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Charong Chow, CalArts, The Walt Disney Family Museum - and Fu Manchu!

Charong Chow speaking at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Photograph copyright © 2015 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Recently, my wife Charong Chow spoke at a CalArts event at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

In a setting founded by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller - with a rather different, more serious focus on Disney's work than southern California sometimes provides - Charong talked about her time at the premiere art school in the country, California Instituteof the Arts, founded by Disney himself in 1961 in Santa Clarita, about 30 minutes north of Los Angeles.

It's a school that has produced virtually all of the first wave of remarkable Pixar filmmakers (including JohnLasseter, who now runs both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation), as well as other luminaries such as Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands is said to satirize the weird desert suburbia of Santa Clarita, home to Cal Arts), Sofia Coppola, Pee-wee Herman and, um, David Hasselhoff.

CalArts is quite unique in its emphasis on art theory - it really doesn't teach studio art at all, although its highly competitive character animation program is perhaps more hands-on - and in its "non-system system," which takes some time to figure out, but which is marvelously liberating and a great preparation for the vagaries of life, not least as an artist.

Charong explained that she had previously graduated in philosophy and fine art from the University of Miami, and came to CalArts as a graduate student with studio skills that aren't a part of the radical, cutting edge approach of California Institute of the Arts.

She focused on video art, and her tenure there was a happy and creative one. I spent much of the time with her, often writing in her studio and taking care of our American-Eskimo puppy Stoli, who was quite a fixture at school events (it's a pet friendly school; students are encouraged to bring their pets).

As I work on my epic novel Chinatown Nights now, I turn often to the Super 8mm film Charong made at CalArts, I Am The Daughter Of Fu Manchu, which set out to explore and overturn racial and cultural stereotypes of and prejudices toward Chinese and Chinese-Americans (Charong was born in Taiwan from Chinese parents but grew up in the United States).

When Charong decided to make the film, one of her major references was British author Sax Rohmer and the highly successful Fu Manchu novels he created in the first half of the 20th Century - a major source of inspiration for me, too, with Chinatown Nights, and a powerful factor in the "Yellow Peril" xenophobia of the period - and now.

Charong Chow in her film, I Am The Daughter of Fu Manchu Photograph copyright © 2015 Charong Chow.

Charong Chow in her film, I Am The Daughter of Fu Manchu Photograph copyright © 2015 Charong Chow.

The Fu Manchu books became enormously popular Hollywood movies, painting the Chinese as sinister, inscrutable (an ethnically charged word), devious and, ultimately - especially in the case of Dr Fu Manchu himself - downright evil. The books and films did much to create popular jingoistic misconceptions of and attitudes toward Chinese people.

Charong worked hard but also had enormous fun playing with the style and tropes of the Fu Manchu ethos. She rented period Chinese costumes from Warner Brothers Studios, including a magnificent headdress, and had Max Wang, a young Chinese cinematographer friend, shoot the film in LA's Chinatown and in the garage of our Silverlake house, to look as much like a grainy black and white 1930s movie as possible. She even improvised an articulated dragon cut-out puppet that we used to provide dramatic shadows in one scene.

In her talk at the Walt Disney Family Museum, Charong emphasized the responsibility that comes with the freedom of CalArts' approach, but also the wonderful opportunities it affords. After completing her Fu Manchu film, Charong took it to film festivals and museums (it is also now used in several courses focused on cultural identity at various universities) - and was invited to the prestigious nine-week art residency at Skowhegan in Maine, where one of the visiting tutors was filmmaker John Waters.

Charong also stressed the preparation for a diverse life that CalArts offers. Aside from her career in art and writing, Charong now works in the San Francisco tech industry, helping run an outstanding women-only mothers-to-mothers mobile social app, called Preggie.

I Am The Daughter of Fu Manchu. Photograph copyright © 2015 Charong Chow.

I Am The Daughter of Fu Manchu. Photograph copyright © 2015 Charong Chow.

CalArts (California Insititute of the Arts)

The California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, is the premiere art school in the US. Founded by Walt Disney and his brother in 1961, it was the first American degree-granting institution created specifically for students of both the visual and the performing arts. 

Conceived by Disney as an interdisciplinary "CalTech of the arts," CalArts has achieved an outstanding reputation as the incubator for many visionary animation, music, performance and visual arts talents. More information here and at Wikipedia. 

The Walt Disney Family Museum 

The Walt Disney Family Museum is a remarkable resource located in the Presidio in San Francisco. 

While it captures the fun and magic of Walt Disney's life and career, it also focuses more on the innovative and unexpected sides of his work, including posters from the World War II propaganda films the Disney Studios made for the US Government, Walt's truly radical inspiration for Tomorrowland and EPCOT (the "Experimental Prototype Community of the Future") and Disney's pioneering inventions, such as the Multiplane Camera (actually created by studio technician William Garity), a vast device that allowed an illusion of three dimensional depth and movement in animated cartoons, used to great effect in the classic early Disney features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. 

A visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum is a must for anyone interested in the full scope of Disney's work, and of movies in general. Details can be found here and at Wikipedia.

If you enjoyed this post, please follow me on Twitter @alexanderchow. 


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