Asian-American Cinema Part II - Asian-Americans in Hollywood - The 1930s & 1940s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 24, 2009 04:57pm | Post a Comment
If opportunities for Asian-Americans in silent film were decidedly limited, they seem to have actually worsened with the coming of sound. Several actors with Asian origins returned home, no doubt frustrated by the increasing lack of work available to them in American films. The attempts by Marion Wong, Sessue Hawakaya and Anna May Wong to create an alternative to the degrading roles and yellowface of Hollywood had fizzled. For most of the Hollywood studio era, there were few works made by Asian filmmakers and Hollywood controlled depictions of Asians (with the exception of some American made Cantonese-language films exhibited overseas). 

In the 1950s and '60s
, little would change. It wasn't until the decline of the studio system and the birth of Asian-American theater that there would Asian-American Cinema be reborn, ultimately expanding and diversifying in the 1990s and 2000s.

In the 1930s, series' like Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong furthered perceptions of Asian mysteriousness, whilst films like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Good Earth and others suggested that America’s taste for minstrelsy had simply taken on a new shade. Some Asian American actors nonetheless attempted to start careers. Merle Oberon was able to get starring roles after concocting a phony story about her origins and using skin whitening make-up. Philip Ahn, after rejection for speaking English too well, braved death threats after playing Japanese villains. Meanwhile, Anna May Wong worked abroad in less degrading roles.


Grandview Film Company's She's My Gal
On the set of 1944's She's My Gal (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

One notable exception to the lack of Asian-Americans behind the camera was Joseph Sunn Jue's San Francisco-based Grandview Film Company, co-founded in 1933 with Moon Kwan. Chiang Kay wrote screenplays and cameramen included Joseph JueWong Hock Sing (Wong Hok-sing). Wong's White Powder and Neon Lights (1941) was the first Cantonese-language film filmed in color. Wong also managed San Francisco's Grandview Theater, later renamed the Chinatown Theater. Chinese-American filmmaker Marion Wong seems to have given up on making films when confronted with the fact that there wasn't a large enough American audience at the time for Asian-American dramas. Grandview found success by distributing their films in Hong Kong. In 1935, Grandview relocated to Hong Kong but when Japan invaded, the company returned to San Francisco where they made 21 more features between 1942 and '47.

Esther Eng Esther Eng film director

Another notable exception was filmmaker Esther Eng (aka Ng Kam-ha), a native of San Francisco. In 1935 she founded the production compnay Gwong Ngai in Hollywood. She co-produced the company's first film, Sum Hun (aka Heartaches), the first Cantonese-language film made in Hollywood. It starred Cantonese actress Wai Kim-fong and was shown in the US and Hong Kong. After that she directed five films in Hong Kong before returning to the US. With Grandview Film Company she co-directed (with Kwan-Man Ching) Golden Gate Girl (金門女) in 1941, featuring an infant Bruce Lee in his first film appearance (Joseph Sunn was the cinematographer). Through the 1940s she directed Blue Jade (1947), Back Street aka Too Late for Springtime (1948), and Mad Fire, Mad Love (1949). Her final directorial efforts were the New York sequences of the Hong Kong-US co-production, Murder in New York Chinatown (1961). She passed away in 1970. Her story has been told in S. Louisa Wei and Law Kar's documentary Golden Gate Silver Light Esther Eng: Story of a Pioneer Woman Director (伍錦霞: 華語電影之女性先鋒)


Allen Jung  Barbara Jean Wong  Ching Wah Lee
                    Allen Jung                                                 Barbara Jean Wong                         Ching Wah Lee

Benson Fong Chester Gan Frances Chan
              Benson Fong                                                      Chester Gan                                     Frances Chan

Frank Tang Grace Lem (aka Grace Key)  Honorable Wu
                      Frank Tang                                   Grace Lem (aka Grace Key)                       Honorable Wu        

Iris Wong Jadin Wong Kam Tong
        Iris Wong                                              Jadin Wong                                                       Kam Tong     

Keye Luke Layne Tom Jr Lee Tung Foo
               Keye Luke                                    Layne Tom Jr.                                       Lee Tung Foo

Li Ling-Ai Lotus Liu Lotus Long 
       Gladys Li Lain-Ai                                Lotus Liu                                                       Lotus Long                      

