Arthur Dong is an Oscar®-nominated, and Peabody and triple Sundance award-winning filmmaker, author and curator whose work centers on Asian American and LGBTQ stories.
FILMMAKER: A theme that underscores Dong’s films is personal stories of survival and resistance set against backdrops of social and cultural oppressions. His films that investigate anti-gay prejudice includes Family Fundamentals, Licensed to Kill, and Coming Out Under Fire, which were later re-released in the collection “Stories from the War on Homosexuality.”
Dong’s films about Chinese Americans include Hollywood Chinese, Forbidden City, U.S.A. and three earlier short films, Sewing Woman, Lotus and Living Music for Golden Mountains, which comprise A Toisan Trilogy. These were re-released in his follow-up collection “Stories from Chinese America.”
“Stories from Chinese America” also featured the newly scored and restored 1917 film The Curse of Quon Gwon, the earliest known Chinese American feature film that Dong helped rescue during his work on Hollywood Chinese. His latest film The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor profiles a Cambodian genocide survivor who went on to become the only Asian male who has won an Oscar® for best supporting actor.
AUTHOR: Dong has taken the extensive research for his documentaries and transformed the material into critically acclaimed publications. His first published full-length book Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970 (2015, DeepFocus Productions, Inc.) included a foreword by best selling author Lisa See and won the American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s IPPY Award, and the Art Deco Historic Preservation Award. Before that, Dong served as editor and contributing writer on museum exhibition catalogues for shows he curated (see below).
Dong’s latest book Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films (2019, Angel City Press), is a chronicle of images based on over 2,000 pieces of movie memorabilia the author collected since childhood and during the ten-year research for his documentary Hollywood Chinese. The book won the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award, and has been selected a “Critic’s Choice” by Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times and one of “13 Smart Must-Read Books on Race and Hate” by The Advocate. Dong is currently developing Grandview Films: Cinematic Crossings with Joseph Sunn Jue (working title), his third in a trilogy of coffee table books that focus on the visual history and little-known stories of Chinese American artists.
CURATOR: Besides films and books, Dong has curated exhibitions showcasing his extensive archive of cultural ephemera. His shows include Chop Suey on Wax: The Flower Drum Song Album at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in San Francisco, Hollywood Chinese: The Arthur Dong Collection at the Chinese America Museum in Los Angeles, and Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs at the Jewett Gallery in the San Francisco Public Library. His newest show, Hollywood Chinese at the Formosa, is currently on display at the iconic Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.
TELEVISION: Dong’s first corporate media job was at KGO-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco where he worked in 1981-1982 as a producer in the news department’s Special Projects division. From 1991-1992, Dong produced thirteen documentaries for Life & Times, the signature news program of the former Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET. For PBS’s first national series on gay and lesbian issues The Question of Equality, he directed the premiere episode Out Rage ’69, which examined the New York City Stonewall Riots. Dong’s documentaries have been broadcast in the series “American Experience”, “American Masters” and “P.O.V.”
In addition to domestic broadcasts on PBS, the Sundance Channel, and Comcast, his films have been televised in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
FILM EXCELLENCE AWARDS & HONORS: Among Dong’s over 100 film excellence awards are an Oscar® nomination, the George Foster Peabody Award, three Sundance Film Festival awards, the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award, Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award, two consecutive GLAAD Media Awards and five Emmy nominations.
“For his continued success in the challenging arena of independent documentary filmmaking and his longstanding commitment to social justice,” San Francisco State University named Dong its 2007 Alumnus of the Year.
The OUT 100 Award from OUT magazine was presented to Dong in 1998 “for waging a one-man anti-violence project with his documentary on convicted murderers of homosexuals, Licensed to Kill.” In 2015, Equality Forum selected him a LGBT History Month Icon, and in the follwowing year, Pride LA named him a Community Pioneer.
Dong’s honors for service to the Asian American community include the Pioneer Award from the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Asian American Media Award from Asian CineVision, the Historian Award from the Chinese Historical Society of America, the Steve Tatsukawa Media Award from Visual Communications, the History Maker Award from the Chinese American Museum, and the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.
