TCM: ASIAN IMAGES IN FILM—Interview with Peter X. Feng
Peter X. Feng is associate professor of film, ethnic, and cultural studies at the University of Delaware. He is an expert on Asian American film. Feng edited the book Screening Asian Americans, a collection of essays. He is the author of Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video. He currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Asian American Studies and has published articles in Cinema Journal, Cineaste (here and here), Amerasia Journal and Jump Cut, among others. He is working on a book called Asian Americans and Television. Dr. Feng received a bachelor's degree in American Studies from Yale University and master's and doctoral degrees in film studies from the University of Iowa. He has taught at the University of Iowa, the University of California at Irvine, UCLA and the University of Delaware. He has been a guest lecturer at Stanford, Cornell, Yale and many other colleges and universities.
My thanks to Sarah Schmitz and Turner Classic Movies for facilitating a conversation with Dr. Feng in conjunction with TCM's upcoming June series: "Race and Hollywood: Asian Images in Film", which I've previously previewed.
Michael Guillén: Peter, though I'm Chicano, from a very early age I have often been mistaken for Asian American; thus, I've long been equally if not necessarily intrigued by Mexican American and Asian American issues. Add on top of that my self-identification as a gay male, and I've become saturated with the textured and tempestuous terrain of minority representation and identity politics. Needless to say, I'm really looking forward to talking with you today. Maybe you can help me with some of my confusion?
Peter X. Feng: [Laughs.] Well, okay. It may require an ongoing therapeutic relationship. You'll get my paperwork in the mail.
Guillén: Knowing Charlie Tabesh's unique genius for programming, I'm presuming he read your books and invited you to host this series?
Feng: That's absolutely right, yeah. He found me.
Guillén: Why did you accept? What did you feel you were uniquely qualified to offer the project?
Feng: I didn't accept because I thought I was "uniquely qualified"—many of my colleagues could have done this too—but, I wanted to do it and I wanted to help put my university on the map a bit.
Guillén: The project's title—"Race and Hollywood: Asian Images in Film"—I want to be sure I'm clear on the thrust here: Why "Asian" and not "Asian American"?
Feng: We called it "Asian" because—though we're covering both Asian and Asian American—some of the films are set in Asia and involve Americans interacting with Asians. It's also been the case that—when we're talking about Asian American history—Asian Americans have often been treated as being perpetually foreigners. For example, I don't think African Americans are told to go back where they came from, right? Whereas, people are still surprised if they meet me and I begin speaking and they say, "Wow, you speak English better than I do!" I say, "Well … yes, I do." Or: "I expected you to have an accent!" Right? That only happens because—even when someone has been in this country for decades or their family has been here for generations—Asian Americans are perceived as being foreign. That's partly why we called it the "Asian Image" as opposed to "Asian American." We certainly deal with Asian American history.
Guillén: Do you have a ballpark figure of when the term "Asian American" came into political parlance?
Feng: Yeah, you could probably guess that it came in the late '60s/early '70s, following the Civil Rights Movement and all the social upheaval in the late '60s, along with Gay Rights and with protests against the war in Vietnam. Originally—inspired by Black Power, for example—people were trying out the term "Yellow" for size. One of the things that may interest you as far as the term "Yellow" is concerned, one of the reasons why "Yellow" was rejected was—and this is only one of many reasons—because some Filipino Americans said, "We're not yellow; we're brown." What they meant by that, in part, was: "We look a little bit different than Chinese or Japanese." But what they also meant by "brown" is: "We have a lot in common with Chicanos. We speak Spanish. We were a former Spanish colony too. There are a lot of Filipinos in California." In the '30s and '40s Filipino women weren't allowed to immigrate so a lot of Filipino men married Mexican women because, again, they shared so much culture and language. One of the reasons why "Asian American" evolved to replace "Yellow" was partly due to this large coalition of Filipinos, Southeast Asians and other Asian Americans.
Guillén: What was the political import of removing the hyphen from Asian American?
