Asian-American Cinema Part I - The Silent Era

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 3, 2009 03:00pm | Post a Comment
The first of a nine part series on Asian-Americans in front of and behind the camera


In the early days of west coast film production, there were few roles for Asian actors except as unflattering stereotypes or anonymous background work. Nonetheless, a small number pursued careers in front of and behind the camera, intersecting and influencing Hollywood's embryonic phase. Although most worked in near complete obscurity, two -- Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa -- became veritable superstars. They still were virtually unable to find roles to their liking, since most of the lead roles (still usually degrading) went to actors in yellowface, a practice that continued long after blackface became taboo. Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa used their earnings to attempt to improve opportunities for less famous Asians by creating more positive depictions, following black cinema's lead. However, with immigration restricted and laws preventing citizenship and property ownership, even the few rich, famous Americanized Asians faced considerable challenges.


In the silent era, most of the APA-related films were low budget, forgettable Chinatown mysteries and crude yellow peril thrillers but they do remain interesting for multiple reasons, including their reflection of changing American attitudes as well as as documents of the efforts of the country's second largest racial minority to break into a system who viewed them as subhuman at worst and as generally as exotic, inscrutable aliens at best.

It would be more than fifty years before the flourishing Asian-American cinema of today would become possible and profitable, following the amendment of immigration law, civil rights struggles, an influx of refugees and the subsequent growth of the Asian American population in the 80s/90s. But the valiant efforts of early Asian-Americans (and a few non-Asian Hollywood insiders like Thomas Ince and William Worthington) shouldn't be overlooked in their pioneering efforts to allow Asian Actors to play roles other than androgynous opium sots, waiters, tongs, dragon ladies and lotus blossoms.


Asian/Pacific Islander American actors of silent American Cinema

Ah Wing (not pictured) was born July 12, 1851 in China. He made eight films. He died February 27,1941 in Weimar, California.


Anna Chang was born in San Francisco around  and began singing on stage at age six. She made her debut film appearance in Hollywood with Two Little Chinese Maids (1929) and followed with Singapore Sue (1932). By 1941 she was back in San Francisco, headlining at the Jade Palace where she was billed as the "Chinese Princess of Song."

Anna May Wong (nee Wong Liu Tsong) was born January 3, 1905 in Los Angeles' Chinatown on Flower Street to second generation parents who ran a laundry. As a nine-year-old girl, she begged filmmakers for parts as they shot around downtown and was dubbed "CCC" (Curious Chinese Child). After she was cast in several films, she received top billing in The Toll of the Sea (the first film shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor process) and thereby became the first Chinese American movie star (and the first internationally known Asian American movie star).

Frustrated with the roles Hollywood offered Chinese Americans, Anna May Wong moved to Europe in 1928, where she was warmly received by critics. After making several films abroad, Paramount offered her a contract and the promise of lead roles.

Wong returned to the US in 1930, first appearing on Broadway in On the Spot. She continued working onstage and in Europe, still frustrated by Hollywood, especially after being denied a role in The Son-Daughter for being "too Chinese to play a Chinese." Although she continued to accept stereotypical roles, she was outspoken in the press about the need for positive portrayals of Chinese characters.

Wong's last two starring roles were in the Poverty Row anti-Japanese propaganda films, Bombs Over Burma and The Lady from Chungking, before she began accepting occasional roles on TV programs, including one written created especially for her, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first television steries with an Asian American star. She died in Santa Monica, California on February 2, 1961.

Bessie Wong (middle) with Lulu Wong (left) and Anna May Wong (right) -- (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bessie Wong
appeared in The White Mouse (1921) and Tipped Off (1923).

Bo Ling (Berenice Park) with James Hall (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bo Ling (real name Berenice Park) was born on December 18, 1908. Her sister was also an actress and singer, Bo Ching. The sisters were the children of Edward and Florence Park and grew up in Berkeley before moving to Los Angeles around 1926. The sisters formed a "three-gal act, singing, dancing, and playing piano and accordion" with fellow Vaudeville performer, Helen Wong Jean. She had roles in The Fifty-Fifty Girl,  Life's Like That, and Red Wine (all 1928); Golden Stairs; (1929), and International House and Myrt and Marge (both 1933).