FUNDING: Funding for Dong’s work has been received from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the Soros Documentary Fund, the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Initiative, the Independent Television Service (ITVS), the Center for Asian American Media, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, American Documentary, the Hugh Hefner Foundation, Cal Humanities, the American Film Institute, the Unitarian Universalist Association, among many others.
He has also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Film, two Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowships, and selected a Sundance Documentary Fellow.
DISTRIBUTION: Dong’s films have been theatrically distributed throughout America and featured in festivals worldwide, including the Sundance Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival, Golden Horse International Film Festival, International Documentary Film Amsterdam, Sydney International Film Festival, Gotesburg International Film Festival, Morelia International Film Festival, and others.
Retrospectives of Dong’s work have been presented at the Human Rights International Film Festival in Warsaw, Poland, the Walker Art Center, the Hawaii International Film Festival, and Outfest. For the 2012 CNEX Documentary Film Festival in Taipei, Dong was invited as their Filmmaker in Focus, and in 2015, he was bestowed with Spotlight tributes at CAAMFest, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and the New York Asian American International Film Festival. That same year, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh sponsored a 10-day, 4-city Cambodia tour of Dong’s latest film, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor.
EARLY YEARS: Born and raised in San Francisco Chinatown, the 1970s was a period of artistic exploration for Dong. To begin, he made his first films in 1970: Dance of the Lion, which documented Chinese New Years celebrations, and Public, an animated short that skewered societal norms and violence. Both super-8 films were outcomes of a pilot program to introduce film production to students at Galileo High School (now the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology).
By 1979, he enrolled at San Francisco State University’s School of Cinema where he directed Living Music for Golden Mountains, a film about his Chinese music teacher. He followed-up with Sewing Woman, a documentary detailing his mother’s immigration to America from China. Clocking in at 14-minutes and made for under $2,000, the film went on to garner an Academy Award® nomination for best short documentary.
The demand for Sewing Woman motivated Dong to establish DeepFocus Productions in 1982, which continues to develop, produce, and distribute his work. In 1984, he was selected a directing fellow by the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies and made the move to Los Angeles where he currently resides.
INTERSECTIONALITY: Amid the AIDS epidemic from the 1980s-1990s, Dong set out to encourage dialogue between the Asian American Pacific Islander and LGBTQ communities. As a strategy, he offered premieres of his films to organizations from these groups so long as they partnered together, an infrequent coalition at that time. For the premiere of Forbidden City, USA, he brought together the Asian Pacific AIDS Coalition and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (now known as CAAM, the Center for Asian American Media) to produce a black-tie event with 1,000 patrons.
For Coming Out Under Fire, Dong invited the Asian American International Film Festival (now known as CAAMFest) and Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival to join forces for its premiere at the Castro Theatre, located in the heart of San Francisco’s gay neighborhood. The sold-out event with 1,400 people would become the first of future screenings to be booked at the Castro by CAAMFest, which now regularly programs LGBTQ films.
BOARD MEMBER: Over the years, Dong has served on the boards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Film Independent, Outfest, and the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. At the Academy, he was among the original architects that advocated for and founded the organization’s Documentary Branch in 2001. Dong currently serves on the the Academy Museum’s Inclusion Advisory Committee to counsel on diversity issues. During his tenure on the National Film Preservation Board, he nominated and successfully lobbied for the recognition of two landmark Asian American films into the National Film Registry: The Curse of Quon Gwon and Flower Drum Song.
JUROR: Dong has been invited to serve as a juror for the Sundance Film Festival, the International Documentary Festival at Amsterdam, the Morelia International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, Outfest, and others. As a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, he votes for the Oscars® and Emmys.
TEACHING: Dong has taught documentary for over 25 years, recently as Distinguished Professor in Film at Loyola Marymount University. He has also taught at Emory University, San Francisco State University, University of Hawaii, University of North Texas, UC Santa Barbara, University of Texas, the CNEX Doc Academy in Taiwan, the Sundance Documentary Workshop in Beijing, and the Sundance Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker.
BOOK REFERENCES: Dong is profiled in the publications Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America; Independent Film Distribution; the Council on Foundation’s Documentary in Action; Chinese Americans: The History and Culture of a People; Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans; The Views from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, and Hostile Climate: Report on Anti-Gay Activity. He is featured in Film Quarterly‘s special dossier, Asian American Film at Fifty.