Hundred-year History of Chinese Actors’ Struggles in Hollywood

In November 2017, Disney’s live-action film MULAN officially announced that Liu Yifei, also known as Crystal Liu, was selected to be the leading actress to portray the first real Asian princess in Disney’s history. On July 8, 2019, the film MULAN officially released its first trailer, announcing that Jet Li, Gong Li, and Donnie Yen would also star in this film. MULAN is also a story with the largest investment by Hollywood ever set in China.

The trailer immediately triggered heated discussions among domestic and foreign netizens upon its release. In the trailer, Liu Yifei, dressed in red, is shooting arrows on horseback to show her valiant and heroic bearing. Thanks to the iconic war and martial arts scenes in this film, both Chinese and overseas audiences have been drawn back to their most familiar world of swordsmen films. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and many other Chinese faces with amazing performances in Hollywood films came to mind one by one.

From the Chinese “Kungfu boom” to insignificant roles in Hollywood films, then to the major female role in a Disney film, Chinese actors and actresses have spent a long time gradually rising up in Hollywood.

Opening Chapter

The first Chinese actor with star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is neither Bruce Lee, nor Jackie Chan, but Anna May Wong.

Born in 1905 in Los Angeles, Anna May Wong perfectly presented the imagination by Western society of the oriental women at that time with her portray of the role and distinctive performances in her famous film THE TOLL OF THE SEA(1922): They are as pure and beautiful as a lotus flower, and willing to give everything for love. She thus became famous overnight. However, in the United States with serious racial discrimination and strong anti-Chinese sentiment then, it was the “oriental element” injected by her into Hollywood that became one of her labels which prevented her from entering the mainstream. Later on, Anna May Wong had always played such symbolic supporting roles as maid, thief and streetwalker. In 1928, intolerant of such discrimination, Anna May Wong left Hollywood for Europe for better career prospect.


Getting Better 

Thirty years later, a 19-year-old Chinese boy went to study in the United States, eager to realize his potential in that country where racial discrimination remained serious. This boy was Bruce Lee.

In 1966, Bruce Lee played the supporting role “Kato” in his first Hollywood work THE GREEN HORNET, which won him national reputation. However, there remained no escape from the cage of racial prejudice for a yellow man like him, leading to the same fate with Anna May Wong. He even helped Warner plan the American drama KUNG FU of which the title was conceived by him, only to find that he could not play the protagonist: Kwai Chang Caine, a monk of the Shaolin Temple.

With his helpless of the reality and desire for more significant roles, Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong for better career development. In 1971, the film THE BIG BOSS starring Bruce Lee became so popular that he finally enjoyed the feeling of being success. Later on, he went on starring in films including FIST OF FURY and WAY OF THE DRAGON, which smashed box office records repeatedly.

In 1973, his marvelous film performances in Hong Kong and unique Chinese kung fu finally attracted the attention of Hollywood once again. Then, a long-awaited olive branch was extended to Bruce Lee by Warner who invited him to star in the Hong Kong-American co-production of ENTER THE DRAGON. Thanks to this film, Bruce Lee returned to Hollywood. Not only did he bring a Hollywood crew to film in Hong Kong, but he also guided and supported the younger generation of Hong Kong actors to star in this co-production.

Unfortunately, the fall of the kung fu superstar was also very dramatic. In 1973, just as Bruce Lee was waiting for the ENTER THE DRAGON to be released with ambitions, and preparing to continue to finish the shooting of THE GAME OF DEATH, he suddenly died on July 20 in Hong Kong, at a young age of 32.

On July 26, ENTER THE DRAGON was screened in the United States, and reaped an amazing box office. After defeating many first-class Hollywood blockbusters released at the same time, this new Hollywood kung fu film came into being, marking that Bruce Lee finally conquered the world with kung fu. However, Bruce Lee did not see these recurring images in his dream with his own eyes.


Climax Period 

Nearly three decades later, that younger actor beaten by Bruce Lee in the film also brought his RUSH HOUR 2 starring himself to shot in Hong Kong again. This actor was Jackie Chan, the only Chinese person winning the Oscar Academy Honorary Award.

Unlike the predecessor Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan entered Hollywood with his first work with auras.

He entered the profession of film at the age of 17 and then created a new sub-type of “Kung Fu Comedy” by presenting many classic films with his reckless shooting style and a clever mind. In 1980 at the age of 25, Jackie Chan, a young and promising actor praised as box office champion and “the first person of Hong Kong Kung Fu”, starred in the Kungfu film THE BIG BRAWL tailored for him by Golden Harvest to enter Hollywood.

However, due to the differences in languages, cultural environment, filming systems and others, Jackie Chan felt that he was unaccustomed to it. As a result, he did not produce the swift and fierce martial arts effect of Bruce Lee, and also lost the original humorous style, which made the action scenes tedious and boring. After the release, the box office was not ideal as the North American audience did not see the expected “Second Bruce Lee”, or appreciate the acrobatic actions of Jackie Chan. Subsequent films such as THE CANNONBALL RUN and THE PROTECTOR also failed to help him open the US market as he wished. Until 15 years later, Jackie Chan brought his original Hong Kong film RUMBLE IN THE BRONX to Hollywood again. Reaping USD32.93 million in the North American market and a global box office of over USD80 million, Jackie Chan finally opened the door to Hollywood.

