Exclusive Interview: Oscar-nominated filmmaker Arthur Dong on his Criterion Channel retrospective “it’s up to us to find a way to survive & to resist”

In 1984, trailblazing independent filmmaker Arthur Dong received an Oscar nomination for Sewing Woman, a touching documentary short about the life of a Chinese immigrant worker in San Francisco, his mother Zem Ping Dong. This recognition marked the director as an emerging artist to watch, while the film itself exemplified what would become hallmarks of his career; his ability to engage with political and social issues by telling powerful human stories, while focusing on subjects and people largely ignored by other filmmakers. The film is also notable for being the first Academy Award-nominated Asian American themed documentary that was entirely produced, directed, written, edited, photographed, and narrated by Asian Americans.

Sewing Woman circa 1948, San Francisco, California. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

The world premiere of the 4K restoration of Sewing Woman is now playing on the Criterion Channel as part of a seven film retrospective, Stories of Resistance: Documentaries By Arthur Dong, chronicling the filmmaker’s focus on the Asian American experience and LGBTQ stories, topics at the intersection of his own identity.

His 1989 feature Forbidden City, USA, which is playing in a restored and updated version on Criterion Channel, celebrates the forgotten history of San Francisco’s “all-Chinese” nightclub that was hugely popular in the 1940s and 50s, centering the fascinating personal recollections of those who performed there. While Hollywood Chinese, which premiered at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, charts Asian representation both in front of and behind the camera, from the first Chinese American movie in 1917, The Curse of Quon Gwon, up to Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning Brokeback Mountain. Dong went on to author the coffee table book, Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films, and has been commissioned by the Criterion Channel to guest curate a film series inspired by Hollywood Chinese, set to premiere in 2022. Dong’s most recent feature, 2015’s The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, is a compelling profile of the Cambodian genocide survivor who went on to appear in a film about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, The Killing Fields, becoming the only Asian male to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Coming Out Under Fire. Allan Bérubé, Sarah Davis, Arthur Dong. Photo by Zand Gee. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

Three of Dong’s features explore anti-LGBTQ prejudice in the United States, beginning with Coming Out Under Fire, which premiered at Sundance in 1994, winning a Special Jury Recognition trophy, before going on to win a Peabody, GLAAD, and Outfest award, as well as the Teddy at the Berlin Film Festival. Based on Allan Bérubé’s book, the film is an absorbing and insightful exploration of the US military’s discrimination against gay and lesbian service members in World War II up to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Congressional hearings of 1993. It features interviews with veterans recalling not only the horrors of interrogations, witch hunts, incarceration, forced psychiatric treatment, and dishonorable discharge, but also the queer joy that they experienced through romantic relationships and close friendships forged while serving their country.

Dong’s next film, 1997’s Licensed To Kill, again premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and went on to win both the documentary Directing Award and documentary Filmmakers Trophy, followed by a Emmy nomination among other accolades. Having been the target of gay-bashings himself, Dong set out to investigate what leads to the murder of gay men, going into prisons to question seven killers face-to-face about their own motivations. Deeply disturbing and utterly riveting in equal measure, it remains an urgent and vital watch. With several of the convicted murderers mentioning religion as the root of their anti-gay beliefs, Dong’s 2002 Sundance Grand Jury nominated Family Fundamentals saw the filmmaker meet with conservative Christian parents who devote their time to anti-gay teachings and politics, despite having gay children.

Arthur Dong. Photograph by by Max Shapovalov.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Arthur Dong about his lifelong passion for film and film history, how he got his start in filmmaking while still at high schoo, what drew him to the subjects of his work, his creative process, and his childhood fascination with a Peking opera star.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What does it mean to you to have your films collected together as a retrospective on the Criterion Channel? 