Feng: Ah. Well, not everybody agrees on that. Grammatically some people will insist on putting it in if it's modifying a noun like "Asian-American film" or something like that, but this is one of those things where I prefer not to have the hyphen; but, it's not something worth going to the mat over. Basically, from a strictly grammatical standpoint, "Asian-American" (with a hyphen) makes both those words nouns. "Asian" is a noun and "American" is a noun. "Asian American" (without a hyphen) says "Asian" is an adjective and "American" is a noun. Because of the history of Asian Americans being recognized or perceived as foreigners, to be called "Asian-American" was to say: "You are two things at the same time." This was, of course, what led to the internment of Japanese Americans in California during WWII in the sense that, "You're not really an American; your loyalty is divided." That's one of the reasons why—at the time—some Japanese Americans preferred to use the term, "I'm an American of Japanese ancestry. Let me put the American up front. Let me reduce the Japanese to a prepositional phrase modifying American, because I am essentially an American." That's the political importance of the hyphen. Its usage implies your identity is split and divided.
Guillén: Thank you for that clarification. You've conceded in the TCM press notes that there's a concerted focus on East Asia in the program (namely China, Japan) and not so much on the remaining Asian cultures (India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia). Why is that?
Feng: Part of it is because we're telling the story of American film and that bias was shown in American film. For example, we're showing a film called China Sky (1945), which features the first Korean character in a Hollywood film. That's 1945, right? Hollywood itself focused primarily on China and Japan. Hollywood wasn't really aware of Southeast Asia as a backdrop until the American war in Viet Nam and so that doesn't come in until relatively late in the story. We do have The Killing Fields (1984) in our series to represent some of that experience.
In the case of India, Pakistan and the Asian subcontinent, historically it is arguably very different. It's not just that Hollywood didn't emphasize those cultures as much, the Asian subcontinent had a legacy of British colonialism whereas China and Japan interacted with Americans in more direct ways. Though, of course, the British were involved in China and Japan too, India had really been shaped by interactions with England. That's one of the reasons why Hollywood was less interested in those stories.
Guillén: There would also be the issue that most Americans at that time wouldn't really have recognized the difference anyway. I recently read Hye Seung Chung's biography on Philip Ahn and I was amused by anecdotes where he was directed to speak Korean with the understanding that American audiences would think he was speaking Japanese.
Feng: We have one of those films in our series—Charlie Chan In Honolulu (1938)—where he's supposed to be Charlie Chan's son-in-law and there's a scene where he gets very excited and speaks in Chinese, except it's Korean.
Guillén: Thanks for pointing that out. I respect the challenge you took on by trying to shape this program. How were the thematic categories and their subsequent subgroups of films selected? Can you talk a bit about how you went about curating the program?
Feng: It's an organic process. You think in terms of themes and in terms of films you have to have, in some cases there's an obvious thing where, "Oh, here's a bunch of films that all have the theory of interracial romance in the '50s." So it's pretty easy to pick four films that happened all around the same period. I knew we were going to feature Charlie Chan but I thought, "There are other detectives. There's Mr. Moto. There's Mr. Wong." Then there were some lesser known films where an Asian American becomes a detective. Looking at different aspects of WWII became an obvious focus. We started off by looking at an entire sweep of film history from 1915 on. "Curate"—as you said—really is the word for it. You try to tell the story. You can't be too strict in your presentation. You have to rearrange things a little bit to bring out certain themes. If you went to a museum, all the paintings wouldn't be arranged chronologically. Some of the same size or of the same period will be arranged and then other things will be shown out of sequence to bring out different kinds of things. I think we approached it the same way.
Guillén: If minorities can be thought of as a mirror by which a majority sees itself reflected; what is it that the Asian mirror is showing the American majority?
Feng: That's an interesting way of putting it. Maybe the issue is that the earliest generations of Asian Americans came as laborers to work on the railroad, to work the cane fields in Hawaii, and to work crops in California. In that sense, the earliest generations of Asian Americans were similar to African Americans and Chicanos in that they were a laboring underclass. As some of the Asian countries—Japan in particular—became players on the world stage, and it became clear that Japan was a modern powerful country, especially after the Russo-Japanese War, in the '20s the United States actually passed legislation to restrict immigration from Japan to educated white-collar professional workers. At that point things began to diverge. The Asian Americans began to be seen not just as repetitive laborers, but as intellectual and intelligent and competitors, as opposed to workers. I guess this was also the point in Hollywood film where the Japanese began to be represented as culturally odd, different, inscrutable and dangerous. Japan was definitely portrayed as a culture that was different and that needed to be understood. That was different than African-Americans. When African Americans were represented in the earliest Hollywood films, it wasn't with any real attempt to understand them culturally. It was more to caricature them.
Guillén: So you're saying that it's definitely been an evolving reflection?