Luke Chan Otto Yamaoka  Philip Ahn 
          Luke Chan                                          Otto Yamaoka                                       Philip Ahn      

Richard Loo Roland Got Rudy Robles
       Richard Loo                                  Roland Got                                               Rudy Robles  

Sammee Tong Keye Luke and Suzanna Kim  Teru Shimada
                Sammee Tong                   (Keye Luke and) Suzanna Kim                        Teru Shimada     

Victor Sen Yung Victor Wong Walter Soo Hoo
       Victor Sen Yung                                 Victor Wong                                                Walter Soo Hoo

William Law Wing Foo Mary Wong
                    William Law                                                Wing Foo                               Mary Wong

Lee Tung Foo
         Lee Tung Foo

Not pictured: Al KikumeBeal Wong, Benny Inocencio, Bo Ling, Bruce Wong, Caroline Chew, Clarence Lung, Dorothy Fong Toy, Eddie Lee, Eunice Soo-Hoo, George Chan, George Kaluna, H.W. Gim, Hayward Soo Hoo, Joseph Jue, Joe Wong, Lal Chand Mehra,  Maurice Liu, Moy Ming, Oie Chan, Otto Yamaoka, Paul Fung, Paul Singh, Paul Wing, Peter Chong, Prince Leilani, Satini Pualoa, Soo Yong, Spencer Chan and Tom Ung.


Limehouse Blues daughter of shanghai The Good Earth Barricade 1939king of chinatown
hai ting Daughter of the Dragon Bitter Tea of General Yen
Captured in Chinatown  West of Shanghai

More Asian American Related Films of the 1930s:

The Flame of Love, Hai-Tang (both 1930), Daughter of the Dragon (1931), Secrets of Wu Sin (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Chu Chin Chow, Limehouse Blues (both 1934), Captured in Chinatown (1935), The General Died at Dawn,The Leathernecks Have Landed, Shadow of Chinatown (all 1936), Daughter of Shanghai, The Good Earth, The Rainbow Pass, West of Shanghai (all 1937), Barricade, King of Chinatown and North of Shanghai (all 1939)


In the 1940s, a host of films were set in Asia. In many, Asian-American actors still only worked in background roles. Films about World War II cast many Asian-American actors (often Chinese-American) as Japanese villians and Asian-American actresses in many cases found roles as Chinese damsels in distress available to them.


Frank Kumagai Jessie Tai Sing 
Lane Nakano
                        Frank Kumugai                                        Jessie Tai Sing  
                         Lane Nakano       

Leon Lontoc Marianne Quon Maylia
                 Leon Lontoc                                       Marianne Quon                                   Maylia

(Chow Kwun-ling) Patricia Joe
      Patricia Joe
(Chow Kwun-ling)

Not pictured: Aen-Ling Chow, Bob Okazaki, Charles Opunui, David Chow, Duckie Louie, Frances Chung, Frank Wong, H.T. Tsiang, Hilo Hattie, Jean Wong, Joseph Kim, Kei Thin Chung, Keye Chang, Leslie Fong, Napua Wood, Pete G. Katchenaro
and William Yip

 Across the Pacific Betrayal From the East Bombs Over Burma


China Girl 
Chinatown at Midnight  China's Little Devils

A Fair Lady by the Blue Lagoon (1947), aka The Blue Jade First Yank into Tokyo  Heartaches  LAdy From Chungking Joy and Peace Phantom of Chinatown
  Secret Agent X-9 The Returned SoulA Strong Wind Banished the Swallow

Other Asian American Related Films of the 1940s:

Phantom of Chinatown (1940), Secret of the Wasteland, Golden Gate Girl
She's My Gal , and White Powder and Neon Lights (all 1941) Across the Pacific, Bombs Over Burma, China Girl, Little Tokyo, U.S.A. (all 1942), China, Headin' for God's Country, Lady from Chunking, Night Plane from Chungking, We've Never Been Licked (all 1943), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), Back to Bataan, Betrayal from the East, China Sky, China's Little Devils, First Yank into Tokyo, Samurai, Secret Agent X-9 (all 1945), Tokyo Rose (1946),   Intrigue (1947),  Back Street aka Too Late For Springtime, Half Past Midnight, Women in the Night (all 1948), Chinatown at Midnight , Mad Fire, Made Love   and State Department: File 649 (all 1949)

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