Arthur Dong: “I’ve long been a fan of Criterion and have always enjoyed looking through all the blu-rays in Barnes and Noble. I’ve been an admirer of what they set out to do, which is to bring attention to art-house and classic films, and to honor the filmmaker’s vision, and in some cases to honor a collective body of work with certain artists. I never expected to be a part of that. I’ve had retrospectives at film festivals and at museums, but there’s something special about being a part of Criterion, be it on the streaming service as with my films or on blu-ray.”

What about the title of the collection, Stories of Resistance, was that something that you helped to come up with?

“The first suggested title was Stories of Survival, which is certainly true, but I never consider myself to be a victim. I’ve always considered myself as trying to overcome circumstances, both personally and in my work. So to reflect that attitude I suggested Stories of Resistance. Criterion thought that worked well, but then I thought ‘what about Licensed To Kill though, is that a story about resistance?’ And they said, ‘Yes, because you’re there fighting this phenomenon called gay-bashing or anti-gay murders and you’re resisting that whole set of crimes.’ I never thought about it that way because as a filmmaker that film was always about the murderers, not about me, but the effort is an act of resistance, the effort from the filmmaker. So, I thought, ‘alright, sure.'”

A teenaged Arthur Dong stands in front a poster of movie star Jean Harlow in his bedroom in Chinatown. Courtesy of Arthur Dong.

Before we get on to the films themselves could you take us back to first getting into filmmaking and the draw of documentaries as a medium. I believe you made an award-winning film while you were still at high school?

“Well, I’ve been a film fan for as long as I can remember, ever since I was a kid. I was brought up in Chinatown in San Francisco and at that time there were five movie theaters all within a six block radius in our neighborhood that showed Chinese language films. So I was brought up on Chinese language films from Hong Kong mostly, that was the norm for me. In fact, we didn’t even have a TV until a lot later and when we did have a TV in our home it was locked up because my parents didn’t want us watching it all the time. Of course they took us to the movies though, that was okay, but not television, which affected my view of it in my adult life and the way I raised my child, because we locked up the remotes for our TV!”

“I was brought up in this environment where every weekend we went to the movies because it was also a social outlet for my parents. The theaters were a playground for us working class kids and Sunday was the one day off for our parents and they’d never heard of paying for a nanny or hiring a babysitter, so everybody went to the movies together and the kids just played in the lobbies. But not me, I watched movies. I was in there entranced by what I was watching.”

Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934). Directed by John Cromwell. Photo by Bettmann/Bettmann Archive.

“In my teen years in San Francisco at that time, we’re talking about 1960s, we were really lucky because there were a lot of the revival theaters showing the classics of Hollywood, as well as foreign films. So I ventured outside of Chinatown and traveled to these other neighborhoods to the revival theaters. I was enthralled with the idea of film as a way to travel through time. There was one viewing that I really remember of Of Human Bondage with Bette Davis. This is the time when What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? came out. In Baby Jane she’s in very grotesque makeup, but in Of Human Bondage she’s svelte and slender and has blonde hair. At least it looked blonde to me in black and white. I was fascinated by the idea that I could see Bette Davis as Baby Jane and that I could also see her in the 1930s in Of Human Bondage. For me, that was going back in time and I loved the idea of time travel, which doesn’t exist except in movies. So it was at that point that I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to become a film historian, because I really want to unravel this idea of archival film, seeing the passage of time through film, through the decades and going back to a time before I was born.’ So I actually set out as a teenager to become a film historian and immersed myself in film watching, from silents up to the present day.”

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Directed by Robert Aldrich. Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

“In 1960s San Francisco the whole idea of independent filmmaking was a very novel concept. We had figures like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who said ‘No’ to Hollywood and set up their own production companies, particularly Coppola in North Beach, which is adjacent to Chinatown, where he set up American Zoetrope. I knew that office was there, I never walked in, but I walked by it. I remember walking by Zoetrope and thinking, ‘wow, he’s there and he’s bucking the trend, he’s not going the Hollywood route, he’s doing it independently.'”