Feng: Absolutely! And that's one of the narratives that we tell in the series. Ancient China is represented as backward and primitive in the '30s but after WWII—when China was an ally—the Chinese people began to be represented as heroic. Then when China went Communist, the Chinese people were once again represented as rural and naïve succumbing to Communism and Japan became a popular ally again because of the American occupation of Japan. They began to be seen as a modern nation. So, yes, it's evolved a lot over the 20th Century.
Guillén: The series highlights the issues of "yellowface" and of "passing"—which, to me, speak to the relationships between Asians and non-Asians—but, does the series also address the issue of "ethnic masquerade"? Which I see as a phenomenon registered more between the Asian groups themselves?
Feng: That's a really interesting question. Of course we have lots of actors who played roles across ethnicity. We mentioned Philip Ahn, for example. Richard Loo would be another one; a Chinese actor famous for playing Japanese soldiers during the WWII period. Of course there were very few Japanese Americans living in California at the time because most of them had been interred and they couldn't have played those roles; but, in terms of the productions themselves, we certainly see that kind of ethnic masquerade. There are very few films that thematize that point, however. We have an example in the series of a character who's trying to pass for white in Old San Francisco (1927) where there's an Asian American actor—played by Warner Oland who is, of course, best known for playing Charlie Chan. Obviously, within the film, he passed for white very well because they cast a white actor. But I don't think we have any films where, let's say, a Japanese character is trying to pass as Chinese.
Guillén: Another hot button issue in the Asian American experience has been miscegenation. Though TCM's program notes indicate that Samuel Fuller's The Crimson Kimono (1959) raises the issue of a white woman losing her American citizenship should she marry an Asian, isn't that theme more strongly pronounced in Etienne Perier's Bridge to the Sun (1961)?
Feng: That law was already in place by the '20s. By the time Bridge to the Sun came along—which was set in the 30s—it was no longer the case. You're right that Bridge to the Sun was set before The Crimson Kimono, though Crimson Kimono was made before Bridge to the Sun. The other difference, of course, is that in Bridge to the Sun James Shigeta is a Japanese national, whereas in The Crimson Kimono he's Japanese American, second generation American.
Guillén: I felt the conflict in Crimson Kimono was more about the competitive upset between Corbett and Shigeta; with a Japanese guy winning the girl instead of the white guy.
Feng: That's a good way to put it. That's certainly how the film treats the issue. But just to be clear—I know you're aware of this—there had been interracial relationships portrayed in film before but The Crimson Kimono was one of the first with an Asian man. Most of those earlier representations had been with a white man and an Asian woman—for example in The Toll of the Sea (1922) with Anna May Wong or The World Of Suzie Wong (1960), which was set in around the same period—but, there were very few times where an Asian male was romancing a white female. That was the breakthrough that The Crimson Kimono represented. The Crimson Kimono also ends in the next-to-the-last shot with a kiss, the romantic image that ends many films. But when it was shown on television in the '60s and sometimes even into the '70s, often that shot was excised. Which showed that even if the film could be shown on television and could be narratively about interracial romance, the kiss couldn't actually be shown.
Guillén: James Shigeta who was in both of those films—Bridge to the Sun and The Crimson Kimono—had a "crossover" appeal comparable to Sidney Poitier's for the African American community. What qualities do you think were being expressed that made their masculinities acceptable? And in the case of The Crimson Kimono, even preferable?
Feng: That's a really interesting question and a very insightful comparison. I hadn't thought of that but I guess both of them were very articulate, both very clean cut, they're both portrayed as being very handsome without being sexually aggressive. They're the objects of women's attraction to them. I'm thinking of Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue where the blind girl is attracted to him—although part of the point is that she's blind and doesn't know he's Black—but, it's clearly about her desire for him and the same is true with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, it's about her attraction to him. And that is somewhat the case for James Shigeta in those two films as well. The women set their eyes on him.
Guillén: In the series you're featuring both films where actors won Oscars for supporting roles—Miyoshi Umeki (the first Asian American to win an Oscar) for her performance in Sayonara (1957) and Haing S. Ngor, who won for his role as photographer Dith Pran in The Killing Fields—however, there's no mention of Asians who have won Oscars for their work behind the camera. I'm thinking specifically of cinematographer James Wong Howe. In terms of Asian representation in Hollywood, why didn't you go behind the camera?
Feng: It's true. You can't tell the history of American cinema without talking about James Wong Howe. He's very important to the silent era. He directed a couple of films of his own. We toyed with the idea of showing at least one of the films he directed—one about the Harlem Globetrotters—but he didn't fit with our larger idea of representing the Asian experience in film.
