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The 2018 Oscars are now behind us and it was another year where very few Asian Americans were nominated for Academy Awards. Films that are based on real-life historical figures and events tend to do well during award season and this year was no different with titles like I TONYA, DARKEST HOUR, THE POST, and DUNKIRK up for major awards. So it makes sense that a film based on a compelling real-life Asian American historical figure or event could be the ticket to award season love.

So following are my humble suggestions for six “little known” real-life Asian American stories that I think could provide the foundation for interesting, award-worthy films. I’ve excluded the more obvious events like the Chinese railroad workers, Japanese American internment, and Korean Americans/L.A. riots as well as bio-pics of more familiar figures like Bruce Lee and Anna May Wong (who have either already gotten or will get the big screen Hollywood treatment) and instead chosen to highlight things that many, even in our community, may not be familiar with. (Interesting footnote: It wasn’t intentional, but all of these are California stories which speaks to the rich Asian American history of my home state)

So in no particular order:

1) ST FRANCIS DAM DISASTER

An aerial photo of Santa Paula after the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. (Harry C. Anderson / Los Angeles Times)

Most Californians know that the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the biggest disaster in the state’s history (in terms of lives lost), but very few know about the #2 disaster: the collapse of the St. Francis Dam on the night of March 12, 1928.

Opened in 1926 by William Mulholland (aka the man who brought water to Los Angeles), the dam, which was located in San Francisquito Canyon near present-day Valencia, was supposed to secure his legacy. It was projected to provide a year’s worth of water to L.A., but it was hastily constructed and corners cut to make the deadline. Two years later, the dam collapsed and sent a 10-story high avalanche of water gushing 54 miles towards the ocean (a trip that took 5 1/2 hours) destroying everything in its path including 1200 homes and killing 450 people. Many of those who perished were poor migrant farmers including Japanese and Filipino immigrants who made up a significant portion of the agricultural labor force.

The film version can take a page from James Cameron’s Best Picture winner TITANIC–still one of the most successful films ever–by focusing on a doomed romance with the disaster as its backdrop. A young Asian farm worker falls in love with his rich boss’ white daughter and their relationship is tested on the night the dam breaks. The story of Mulholland’s obsession with the dam and his downfall could provide further context for the film and if you want to throw in more drama, there’s this: March 12, 1928 was also the very night that one of California’s most notorious killers, William Edward Hickman aka “The Fox”, was being transported to prison just miles from the dam and though there’s no historical account of what happened to him that night, it’s not a stretch to imagine that he could’ve escaped during the chaos to provide complications for our star-crossed lovers.

2) WENDY YOSHIMURA/PATTY HEARST

Wendy Yoshimura

When newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974 and then seemingly ended up siding with her captors as they went on the run from the law, it made international news and shook the world.

After a shoot-out with the Los Angeles police left many of the SLA members dead, Hearst and her comrades were whisked away to rural Pennsylvania where a young Japanese American woman named Wendy Yoshimura joined them to act as a de facto babysitter. Over the course of the next year, Yoshimura and Hearst were together as they traveled as fugitives from Pennsylvania to Sacramento and San Francisco where they participated in a bank robbery (Hearst said she and Yoshimura were opposed to committing the crime) that left a bystander dead and led to their arrest by the SFPD.

Like Patty Jenkin’s MONSTER (which earned an acting Oscar for Charlize Theron), this story provides rich material for a riveting character study of two very different women on the run from the law. Plus, a fictionalized version of this story is already available to adapt: Susan Choi’s acclaimed 2003 novel AMERICAN WOMAN is about a Japanese American woman named Jenny Shimada (the Yoshimura stand-in) tasked with taking care of kidnapped newspaper heiress Pauline (i.e. Hearst).

3) SESSUE HAYAKAWA

Sessue Hayakawa in HIS BIRTHRIGHT which he produced and starred in.

Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa was Hollywood’s first Asian male movie star. His career spanned decades starting in the silent era of the 1910s and 1920s–where lead roles in films like Cecil B. DeMille’s THE CHEAT made him the rival of the biggest star of the era, Rudolf Valentino–to his Oscar nomination for David Lean’s 1957 classic THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

But instead of a sweeping bio of his whole life, my suggestion is to focus on what may arguably be his most important achievement: founding Haworth Pictures Corporation–aka the first Asian American movie studio–in 1918 (you can read my previous blog about this accomplishment here).

Although he was already a movie star by that point, Hayakawa was sick of being offered mostly stereotypical roles and decided to take matters into his own hands. So he borrowed $1 million from a friend (a huge sum at the time) and launched Haworth where he would go on to produce, star in, and distribute 23 films. The Oscars love films about the rise and fall (and rise) of entertainers like RAY and CHAPLIN, and Hayakawa’s story fits squarely in that tradition.