“So that was what was going on in San Francisco in the 1960s. In art class at Galileo High School, my teacher Rob McConnell, took a course on how to teach film in the classroom and his homework was to have his students make a film. So I was his homework! One day he called four of us up to the front of the class. It was Nancy, another Arthur, Otto, and myself, and he said, ‘I’m going to give you a special project. You’re going to make a film.’ This was a totally new idea to me and really exciting. He said to the others, ‘I’m going to teach you how to use the camera’, and then he told me, ‘You’re going to be the director.’ And I thought, well, that’s kind of disappointing. I wanted to hold a camera. I still want a hold a camera now. But he said, ‘No, you’re not going to get a camera, you’re going to direct.’ So that was my introduction to filmmaking and the whole idea of becoming a film historian took a backseat, though it never left my work because I’m still very much passionate about film history. Actually, I’ve been working with the new Academy Museum in Los Angeles as part of the Inclusion Advisory Committee for the last four years, so my passion for film history has never left me. But it was at that point that I became a filmmaker, that’s how it started.”

In terms of time travel and being a film historian I love the way that in a lot of your films you will move from a photograph or archive footage of how someone used to look decades before and juxtapose that with them in a present day interview, for instance in Coming Out Under Fire.

“Yes, that’s me, that my film historian thing coming out. I know that many of my projects are really just an excuse for me to do research, because I love research. I love the discovery of material that perhaps no one’s ever seen before or no one has seen for decades and then there it is before my eyes. Going back to my experience of watching Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage, it’s that idea of going back in time through celluloid. For me it is a magical experience.”

Sewing Woman. Zem Ping Dong at work in 1981. Photograph by Arthur Dong.

With Sewing Woman, something that struck me was when the subject, who is your mother, says something along the lines of, don’t make me out to be anything special, I’m an ordinary person. It made me think that everyone has got a story of interest to tell, whether they think that’s the case or not. The personal and human stories are at the centre of your films. How consciously is that your approach to filmmaking?

“I very much believe that everybody has a story and that if told in a certain way it can generate some excitement or some deeper understanding of the human condition. When I made Sewing Woman I was working as an employment counsellor for the Employment Development Department for the state of California in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I’m bilingual and part of my job was to interview immigrants and refugees and job seekers. A lot of them only spoke one language, their native language of Chinese, so they had to seek out labor jobs. Many of them were sewing factory workers. My mom was a sewing factory worker and I remember some of my colleagues, and even some of the residents in Chinatown, were annoyed at these women with these large shopping bags crowding onto the bus, trying to get home. They’d say, ‘Don’t they know their manners? Why don’t they get in line? What are they pushing for?’ And I thought, ‘I know these stories, they’re survivors and they’re pushing to get home to cook for their kids’, like my mom did. Although she worked 12 hours a day, she always came home and made a meal for us and then went back to work. I said, ‘That’s what they’re pushing for.’ I wanted to tell that story and to bring a larger understanding to what this woman—who stood for many women and men who worked in labor jobs—went through and why they are survivors. The self-effacing attitude that she has in the beginning of the film is pretty typical for many people, that idea of, ‘Don’t bother me. I don’t have a story to tell, I’m just me. I just live my life.'”

Sewing Woman. Dong family portrait, 1954. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

“You’re interviewing me at the moment and sometimes I think like that as well. It’s kind of funny. Your first question was, ‘how do you feel about a Criterion series?’ And it’s strange because I never thought of that happening to me and even then when it did, it didn’t sink in until I started telling some of my colleagues about it and they said, ‘Wow, really?!’ I’m too close to all of it to see what it means and I think it’s the same with the story in Sewing Woman, as well as many other stories, where people are just living their lives, and I think that perhaps it takes someone from the outside to put it into a larger context of what it means to be a citizen of the world.”