Guillén: Though I'm aware that you were trying to focus on the history of Asian representation and—as you say—the Asian experience in moreorless classic Hollywood film, I'm curious what your thoughts are on some of the more contemporary Asian American filmmakers like Gregg Araki or Eric Byler, or Asian directors like Ang Lee?
Feng: I have different thoughts about all those filmmakers. I really love Gregg Araki's films. Mysterious Skin was amazing. I love his earlier films and I've shown his films when I teach my film class; but, I thought Mysterious Skin—without compromising what made him completely unique and bizarre—was more a professional film. Eric Byler is a really intelligent filmmaker who really understands contemporary sexual politics between Asian Americans. That's what his films have tended to focus on. Ang Lee hasn't been really interested in Asian American issues. The Wedding Banquet happened to be set in New York but it's really more about what it means to be Taiwanese, as well as gay obviously. The great success of Ang Lee is that he's been able to make films like Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain that haven't focused exclusively on Asian turf. He's managed to break out of that ghetto.
Guillén: We've already touched upon "yellowface" and, allegedly, that's an unpopular practice that's not really allowed anymore. And yet, as recently as 1982 Linda Hunt won an Oscar portraying a Chinese-Australian character in The Year of Living Dangerously, though possibly she won her Oscar more for switching genders. In fact, I believe she was the first actor to win an Oscar for playing the opposite gender. Even more recently, in 1998 Disney cast many non-Asians for the Asian characters in their animated feature Mulan. Would we call that a "yellowvoice" phenomenon? How does that differentiate the equation?
Feng: Most of the lead voices in Mulan were Asian American actors. I've noticed more and more in animation that Hollywood has insisted on using Asian American voices for Asian characters. If ever it didn't matter, you would think that it would be all right there to use someone who wasn't Asian American to supply the voice for an Asian cartoon character. But the Linda Hunt example is interesting. I hadn't thought of her. Except Hollywood has taken the pains to specify that the character is multiracial whenever they've done that. In fact, there's the famous controversy regarding Miss Saigon when Jonathan Pryce came over from the London production to New York and Asian American actors protested his playing the role. One of the things that the producers said was, "Well, the character's bi-racial so it's acceptable." Well, the character wasn't specified as bi-racial in the London production. That was something that they came up with after the fact to justify the casting. No one disputes that Jonathan Pryce is an amazing actor. He brought something amazing to that role. For me the question isn't one of realism but one of equity. Until we have a world where Asian American actors are allowed to play white roles, until we extend the same professional opportunities to Asian American actors, then it seems to me that you should not be taking away Asian roles from Asian American actors. They have so few Asian roles that they can play anyway so why take those roles away if you're not going to let Asian American actors play white roles at the same time?
Guillén: In your interview with Hyphen Magazine, you were asked an intriguing question about how important it is for underrepresented or misrepresented groups to be aware of each other's struggles? You responded that different groups tend to focus on their relationship to the dominant culture and not enough on the relationship to each other's cultures or to each other's issues and that this becomes just one more way that the dominant culture maintains its dominance. Being that the TCM broadcast coincides with the Queer community's Pride Month, I was wondering if you could speak to the relationship between the Queer community and the Asian American community, how that has been inflected in film, and whether Queer Asian portrayal furthers Asian representation in any meaningful way?
Feng: That's a great question. I certainly wouldn't want to compare these experiences. When we talk about learning from each other, it's not a question of making facile equivalencies. Our culture's depressed too. We understand there are different kinds of dynamics. With regard to Queer politics, sexuality differs from culture to culture and the ways that sexualities are articulated in America are very different than how they are articulated elsewhere. I know there are some Asian Americans who sometimes feel they don't belong or don't feel welcome in American Gay rights organizations. For example, I know some Indian American women who culturally wear saris and Indian jewelry whose Queer sisters think they're too femme. They're being coded as being "femme" because they're wearing a sari when for them it's an expression of culture. It doesn't mean they're more feminine or more masculine. This brings up the notion that sexuality is very different in all these different cultures and it's one of the challenges to deal with diversity within the Queer community.
