Asian-American Cinema Part II - The 1930s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 24, 2009 04:56pm | Post a Comment
The second of a nine part series on Asian-Americans in front of and behind the camera

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 moved to countries in Asia, no doubt frustrated by the increased lack of work available to them in American films. The attempts by Marion WongSessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong to create an Asian-American alternative to the degrading roles and yellowface of Hollywood had fizzled.

Philip Ahn (left) in Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)

There were few films made by Asian-American filmmakers during the Hollywood Studio Era and Hollywood firmly controlled the manner in which Asians were represented in American films (with the notable exception of some American-made Cantonese-language films exhibited that were primarily screened overseas). Films like The Bitter Tea of General YenThe Good Earth, and series like series like Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong suggested that American minstrelsy, far from vanishing, had simply changed color. Asian-Americans found more accepting audiences as live performers on the so-called Chop-Suey Circuit, which took off in the 1930s.

Publicity still from The Good Earth (1937)

Asian-American actors faced and overcame various obstacles. For example, Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon concocted several phony stories about her origins and used skin whitening make-up. Korean-American Philip Ahn, a native of Los Angeles's Highland Park neighborhood, was required in many of his roles to attempt a phony Japanese accent and played the villain so often that he received more death threats than fan mail. 

Mako and June Koto Lu in East West Players' 1965 production of Rashomon

In the 1950s and '60s
, little would change for Asian-Americans with cinematic aspirations. It wasn't until after the decline of the Hollywood studio system and the simultaneous rise of Asian-American Theater that there would Asian-American Cinema would be reborn, ultimately expanding and maturing in the 1990s and 2000s.


On the set of 1944's She's My Gal (image source: Soft Film ????)

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 the screenplays and cameramen included Joseph Jue and Wong Hock Sing (aka 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.
Grandview found success by distributing their films in Hong Kong, which they temporarily relocated to in 1935. After Japan invaded, however, the company returned to San Francisco where they made 21 more features between 1942 and '47.


Another notable Asian-American filmmaker of the era was Esther Eng (aka Ng Kam-ha), a native of San Francisco. In 1935 she founded the production compnay Gwong Ngai in Hollywood where she co-produced the company's first film, Sum Hun (aka Heartaches), the first Cantonese-language film made in Los Angeles. Sum Hun 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 (???) in 1941, which featured an infant Bruce Lee in his first film appearance (and for which Joseph Sunn was the cinematographer). Through the remainder of 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 (???: ?????????)


  Barbara Jean Wong
             Al Kikume                                                 Allen Jung                                                  Barbara Jean Wong  

                          Beal Wong                                      Ching Wah Lee                                      Benson Fong      

  Clarence Lung 
                            Chester Gan                                                 Clarence Lung        Dorothy Fong Toy (Dorothy Takahashi)

                            Eunice Soo-Hoo                             Frances Chan                              Frank Tang 

                           George Chan                                          Gladys Li Lain-Ai                    Grace Lem (Grace Key) 

                              HW Gim                                                    Honorable Wu                                     Iris Wong  

                                        Jadin Wong                                                                            Joe Wong

               Kam Tong                                                    Keye Luke                                            
Lal Chand Mehra

                    Layne Tom Jr.                                       Lee Tung Foo                                      Lee Tung Foo

                                   Lotus Liu                                                                    Lotus Long                      Luke Chan    

                          Mary Wong                                                 Moy Ming                                           Otto Yamaoka

                                   Paul Fung                                                          Peter Chong                            Philip Ahn

       Richard Loo                                        Roland Got                                                    Rudy Robles  

  Spencer Chan
                   Sammee Tong                        
Soo Young (aka CK Huang)                             Spencer Chan

 Teru Shimada 
  (Keye Luke 
and) Suzanna Kim                                 Teru Shimada                                        
Victor Sen Yung  

                       Victor Wong                                           Walter Soo Hoo                                William Law

                 Wing Foo

Not pictured: Benny Inocencio, Bruce Wong, Caroline Chew, Eddie Lee, George Kaluna, Hayward Soo Hoo, Joseph Jue, Maurice Liu, Oie Chan, Paul Singh, Paul Wing, Prince Leilani, Satini Pualoa, and Tom Ung.




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)

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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