“I think that even feeds over into my work on Licensed To Kill. When I did that film I had some pushback, questioning, ‘Why are you giving these killers this forum? Why are you focusing on them? It’s really the victims we need to talk to.’ I agree that the victims need to tell their stories and we need to hear them and the devastation that these sorts of crimes have on them and their loved ones and their friends and family, but I wanted to learn about the perpetrators and what really shaped their lives to lead them to these murders. Certainly we can call them monsters, and I can understand why we want to call them monsters, but if we do that we may never understand the roots of this evil. That’s what I was trying to do with that film, to go in line with your question about seeking the personal stories of people who we otherwise think are anonymous.”

Cameraman Robert Shepard and Arthur Dong on location for Licensed to Kill at Robertson Correctional Unit in Abilene, TX. Photo by Angi Rosga. ©1997 DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

Licensed To Kill is definitely a film that I’d recommend, as with all of your work, but I found watching it to be a very distressing experience. Feeling as uncomfortable as I did as a viewer I wondered what it was like for you to actually come to face-to-face with these people to conduct those interviews?

“I knew that I had to take a very clinical point of view from the get-go. I had been a victim of gay-bashing a couple of times in San Francisco—in the Castro of all places—and in fact I learned that a lot of anti-gay violent crimes do happen in neighborhoods where there are large concentrations of gay people, because the perpetrators know that’s where they can find us. But in approaching this project, I knew what I wanted to do as a filmmaker, as an artist, and I knew the shape and the arc of the film, the look of the film. I had that in my mind from the beginning and I knew that in order to accomplish my goal I had to conduct myself more as a journalist looking for facts, looking for the story, not that I wanted to tell, but as told to me by the person I’m meeting. I kept that attitude throughout in terms of my research and development, during the production period when I actually met the men, and then in the post-production phase. In my editing room, I actually had pictures of each of the men in front of me on the wall facing me to remind me what my task was. As a filmmaker and as an artist, it is filtered through my lens of course, and did I pick and choose moments from the interviews? Of course I did. I’ve shown the film to at least one of the men in the film, and he said, ‘Yeah, you told my story’, and that’s what I wanted. My test was that if I ever had an audience of all these men in the room, that they would respond by saying, ‘Yes, he told my story.'”

“So it became a clinical process almost. As you can see, in terms of the artistry it’s a plain film with a mellow,  generic presentation. There’s no fancy lighting, not really much fancy editing, the score is minimal, and the camera moves on the archival crime scene photos are non-existent. That was all purposeful, because I wanted to not embellish. I didn’t want to show, ‘oh look, I’m a great filmmaker.’ I put all that aside and that was the vision for the film.”

Licensed to Kill. William Cross photographed by Arthur Dong. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

Quite often as you’re conducting those interviews in Licensed To Kill we can see that they’re thinking about things that they haven’t considered before because of the questions you’re asking.

“When we shut the cameras off, a few of the men said to me, ‘No one’s asked me about this part of the crime. It’s always about what weapon I used, what stranglehold I used, what time I arrived at a certain place; statistics, data, but not about my personal life and my feelings about the crime itself’, which is exactly what I wanted to ask them.”

What did you feel you took away from the experience of making the film? Did it answer some of your questions?

“When it comes to attitudes against gay people, whether it’s in America or around the world, you can’t just pinpoint it to a phrase like ‘hate crimes’ or ‘homophobia’. That’s what I learned from these men, that we really need to dig deeper into exploring why it is that our community is so subjected to violence. While it’s convenient to have a phrase like ‘hate crimes’ and a word like ‘homophobia’, the reason behind the crimes is much more complex.”

“I self-distribute my films, and either do the press myself or hire a publicist, and I remember that I was very resistant to use the word ‘homophobia’ and the phrase ‘hate crimes’ in describing that film. I didn’t want to simplify it, but I think the world needs simplification. It needs to be able to point to one element or two elements in order to tackle it. So I’m still grappling with that idea whenever I see the word ‘hate’, it makes me think that there’s more to it than that.”