Guillén: I absolutely agree. Back in 2003, you were brought in as an expert consultant by a coalition of Asian American organizations to speak on panel discussions regarding the controversial airing of four restored Charlie Chan films on the Fox movie channel, along with Bay Area local Stephen Gong who now helms San Francisco's International Asian American Film Festival. At the time you expressed "mixed feelings about Fox Movie Channel's decision to show these movies." You said that—though you didn't believe in burying history and pretending these things never existed and though showing the movies with some historical context was an excellent solution—you still felt the decision to show these movies revealed an insensitivity to Asian Americans. How have your feelings changed—if any—with TCM's decision to likewise broadcast these films?
Feng: I was on board with the idea of showing the films with that panel. There was me and eight other people, including actors and other academics, some activists, and some filmmakers. We had the gamut of people invested in these issues. I'm a film historian. We still face a lot of the issues that were raised at the time so, clearly, there's continuity between those historical issues and today. I felt there was some insensitivity because the original plan was for Fox to show all the films that they had the rights to and the panel came about later. One of the Charlie Chan films had Stepin Fetchit in a supporting role [Charlie Chan In Egypt (1935)] and that film was off the table. Fox said, "We can't show that film because it has Stepin Fetchin in it." At the time I was thinking, "Why is Fox Movie Channel so sensitive to this character when the whole series caricatures Asian characters?" It was because the African American community was already keyed on to that representation, right? To me it was clear that Fox Movie Channel didn't think the caricatures of the Asian characters was a problem. They would not have tried to show a whole series of Stepin Fetchit films, without putting it into some kind of context. They were willing to do that with the Charlie Chan films. I hope they're more sensitive to that issue today but I don't think that they were unique in not being tuned into it at the time.
Guillén: Have you any thoughts on the tension between Asian American actors losing roles to Asian actors imported from China and Japan?
Feng: I don't think they're losing roles in the sense that—if it hadn't have been for Jackie Chan, Daniel Dae Kim could have had that role—so I don't think they're losing roles in that sense; but, of course, movies are being created for Jackie Chan and they're not being created for Daniel Dae Kim (just using him as an example of a prominent Asian American actor who people know from his performance on Lost). It's also been the case that—the fact that Hollywood has given roles to Jackie Chan—hasn't increased opportunities for Asian American actors to any appreciable degree. I don't see that as a tension between Asian actors and Asian American actors—I've never heard of an Asian American actor expressing animosity towards an Asian actor like Jackie Chan, for example—but, more toward the fact that Hollywood insists on making films with stories where Asian actors like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li never play Americans. These stories are either set in China or in Asia or they've come to America to solve a problem. Even though these Asian actors are stars and films are created around them, Hollywood is still not interested in exploring the Asian American experience.
Guillén: That being said, the other side of the coin is the recent trend of Hollywood remakes of Asian films. I'm always curious why it's perceived that the Asian originals are not good enough for the American public? Why Hollywood insists on converting them into their own versions?
Feng: Hollywood remakes French comedies too. Americans don't like to read subtitles and they want to see American stars. Hollywood doesn't make much money—well, theoretically, I suppose you could make more money by releasing a film that's already been made—but, Hollywood films want to make money themselves. They do change the films to make them more suited for American audiences. I mean, I prefer the Japanese version of The Ring to the American version, but I think it's clear that some of the subtle changes that they made in the plot for the American version were because of cultural differences between Japan and the United States.
Guillén: My final question: I'm aware that you're working on a book regarding Asian representation in television. Has your initial research uncovered any presiding distinction between representation on television and representation on film?
Feng: First of all to clarify, the book project I'm working on—though it is about Asian Americans on the television screen—is focused more on the material factors that shape television production. So, yes, absolutely the project is about how films differ from television.
Guillén: But less about Asian representation?
Feng: It is; but … for example, you asked about remakes of Asian films, there's a remake of Iron Chef on the Food Network [Iron Chef America] hosted by Alton Brown and that version was made because the Food Network purchased the rights from the Japanese company to do their version of the show. They purchased the format. That's comparable but it represents a different kind of business arrangement between an American studio and an American television network. It's a different kind of structure.
Another example might be Power Rangers. I have a chapter talking about Power Rangers because Power Rangers represents a unique program where it's shot with an English language cast and footage from a Japanese show is edited into it. It occurs to me—now that you ask this question—that system was used in the first Godzilla film where Raymond Burr was added in to the American version so I guess there's precedent for that. That only occurred to me just now. Thanks for asking the question!
Guillén: Well, Peter, I'm really looking forward to your interaction with Robert Osborne during TCM's "Asian Images In Film" broadcast. Thank you so much for pulling all this together and taking the time to talk to me today.
Feng: Thank you, Michael.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.