Bo Ling and Bo Ching in Golden Stairs (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Bo Ching (real name Winnie Park) was born on April 21, 1911. Her sister was fellow actress and singer Bo Ling. She appeared in Golden Stairs (1929) and Why Leave Home? (both 1929); International House, and Myrt and Marge (both 1933).

Charles A. Fang acted in 24 films, often as "Charlie Fang."

Duke Kahanamoku (nee Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohoa Kahanamoku) was born August 24, 1890 in Honolulu, Kingdom of Hawaii. He entered the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the 1920 Antwerp Olympics and the 1924 Paris Olympics, winning medals at all for various swimming competitions. He is also famous for popularizing surfing. In 1925, whilst living in Newport Beach, he saved eight people from a capsized fishing vessel (17 died), using his surfboard to rescue them. He acted in fourteen films, usually playing a Hawaiian king. He died January 22, 1968.

Edward L. Park (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Edward L. Park was the first Chinese-American to play Charlie Chan. He was born in San Francisco in 1876. His wife Florence was the mother of actresses Bo Ling (nee Berenice Park) and Bo Ching (nee Winnie Park) and acted as "Oie Chan." Edward Park worked as an interpreter at Angel Island before moving with his family to Los Angeles around 1927.

Etta Lee was born September 12, 1906 on Maui, Kingdom of Hawaii. She acted in fourteen films, playing both maids and slaves several times. She died October 27, 1956 in Eureka, California.

Frank M. Seki
 (not pictured) appeared in The Hope Diamond Mystery, The First Born and The Purple Cipher.

Frank Tokunaga (
aka Frank Tokawaja, aka Bunroku Tokunaga) was born July 7, 1888 in Japan. He married Japanese silent film actress Komako Sungata. After acting in 21 films, mostly in the US, he returned to Japan where he directed six silent films, with the intention of returning to America to further Japanese-American cinema. He died in 1967 in San Joaquin, California.

George Kuwa (ne Keiichi Kuwahara) was born April 7, 1885 in Japan. He was the first Asian-American actor to play Charlie Chan and acted additionally in 60 films. He passed away October 13, 1931, in Japan.

Goro Kino (also known as Gordo Keeno) was born June 2, 1877 in Japan. He acted in 17 films and he was one of the earliest Asian American actors. He died February 4, 1922 in Los Angeles.

Hatsu Kuma in a production of Tokio Blues (dated 1927)

Hatsu Kuma may've been Japanese rather than Japanese-American (I'm not sure). She made only known film appearance (alongside Anna Chang) in Two Little Chinese Maids (1929).

Henry Kotani (aka Hanoki aka Henry Katoni) was born in 1887 to Japanese immigrant parents in the U.S. At a time when few Asian Americans were employed in film crews, Kotani apprenticed at Jesse L. Lasky Company under "Papa" Wycoff, the "Father of Cameramen." Although he acted in only six films, he also worked as a cinematographer, produced, wrote and filled other roles in many films. In the middle of his career, he relocated to Japan, where he tried to introduce American cinematic flavor to Japan, insisting on directing in English, and never providing scripts to his his actors or crew. After directing six films which failed to find an audience, he returned to America where he died in 1972.

Iris Yamaoka was born in 1911 in Seattle. She appeared in six films; China Slaver (1929), Hell and High Water (1933), Pursued (1934), Petticoat Fever (1936), High Tension (1936) and Waikiki Wedding (1937).Yamaoka was interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation camp in Cody, Washington during World War II. She died, aged 49, on November 28, 1960 in New York City, New York.

Jack Yutaka Abbe was born February 2, 1895 in Miyagi, Japan. After acting in ten American films, he went back to Japan and directed 25 films as "Yutaka Abe." He died January 3, 1977 in Kyoto, Japan.

James B. Leong
(nee Leong But-jung, aka Jimmy Leong) was born November 2, 1889 in Shanghai, China. He became James Leong when he moved to the US at 24 in 1913. After attending college in Indiana, he found work as an assistant director and interpreter with Chinese extras for the likes of D.W. Griffith and Park Frame; he ultimately acted in 81 films. He died December 16, 1967 in Los Angeles.

James Wang was born in 1863 in China. In the US, he acted in 32 films. He died April 20, 1935 in Los Angeles.

