Asian-American Cinema Part III - The 1940s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 24, 2009 04:57pm | Post a Comment

The third of a nine part series on Asian-Americans in front of and behind the camera

The US entered World War II on 7 December, after Japanese forces bombed an American colonial base at Pearl Harbor. As a result, a huge number of Hollywood war films were set in Asia, which meant roles for Asian-Americans. Major Asian character roles were still routinely performed by white actors in yellowface and roles played by actual Asian-Americans  were almost always supporting, uncredited, and often demeaning. 

Esther Eng (center) at work -- image source: China Daily)

Of course, Japanese-American actors weren't available because from 1942-1946, they along with 110,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry who were interred in American concentration camps. Overall, it seems that far fewer Asian-American actors began film careers in the 1940s than had in the previous decades.

There were a few filmmaking Asian-Americans behind the camera. Esther Eng returned to San Francisco in 1939 and directed Golden Gate Girl in 1941. After an abandoned project in Hong Kong, she returned to California and filmed The Blue Jade (1947) and Too Late for Springtime (1949) before retiring from filmmaking to go into the restaurant business. 

Grandview Film Company ca. 1935 -- image source: Fuck Yeah Asian/Pacific Islander History

Grandview Film Company
, founded in San Francisco in 1933, continued making Cantonese-language films in the 1940s. White Powder and Neon Lights (1941) was the first Cantonese movie filmed in color. Between 1942 and 1947 the company produced at least 21 films. 

Still there were seemingly more opportunities for Asian-American (mostly Chinese-American, although some like Dorothy Takahashi found work and avoided internment by passing as Chinese) entertainers on the so-called "Chop Suey Circuit" than in Hollywood. The Asian-American cabaret scene had first arisen in Chinatowns in the 1930s and continued to flourish through the 1950s.

Barbara Yung, a flyer from San Francisco's Forbidden City, and Ming and Toy

Off-screen, several key laws were passed that affected Asian-Americans, especially of Chinese origin. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and replaced with the Magnuson Act which allowed for 105 Chinese to immigrate to the US annually and allowed Chinese already living in America to become naturalized citizens. In 1946 the Luce–Celler Act of 1946 would similarly affect Filipinos and Indians. In 1945, the War Brides Act allowed for Chinese-American veterans to bring their wives to the US. In 1946, grocer/restauranteur/attorney Wing F. Ong became the first elected state official when Arizona voters elected him to the state House. In 1949, following the establishment of the People's Republic of China, 5,000 Chinese were granted refugee status. 

  THE 1940s

Aen-Ling Chow (Annie Ling Chow)                 
Bob Okazaki                                                  Charles Opunui

David Chow (David Tai Wai Chow)             Frances Chung                                            Frank Kumugai   


Hilo Hattie                                            Hsi Tseng Tsiang                       Jennie Hanaiali'i "Napua" Wodd

         Jessie Tai Sing                                         Joseph Kim                                            Kei Thin Chung                                              
                    Lane Nakano                                Lawrence "Ducky" Louie                             Leon Lontoc                    

                    Marianne Quon                                      Maylia                                         Patricia Joe   (Chow Kwun-ling)   

          Pete G. Katchenaro                                                  William Yip

Not pictured: Frank Wong, Keye Chang
, and Leslie Fong






Other films made by or otherwise significant to Asian-Americans from the 1940s include Phantom of Chinatown (1940); Secret of the Wasteland, Golden Gate Girl, She's My Gal,  White Powder, and Neon Lights (all 1941); Across the Pacific, Bombs Over Burma, China Girl, and Little Tokyo, U.S.A. (all 1942); China, Headin' for God's Country, Lady from ChunkingNight Plane from Chungking, and We've Never Been Licked (all 1943); The Keys of the Kingdom (1944); Back to Bataan, Betrayal from the East, China SkyChina's Little Devils, First Yank into Tokyo, Samurai, and 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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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 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 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 (金門女) 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 (伍錦霞: 華語電影之女性先鋒)


  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)