Family Fundamentals. David Jester and Guy Foti. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

It was partly making Licensed To Kill that then led you to you next film, Family Fundamentals, wasn’t it?

“Very much so. I wanted to further explore my hesitation to use the words ‘hate’ and ‘homophobia’. So many of the men that you see in Licensed To Kill, and the other killers who I researched for the film, went back to their Christian upbringings in terms of the roots of their attitudes towards gay people. Particularly in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the political landscape in America was so anti-gay; legislation, elected officials, public figures were openly and proudly proclaiming their belief that gay people were not even second class, but third class citizens. Even today that’s happening, though not as much. It was part of the national conversation at that time, culminating in Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998, which really got me thinking. I’ve always been interested in how governance and public policy controls us as citizens and controls certain groups of people, for example in World War II with the internment of Japanese Americans in this country, and then of course in Coming Out Under Fire with the discrimination against gay service members and the violation of their human rights.”

“With Family Fundamentals, the idea behind that film was about looking at activities of legislators and community leaders and how they control us. I went to families where there were anti-gay leaders, not just holding anti-gay views or donating to a particular church, but really working hard to create anti-gay measures, despite having gay kids themselves. I saw that as a metaphor of America, like, ‘Okay, so there’s no denying that we’re here, but we have these policies that are discriminating against us and not recognizing our rights, how do we all come together or not come together?’ So I used these families as metaphors for that larger idea. A lot of that came from listening to the men while making Licensed To Kill and then adding on to that the political landscape which was happening in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”

Coming Out Under Fire. Arthur Dong with Stephen Lighthill on camera. Photo by Zand Gee. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

As you were saying, that also links back to Coming Out Under Fire with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Congressional hearings in 1993, which was cited by one of the mass murderers you interviewed in Licensed To Kill as what inspired his crimes; gays and lesbians being permitted to serve.

“Were you in America during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hearings?”

No, I moved here in April 2016 as we were approaching the election.

“Oh, lucky you! Well, those hearings that we see at the end of Coming Out Under Fire were crazy, it was nuts, because these hearings were on national TV here all day. It was astounding, because prior to that you hardly saw any gay people on TV at all, and if you did they were in pretty derogatory roles or within a derogatory framework. Then here in the halls of Congress were our elected officials talking about me, us, our community in such vile ways, in such misunderstood ways, in such prejudiced and bigoted ways, and that was our country, our government. Then to have the gay and lesbian service members actually go into the halls of Congress and speak up on these panels was so striking. There’s a scene of that in Coming Out Under Fire, where we see a service member say, ‘No, wait a minute, hold it, you’ve got it all wrong. We are not at all what you’re talking about.’ It was so inspiring to see that happen.”

“When I was making Coming Out Under Fire there was some pushback—maybe I just thrive on pushback—from the gay community asking, ‘Why are you wanting to make a film about the rights of our community to fight in a war, to be part of the military machine, to go to third world countries and massacre third world people? Why even want that?’ I think it’s similar to the gay marriage issue. In the beginning a lot of people questioned, ‘Why do you even want to be part of that institution?’ For me, it was less about wanting to be a part of that institution and more about human rights, it’s about human dignity, and how the world views us as people and individuals. It was more about that than fighting for the right to be part of the military.”

Coming Out Under Fire. Allan Bérubé and Arthur Dong. Photo by Zand Gee. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

In Coming Out Under Fire we see that discrimination in the 1940s and how badly they were treated with some service members being locked up in cages and tens of thousands being dishonorably discharged and not given any veteran benefits.

“To be officially discharged as undesirable, as psychologically damaged, as mentally ill, those kind of labels by your own government, and then to have to go out into the world with that stigma and face family members and attempt to gain employment was such an awful situation. When I was working in EDD as an employment counselor we’d help veterans find work and we’d wonder why they were discharged, because employers want to know the details of it. I’m talking about the 1970s, but can you imagine in the 1940s being discharged with that kind of label? I get angry just thinking about it.” 