James Wong Howe (ne Wong Tung Jim) was born August 28, 1899 in Guangzhou, China. His father moved to Washington when James was one, and he joined him when he was five. He bought a Kodak Brownie camera from a drugstore at the age of twelve. After moving to L.A., he worked as a commercial photographer but was fired when he was caught making fake passports. He got hired by the Jesse Lasky Studios' photography department for $10 a week, paid to pick up scraps of film. He next worked as a slate boy for Cecil B. DeMille. He first worked on a film as a cameraman in 1919, and then as a cinematographer in 1923, where he became known for his masterful use of deep focus and shadow. He began wearing a button declaring "I am Chinese," as did his friend James Cagney in solidarity. Due to anti-miscegenation laws, he couldn't marry his white girlfriend until 1949. He died July 12, 1976 in Hollywood.

Joe Sunn Jue (right) with actress Patricia Joe (Chow Kwun-ling) and cameraman Joseph Jue 

Joseph Sunn Jue directed his first film, the Cantonese-language Yaomo Zhi Yue (The Demon's Cavern) in 1926. It was the first film produced by Xue Pinggui quan zhuan (Chinese Educational Film Company), a company whose vice president was Jun You Jew, the director's father. In 1933 Jue went on to form his own film company, Grandview Film Company, in San Francisco.

Komato Sungata (Sunata) came to the US as five-year-old. She was described as the Japanese Gloria Swanson. Her first film role was as an extra in an Essany film at the age of fourteen. She met Japanese-American actor Frank Tokunaga on the set of a film and they married when she was nineteen. In 1923, the couple traveled to Japan, hoping to translate their experiences into Tokunaga-directed, Sungata starring films, with the desire of potentially elevating the quality of representations of Japanese in Hollywood.

Kunihiko Nanbu (also billed as "K. Nambu") was born November 29, 1890 in Tokyo, Japan. He acted in six films.

Lady Tsen Mei was born March 28, 1888 in Canton, China. She first found work with Betzwood Film Company in Pennsylvania. In The Lotus Blossom, for which she received top billing, she was billed as "The screen's first and only Chinese star." However, having acted only in that film, The Letter and For the Freedom of the East, her stardom never rivaled that of Anna May Wong. She died July 1985 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Louie Cheung (not pictured) acted in four silent films, A Tale of Two Worlds, The Concert, The Branding Iron and The Girl from Outside.

Misao Seki (aka M. Seke and not pictured) acted in eight films between 1918-1923 before moving to Japan where he acted in 17 more.

Mrs. Wong Wing
was born November 21, 1892 in China. She acted in eight films and died September 30, 1966 in Los Angeles.

Mr. Yoshida (not pictured) appeared in just three films, Domino Film Company's 1914 pictures, Nipped, A Relic of Old Japan and The Courtship of O San.

Olive Young (image source: Soft Film 軟性電影)

Olive Young was born June 21, 1907 in St. Joseph, Missouri. She moved to Shanghai and, as 杨爱立, began appearing in silent films in 1926 and was billed as "The Chinese Mary Pickford." Returning to the US she acted in Trailin' Trouble (1930), Ridin' Law (1930), and The Man Who Came Back (1931). She died suddenly, on October 4, 1940 (age 33) in Bayonne, New Jersey after collapsing in the dressing room of a night club where she'd just performed. 

Sessue Hayakawa
(nee Kintaro Hayakawa) was born June 10, 1889 in Nanaura, Chiba, Japan, the son of a governor/member of the samurai class. Although he wanted to join the navy, he was rejected because he'd ruptured his eardrum. Having thus disappointed his father, he attempted to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the chest over thirty times before being stopped.

Hayakawa subsequently studied political economics in Chicago before returning to Japan where he pursued a career on the stage in an acting company that returned him to the US in 1913. Spotted by Thomas H. Ince in a Little Tokyo production of The Typhoon, he was offered a movie contract. He appeared in The Wrath of the Gods and The Typhoon in 1914 and, on May 1, he married actress Tsuru Aoki.

In Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 film for Famous Players-Lasky, The Cheat, Hayakawa became the first Asian-American superstar (receiving $200,000 for a film at his height, driving a gold-plated Pierce-Arrow and, on one occasion, shrugging off a million dollar gambling loss in Monte Carlo), although the film was protested by Japanese-Americans who tried to prevent its re-release in 1918.

After the success of The Cheat, Hayakawa started his own production company, producing many films starring his wife and himself, earning on average $2 million a year and becoming an outspoken critic of stereotypical Asian roles. He then moved to Japan but failed to establish a career there. In France and the UK, he proved more successful.