On Jackie Chan’s road to Hollywood, another film series of RUSH HOUR were also worth mentioning, which enjoyed the same status as RUMBLE IN THE BRONX.

In 1998, RUSH HOUR was released in the United States. Thanks to the humorous way of interactions between Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, a famous Hollywood master of verbal humor, and the refreshing fighting scenes different from those commonly seen in the past films of Jackie Chan, this film finally reaped a box office of USD140 million in the North America, ranking seventh in the North American box office rankings of that year. This film established his status as one of the A-list action actors in Hollywood.

RUSH HOUR 2 even produced more brilliant performances, with a North American box office of USD226 million and a global box office of USD329 million, which set the box office record for a Chinese actor starring in a Hollywood film and the box office record for a comedy released on the opening day in the United States. The name “Jackie Chan” was thus spread all over the world.

Just in 1998 when Jackie Chan was very influential with his RUSH HOUR in Hollywood, Jet Lee, who was all powerful in the Asian film world, also came to Hollywood with his piles of film materials on his shooting in the Asian film studios. Starting from scratch, he was invited to auditions again and again, only to return with frustrations time and again. Jet Lee got a role with his humble posture and filmed his first Hollywood film, LETHAL WEAPON 4. The film was sensational upon his release in the United States. With merely three scenes and one English dialogue, Jet Lee won crazy screams of the American audience about his fabulous kungfu actions. In 2000 after waiting for a long time, Jet Lee finally welcomed the first work of ROMEO MUST DIE starring him in Hollywood, and his performances in the film once again conquered the American audience. Subsequently, Jet Lee successively starred in KISS OF THE DRAGON and THE ONE. The year 2002 marked an important year for Jet Lee. In this year, the film HERO starring him reaped a box office of USD6.74 million, ranking No.1 in the North American box office for the first week of screening in North America.

As Jackie Chan and Jet Lee were the two Kungfu superstars creating a Kungfu spree in Hollywood at the same time, the audience expected to see the two fighting in one film, which was realized in the film THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. In 2008, the first cooperation between Jackie Chan and Jet Lee became the biggest stunt of this Hollywood film.

Michelle Yeoh, a Malaysian Chinese, began her career based on her image of an action film actress created in Hong Kong films. In 1997, in 007: TOMORROW NEVER DIES, Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian Bond Girl, also the least vase-like Bond girl. Since then, she has been known by the world.

In 2000, Michelle Yeoh starred Yu Xiulian in the film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON directed by Ang Lee, which made her become more eye-catching in the world.

Later, in the MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA starring together with Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, she played an experienced geisha, indicating her complete separation from the fight and action scenes and a shift to art films. After the success of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, Michelle Yeoh also began to try roles with more temperaments and styles.

In 2018, a love comedy with all-Asian cast of CRAZY RICH ASIANS was released in North America. With a low budget of merely USD30 million, this film became the daily winner of box office for three consecutive days and also an annual surprise hit with a box office of USD170 million. Michelle Yeoh, starring a mother for the first time in the film, proved to the audience again that she also had more possibilities in addition to being an action star.


Confusions and Transformation

In 1998, Zhang Ziyi became a new generation of “Zhang Yimou’s girl” by starring in Zhang Yimou’s film THE ROAD HOME. In 2000, Zhang Ziyi obtained the role of Yu Jiaolong in the film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON directed by Ang Lee. After the release, this film won four Oscar Awards in a row, and the European and American audience were also conquered by Zhang Ziyi, an oriental beauty who could fight in films.

In 2001, Zhang Ziyi first starred the Hollywood film RUSH HOUR 2, one of Jackie Chan’s masterpieces mentioned above. In this film, she played the role of a beautiful but ferocious fight girl Hu Li, which indicated her official entry into Hollywood.

In 2005, Zhang Ziyi, in the golden age of her career, once again came to Hollywood amid domestic controversies, and starred in MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA produced by Spielberg. Zhang Ziyi was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, which was also the first time for a Chinese actor to have been nominated for the award.

However, Zhang Ziyi rarely appeared in Hollywood blockbusters, after making these brilliant achievements. Later, during an interview when she talked about her experience in Hollywood, she bluntly said that Hollywood would always give too easy and too superficial roles with rare contents to Chinese actors.

Zhang Ziyi’s remarks also revealed the bitterness of Chinese actor’s struggles in Hollywood at that time: After Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Lee, more and more Chinese actors have embarked on their journey to Hollywood and constantly played their part in top-quality films, but with little time on the screen.

Li Bingbing began her Hollywood career with SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN, with Wendi Deng Murdoch as the film producer. Although the word of mouth and box office of this film were both unsatisfying after it was released, Li Bingbing opened her door to Hollywood. After accumulating a certain international reputation, Li Bingbing has participated in such Hollywood blockbusters as RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION and TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. Although the films were sold well, Li Bingbing always had a weak sense of presence by playing supporting roles.