4) ASIAN TASK FORCE

Asian Task Force 1977 (Photo by Art Rogers/LA Times)

By the mid-1970s, it was becoming clear that the Los Angeles Police Department was ill-equipped to serve the needs of the various burgeoning Asian communities so the Asian Task Force was formed to address this issue–consisting of two officers each from the Japanese, Chinese and Korean American communities: Shiro Tomita (the late father of THE JOY LUCK CLUB’s Tamlyn Tomita), George Min, Ross Arai, Michio Kato, Carl Lou, and Tim Shur.

The six men did everything from investigating Asian-related crimes to recruiting Asian police officers to attending community events and meetings. A few years back, I had the chance to spend time with one of the surviving original members, Tim Shur, who only agreed to meet with me after doing a thorough background check to make sure I wasn’t related to anyone he put away who was seeking him out for revenge. And the stories he told me were fascinating–ranging from the details of how they convincingly went undercover to infiltrate Asian gangs to serving as runway models at community fashion shows.

There’s no shortage of stories to adapt for a film: everything from the dominance of the Chinese gangs to the criminal enterprises targeting Japanese tourists could provide more than enough plot for a feature, but knowing that the birth of the Asian Task Force coincided with the birth of L.A.’s Koreatown and the conflux of politics, business, and, yes, corruption and crime that led to the creation of both entities at roughly the same time is nothing short of fascinating. That story feels ripe to serve as the foundation for an elevated crime thriller in the vein of a HEAT or AMERICAN GANGSTER, but with six Asian American men as the heroes.

5) PETER A. CHANG, JR.

Peter A. Chang, Jr.

When 29-year-old Korean American Peter A. Chang, Jr. was elected district attorney of Santa Cruz, California in 1966, he made history by becoming both the youngest person to ever hold that title and the first Asian American to do so. Santa Cruz was a sleepy seaside college town, but that would all change shortly after Chang’s election when the city soon came to be known as the unofficial “murder capital of the world” when three of the nation’s deadliest serial killers (completely unrelated to each other) descended on Santa Cruz to commit their horrible crimes there during the same time period.

The most notorious of the three was Edmund Kemper III (the inspiration for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMB‘s Hannibal Lecter and the main antagonist in Netflix’s MINDHUNTER) who picked up young female hitchhikers (many from the recently opened UC Santa Cruz campus and a good number of them Asian women) and tortured and killed them in the most gruesome ways (and yes, he ate some of the body parts after he had sex with them).

After killing his own mother, Kemper took off for Colorado expecting the police to come after him, but when they didn’t, he called Chang to turn himself in–believing the cops were too stupid to catch him. Chang and two officers flew out to Colorado and spent the next three days driving the imposing Kemper back to California to lock him away. That road trip can be the basis of a thriller in the vein of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS–the story of two men (Chang and Kemper) on opposite sides of the law forced to confront each other.

Chang successfully prosecuted Kemper, but the events took a toll on him that led to a drinking problem which in turn led to a divorce from his wife and the loss of his family and a premature death in 2004. You can check out my previous blog about Chang here and here’s a side-by-side comparison of the real Kemper and MINDHUNTER’s portrayal of the killer:

6) ESTHER WONG AKA THE GODMOTHER OF PUNK

Esther Wong

Take a look at the picture above. Esther Wong looks like any other sweet Chinese grandmother, but in reality she was the “Godmother of Punk” and the two clubs/restaurants she owned in the 1970s/80s–Madame Wong’s in L.A.’s Chinatown and Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica–served as ground zero for the L.A. music scene. Then-unknown acts like The Police, The Motels, Oingo Boingo, Guns N’ Roses, The Go-Gos, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, X, and many others made their mark playing at one of her establishments.

But she was no demure Asian stereotype–the stories about how she ran her clubs with an iron fist are legendary. In one instance when the Ramones sprayed graffiti in her restroom, she made them clean all the walls before being allowed on stage to perform. There’s so many ways to tell her story (and I have my own highly illegal sordid history with her Chinatown club when I was much too young to be hanging around there), but the juxtaposition of this older seemingly demure (but not really) Chinese American woman with the chaos, the music, the drugs, and the debauchery of the L.A. music scene during that era would be something we’ve never seen before.

2 Comments

  1. These aren’t exactly unknown but:

    Daniel Inouye – Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, US Senator from 1963-2012. Lost his arm in combat with the 442nd in Italy.

    Frank Fat – hundreds of political deals were done on napkins in his Sacramento restaurants (Frank Fat’s and Fat City).

    Charles Ng – one of CA’s most notorious mass killers. Killed dozens of people including children in a foothill shack/torture chamber with his partner Leonard Lake who killed himself. Ng escaped to Canada but was extradited and is now on Death Row.

    Sam Hayakawa – became a conservative darling after pulling the microphone wires out during a student protest at San Francisco State where Hayakawa was President. Served one term in the US Senate where he was mostly known for sleeping and tasteless remarks about poor people.

  2. How about the Fighting 44s? The most decorated military regiment in US history.