Hayakawa returned to the US in 1931 and made his talkie debut with the other Asian-American film star of the day, Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon. Like many silent actors, his speaking voice was supposedly not to the liking of audiences and he again returned to Japan and then France, where he made several more films and joined the French Resistance.

After World War II Hayakawa tried again to re-establish himself in Hollywood and appeared in several big films, including Tokyo Joe, Three Came Home and Bridge on the River Kwai. After the death of his wife in 1961, he returned once again to Japan where he became a Zen Buddhist priest and private acting teacher before dying on November 23, 1973 in Tokyo of cerebral thrombosis.

Sojin (ne Sôjin Kamiyama) was born January 30, 1884 in Sendai, Japan. After working on the stage in the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo, he moved to America. In the US, he married Ura Mita and had a son, Edward, in 1909. Beginning a few years later, he began acting in films, usually as a villain, but also as one of three Asian-American actors to play Charlie Chan. After 26 roles, with the advent of talkies, his accent proved an obstacle to getting further film work in Hollywood. After acting in a French film, he returned to Japan where he continued to act, notably having a part in The Seven Samurai. He died July 28, 1954 in Tokyo, Japan.

Tetsu Komai was born April 23, 1894 in Kumamoto, Japan. He acted in 64 films, almost always playing  Chinese characters. Though usually acting in lesser films, in 1932 he was singled out in a Time review of War Correspondant for his performance which was said to have risen above the sentimental material. He died August 10, 1970 of congestive heart failure in Gardena, California.

Tôgô Yamamoto was born November 4, 1886 in Yokohama, Japan. In 1930, after appearing in fourteen American films, he returned to Japan where he acted in sixteen more.

Tokuko "Taku" Nagai Takagi was born in 1891 in Tokyo, Japan and was the first Japanese to appear professionally in American film. In 1906, the 15 year old maid at the Bank of Japan married Chimpei Takagi, who returned to Japan from California after the Great Fire of San Francisco. After the two moved to the US, Taku appeared in four American films, The East and the West (1911) (as C. Taka), The Birth of the Lotus Blossom (1912), For the Mikado (1912) and Miss Taku of Tokyo (1912). All were made for Thanhouser Film Corporation, who were attempting to exploit the growing Japanese-American population. After the outbreak of World War I, the Takagi's returned to Japan where Taku died of a  cerebral hemorrhage in 1919 whilst on tour as a dancer.


Toshia Mori
(nee Toshiye Ichioka) was born January 1, 1912 in Kyoto, Japan. She came to the US when she was ten and acted in eighteen films. She was the only non-white person ever chosen to be a WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby Star, in 1932. Baby Stars were young actresses felt to be on the cusp of something bigger. However, Mori's film career ended a few years later. She married a fellow Asian actor, Allen Jung. Toshia Jung, billed as Shia Jung (and leading to frequent confusion with the Shia Jung who acted in Chinese Tarzan films) acted in three more films, Charlie Chan at the CircusCharlie Chan on Broadway and Port of Hate, after which she retired from film. She died November 26, 1995 in the Bronx.

Toyo Fujita
 (not pictured) operated a theater in LA's Little Toyko. It was there, in a production of The Typhoon, that Sessue Hayakawa was noticed and propelled to superstardom. After Hayakawa began the pioneering Asian-American film company Haworth Pictures, Fujita acted in several films before he broke out into extra work for other studios, ultimately appearing in thirteen films.

Tsuru Aoki was born September 9, 1892 in Tokyo, Japan. She moved to Los Angeles with an aunt and uncle in 1903. She began her acting career on Toyo Fujita's stage in Little Toyko where she and Sessue Hayakawa acted sided by side. After being noticed by Thomas Ince, he placed her under contract. With a debut film performance in 1913's The Oath of Tsuru Sanshe became one of the first Asians to appear on screen in Hollywood. Afterward, she invited Ince to a play at the Little Tokyo theater she'd worked in for a performance of The Typhoon starring Hayakawa. Ince employed both actors in 1914's O Mimi San and the two actors began a relationship and married on May 1. Appearing in a total of 44 films, her career faltered as Hayakawa's rose and she retired from film to raise their two adopted children. After returning to film in 1960 and acting alongside her husband in Hell to Eternity, she died October 18, 1961 in Tokyo of acute peritonitis.

