stifling her creativity.

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