In 2018, THE MEG with cooperation between Li Bingbing and Jason Statham was released. This popcorn commercial film, with satisfying word of mouth, a domestic box office of over RMB1 billion, and a global box office of over USD500 million, is probably the most successful co-production ever made. As the absolute female leading role in THE MEG, Li Bingbing finally stood up with this film and also ushered in another spring of her career. It is reported that Marvel also launched a super heroine film REALM OF THE TIGER starring Li Bingbing.

Another actor who is very influential in Hollywood is Donnie Yen at the same age with Jet Lee.

Donnie Yen has not starred in Hollywood blockbusters. Although he had made a series of attempts in Hollywood early on, including being the action director of CODE NAME: THE PUMA and making guest appearances on HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME. But under the Hollywood film system and thinking, it remained difficult for Donnie Yen to open the mainstream Hollywood market. It was until 2003 that Jackie Chan brought Donnie Yen into the Hollywood work SHANGHAI KNIGHTS, which was invested and starred by Jackie Chan who also had the right to say. Thanks to this film, Donnie Yen really enjoyed certain popularity in Hollywood.


In 2016, the 53-year-old Donnie Yen ushered in his spring in Hollywood. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY in which he played a part was released. Although he did not play the leading role, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen had much time on the screen as good partners in the film, and their characters were very brilliant. The high-budget film with an investment of USD200 million became a box office smash upon its release, reaping USD532 million in the North American market and a global box office of USD1.056 billion, thus topping the box office of 2016. This performance also set the highest box office record for Chinese in Hollywood, so many fans called that he had “broken into the Hollywood core”.

With that, Donnie Yen played a big villain in XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE released in 2017, and presented a film showing the stunt visual effects and oriental Kungfu together with Vin Diesel. He gained unmatched fame at that time.In this Disney’s live-action film MULAN, Donnie Yen played the role of Liu Yifei’s master.

In an interview talking about the status of Chinese actors in Hollywood, Donnie Yen also expressed his own expectations: “Compared with the Hollywood films with my roles over a decade ago, to be frank, I didn’t have the right to speak because my work failed to prove my strength, and the market then was also different from the current one in which we have such an important position. But I think this current space is not perfect enough, and we must continue to break through the possibilities of Chinese actors in their minds. ”


In fact, from the early Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee who grew stronger amid racial discriminations, to Jackie Chan and Jet Lee occupying a place in Hollywood films with their glories made in the rising Hong Kong film industry, to a number of Chinese stars coming to Hollywood one after another for adding glories since the 21st century, then to the eye-catching Disney princess played by a yellow-skinned actress Liu Yifei, this brilliant history of Chinese actors’ struggles in Hollywood is also a history of the development of Chinese film market.

In the 1970s and 1980s when the Hong Kong film industry rose rapidly, standard film production system of the whole industry was also getting close to maturity, and was quickly entering an era of scaled development. It was also from this period of time that Hong Kong films began to usher in the golden years. Compared with the two or three Chinese stars fighting alone in Hollywood, the Hong Kong action films with distinctive oriental characteristics and popular styles were more able to trigger the curiosity of European and American audiences. At that time, Chinese actors were achieving certain successes in Hollywood with the label of “real Kungfu”. Although Chinese actors did not have much time on the screen and mainly played only the action films in Hollywood at that stage, it was indeed an important period for the Chinese market to be in line with Hollywood. It was also the bidirectional output at this stage that realized the mutual understanding between Hollywood and Chinese film market.

In the 21st century, as the Chinese film market has developed rapidly with increasingly expanding market volumes and the inflow of foreign capital, the Chinese film and television companies, both large and small, were no longer satisfied with pure domestic films and going out of Asia with ambitions to the holy land, Hollywood. From participating in the investment, distribution, one of the industrial chains, to the multi-dimensional and deep cooperation of the whole industry chain, Chinese filmmakers have gradually gained deeper understanding of the film industrialization process in Hollywood, which also began to attach importance to the Chinese film market, with expectations that more Chinese audiences could be attracted to boost the overseas box office by adding Chinese actors in their films. The performance of Chinese actors in this stage in Hollywood film has also gradually changed from insignificant roles to main roles in co-productions and film & TV works invested by China.

In recent years, with the rapid expansion of domestic film market at a rate of about 30% per year, China has become the second largest film market in the world. Many Hollywood blockbusters even achieved better box office earnings in China than in the US, and PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING and WARCRAFT were the best examples. Market changes are rewriting the pattern of film creation in the current world.

It is worth noting that from 2017 to 2019, the market share of US Hollywood film companies in the Chinese film market has been gradually reduced. Compared with the situation in which Hollywood films played a dominating role in the Chinese market a few years ago, Chinese domestic films have now become the main force driving the growth of box office. According to Guan Yadi, a Beijing film producer and film critic, “The Chinese audience still like Hollywood films, but in the future I believe they will be more interested in watching films about China’s own stories.”


By Stella LI

Editor Guan Yu

Original: Editorial Department of yiqipaidianying

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