Coming Out Under Fire. Contact Caravan USO show, US Army. World War II. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

There’s also a lot of queer joy in the film and one of the subjects makes a point of saying something like, I don’t want you to think we were all suicidal and it was all grim. Was it important to you to include stories and images of loving relationships and friendships and details like the gay newsletter, that sense of bonding and of a community forming?

“The Myrtle Beach Bitch gay newsletter! Yes, totally, and this comes down to how I approach my work. I think it’s important to know that sometimes we are the victims of forces that we can’t control, but it’s up to us to overcome those barriers and it’s up to us as humans to find a way to survive and to resist. It may not be to the level of making great social change, but if as individuals we can resist now so that we can survive, I think that’s an accomplishment. Particularly when we’re talking about pre-Stonewall days, in the 1930s and 40s when there was no gay community, where the only community that existed were ones where you found each other as individuals. What I saw in Coming Out Under Fire, along with the author Allan Bérubé whose book the film was based on, was a beginning of the forming of a community. They were forced to do that. People were all drafted into same gender barracks and so there was no way that they couldn’t see each other. That’s what happened as a result of the draft and selective service. That helped us as individuals and as a community and I think that the adversity brought people together as well, that there was a common force against us, that was very important.”

Coming Out Under Fire. Phyllis Arby and Mildred, Women’s Army Corps, World war II. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

“As we were crafting the film and working with the editor Veronica Selver—who worked on Word Is Out—it was important for us to have a message that some people didn’t come through this. We had to acknowledge that that was the truth, that was the reality, but some people did and they forged ahead and the community forged ahead. But when we finished the film in 1994 there were still questions about what was to come. Things got better and of course, when you arrived in this country, Trump brought up the battle again and this is now being somewhat resolved with Biden being in there reversing some of the mandates that Trump put in place with the military, particularly against transgender service members.”

“When I was making the film, I reached out to my advisors, my crew, and my post-production crew particularly, and said, ‘It’s important to have a parade and to have celebration, and maybe that’s a part of the ending, but I’m not going to end my film with a parade yet.’ I was very conscious of doing that. Some of the battles have been won, but the war is still on.”

Coming Out Under Fire. Stuart Loomis and friend in the US Army. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

For equality?

“Yes. Looking back, I remember when Matthew Shepard was murdered I was really devastated for him and for his family, but I was also really disappointed that maybe my work didn’t matter, maybe the work I put into Licensed To Kill didn’t lead to any progressive change, or the opening up of attitudes. I remember that and the same feeling came up with Hollywood Chinese, my film about the Chinese in Hollywood, when in the last couple of years, particularly with Asian Americans, the issue of representation has come to the forefront. How long does it take to get to a place where we don’t have to talk about these things and where we don’t have to make films or write articles or books about these issues? I guess it takes a long time.”

Hollywood Chinese. Allan Barrett on camera in London for Hollywood Chinese with Arthur Dong. Photo by Young Gee. DeepFocus Productions, Inc.

Actually, I was going to make that point about Hollywood Chinese, because you made it in 2007, but as you say it’s only been in the last couple of years that there’s been a big conversation about diversity and inclusion in front of and behind the camera. One thing that I thought about Hollywood Chinese, along with much of your work, is a sense that if you hadn’t made it then perhaps no one else would have. How far was that part of the motivation for making Hollywood Chinese, the feeling that it might not get made if you didn’t do it? 