Yukio Aoyama (nee Massajiro Kaihatsu and not pictured) was born March 15, 1888 in Nagoya, Japan. After being schooled in Japan, he attended drama school in Chicago. He married Kuwa Kosaki and the couple had five children. In addition to acting in seven films, he was an editor of the Japanese Daily News for five years and a drama critic and writer. He also acted on the stage and worked as an assistant or technical director in over sixty films. In 1934, he owned the Oriental Costume Company in Hollywood and worked on The Japanese Movie Magazine. He died December 11, 1939 in Los Angeles.

Willie Fung was born March 3, 1896 in Canton, China. Despite acting in 128 films (probably more than any other Asian-American actor of the silent era), he almost always played unnamed characters. Despite little information available on him, just looking at his credits illustrates the reasons for Asian actors' frustrations with the Hollywood system. In 24 films he played a restaurant employee, in six he played a servant and in three, a laundryman. When he was named, he played a character named Wing three times, Wang four, and Wong ten! He died April 16, 1945 in Los Angeles from coronary occlusion.

Other Asian-Americans who appeared in at least one Silent Film era film include: Hoo Ching, Lee Gow, Lin Neong, and Tom Hing 



1914 - The Ambassador’s Envoy, The Courtship of O San, The Curse of Caste, The Death Mask, The Geisha, The Last of the Line, Mother of the Shadows, Nipped, O Mimi San, The Oath of Tsura San, A Relic of Old Japan, Star of the North, A Tragedy of the Orient, The Typhoon, The Vigil, The Village 'neath the Sea and The Wrath of the Gods

1915 - The Cheat, The Chinatown Mystery and The Famine

1916 - In 1916, Oakland resident Marion Wong makes the first Chinese-American film, The Curse of Quon Gwon. It, however, proved a false start when it was shelved until it was restored in 2006.

Other APA related films to be released in 1916 include Alien Souls, Broken Fetters, The Honorable Friend, The Soul of Kura San and The Yellow Pawn.

1917 - The Bottle Imp, The Call of the East, Each To His Kind, The Flower of Doom, Hashimura Togo, and War of the Tongs (begun in 1914)

1918 - William J. Worthington had been making films since 1915, but in 1918 he hooked up with Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki, who used their money to start Haworth Pictures Corporation with the aim of portraying Asians in a sympathetic light and which brought in on average $2 million a year.

Asian-American related films released in 1918 include: The Bravest Way, The Chinese Musketeer, The City of Dim Faces, For the Freedom of the East, Her American Husband, The Hidden Pearls, His Birthright, The Curse of Iku, The Japanese Nightingale, The Midnight Patrol and Mystic Faces.

1919 - Bonds of Honor, Broken Blossoms - or - The Yellow Man and the Girl, The Dragon Painter, The Gray Horizon, A Heart in Pawn, Mandarin’s Gold, The Pagan God, The Red Lantern and The Tong Man

1920 - Dinty, Li Ting Lang, Outside the Law, Pagan Love and A Tokyo Siren

1921 - Hayakawa forms the Hayakawa Feature Play Company who make The Swamp, Where Lights Are Low, Black Roses and The First Born.

Other films featuring prominent Asian characters made that year include: What Ho, The Cook, Lotus Blossom, Shame and A Tale of Two Worlds.

1922 - Boomerang Bill, East Is West, The Toll of the Sea, Five Days to Live and The Vermillion Pencil

1923 - Drifting, Haldane of the Secret Service, The Remittance Woman and Thundergate

1924 - Anna May Wong creates Anna May Wong Productions with the intention of producing films based on Chinese legends but, after discovering her business partner engaging in dishonest business practices, dissolves the company.

Other APA related films released in 1924 include: The Danger Line, The Great Prince Shan and Sen Yan’s Devotion.

1925 - East of Suez

1926 - Fairmont Productions' The Silk Bouquet, aka The Dragon Horse is financed by San Francisco-based Chinese Six Companies (六大公司) for a Chinese-American audience.

Also released in this year: Eve’s Leaves, A Trip to Chinatown, Mr. Wu, and Yaomo Zhi Yue (The Demon's Cavern)

1927 - Old San Francisco

1928 - The Crimson City, Chinatown Charlie

1929 - China slaver

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