“As a film historian and as a film lover, one of the genres that I really latched on to was the compilation film, these documentaries about Hollywood. I love those films because you see snippets of the films and then people talking about them. But there was never one about Asians or Chinese in Hollywood and I was really frustrated about that and so I said, ‘It’s about time we get one and if no one else is going to do it, I’m going do it!’ Now that I’ve done it, I’m really glad that I was the one to do it. Certainly another filmmaker could have done it, another filmmaker outside of the Asian American community could have done it, but it wouldn’t be the same. I think this leads to the question of who gets to tell whose story. I’m glad I jumped at it and said I’m going to tell this story because I’m a part of the Asian American community, but aside from that I’m also a part of the film lovers community and the film historians community. I think that combination gave it a balance, because first and foremost I made it as a film lover, but then particularly this documentary that dealt with the Chinese and Hollywood, because of my background and my interests, that gave the film an added bonus. I think the combination worked really well because I wanted the film to speak to film lovers, whether or not they were Asian American or Asian, that was critical to me.”

Hollywood Chinese. The Curse of Quon Gwon (1917). Director Marion Wong (left). Marion Collection.

“I was a member of the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress—they’re the group of people who choose that registry of 25 films every year—and while I was a member I brought a rough cut of the film to my fellow board members. I think I was the only Asian on the board at that time, this was the mid-2000s, and I said to them, ‘I’m making this film, maybe after dinner I can show it to you, because I really want the film to work for all of you.’ They were all from different archives and agencies and museums, and so that was one of my most important work-in-progress screenings.”

Mei Lanfang. Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum, Beijing.

So I’ve got one last question for you and it’s for your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“Possibly the very earliest impact that I felt as a gay person would be from seeing Mei Lanfang. He was a world-renowned Peking opera star. As is tradition in Peking opera, men played women’s roles and he was internationally famous for doing that. I knew about him since I was a child in our Chinese community, having been born and raised in Chinatown in san Francisco, and no one made anything of the fact that he was a man in full drag.”

“I couldn’t have been more than five or six-years-old when I asked my sister, ‘Who is this Mei Lanfang?’ And she replied, ‘He’s a Peking opera star and it’s a lot of work to get to that level. He had to go to a special school in China and started training when he was a kid.’ Like in Farewell My Concubine. I said, ‘Really? Can I do that? Can I go to China and apply to a Peking opera school and be a Mei Lanfang?’ I can remember being in my parents’ bedroom dancing around and mimicking Mei Lanfang. I wasn’t in drag in terms of makeup or anything, but I was doing the movements. I’d never thought about it in this way before until you asked that question, but from very early on that told me that gender roles were fluid and that I could be what I wanted. This all makes sense to me now.”

A grammar school era Arthur Dong in the living room of his childhood home in Chinatown. Courtesy of Arthur Dong.

“As I mentioned, I was brought up with Chinese movies, and a major genre in Chinese movies was depictions of Cantonese operas. In my grammar school in Chinatown, it was mostly Chinese American kids, with one or two non-Chinese, and I can name them right now. There was Jonathan Dickey, who was a white kid, and Derek who was an African American kid, and everybody else was Chinese. So in the school yard during recess when the other kids would being playing basketball, or marbles, or foursquare, or whatever, Jimmy Hom, Joan Won, and I would play Cantonese opera. We would dance around singing in Chinese, like we were Chinese opera stars. I don’t remember if I played only the male roles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I played the female roles as well. This is going into the 1960s in San Francisco as the counterculture movement was developing, where social norms, gender norms, and political norms were being shattered and challenged. That was the environment I was brought up in all around me in San Francisco. So from my parents’ bedroom, mimicking Mei Lanfang, to the schoolyard, to the 60s counterculture movement, that was a trajectory that led me to the kind of work that I eventually did.”

By James Kleinmann

Stories Of Resistance: Documentaries by Arthur Dong is now playing on the Criterion Channel. For more information and to sign up for a 14-day free trial visit CriterionChannel.com. The retrospective features the following titles:

Sewing Woman, 1982

Forbidden City, USA, 1989

Coming Out Under Fire, 1994

Licensed To Kill, 1997

Family Fundamentals, 2002

Hollywood Chinese, 2007

The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, 2015

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