Asian-American Cinema Part IV - The 1950s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 24, 2009 04:58pm | Post a Comment
The fourth of a nine part series on Asian-Americans in front of and behind the camera

During the silent film and Hollywood eras, most Asian-American actors' roles were usually limited to the background and in offensive roles. Two actors, Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa, nonetheless became superstars. They and pioneers like Esther Eng, Marion Wong, and the folks at Grandview Film Company (not to mention numerous actors) gamely attempted to produce and sustain an alternative and viable Asian-American Cinema.

Hawaiian Eye with Poncie Ponce (right)

In the 1950s, Hollywood roles for Asian-American women were usually limited to the objects of war time romance. On the Broadway stage, musicals about the Far East like The King and I, South Pacific and Flower Drum Song were in vogue although Asian characters were usually portrayed by white actors in yellowface. Asian stage performers typically enjoyed more attention on so-called Chop Suey Circuit, an mostly Chinese-American strand of Vaudeville

Roles for Asians were slightly more in number on television. In it's early years, the small screen was a much more diverse place than the big screen. It was there, in 1951, that Anna May Wong became the first Asian-American to star in her own series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which aired on the DuMont Network


                                Aki Aleong                                                 Barbara Yun                                   Beulah Quo              

 Candace Lee 
                                  Bill Saito                                                    Candace Lee                                 Chang Tseng   

                                    Cherylene Lee                                            Dale Ishimoto                                    Edo Mita

             France Nuyen                                             Guy Lee                                               George Matsui     

                            George Takei                                         Gerald Jann                                              Ginny Tiu 

                     Henry Nakamura                                          Hideo Inamura                                     James Hong

         James Shigeta                                       James Yagi                                                   Jaqui Chan  

                  Jerry Fujikawa
                                               Judy Dan                                                 Kam Fong 

                                         Lisa Lu                                                  Lucille Soong                             Mai Tai Sing     

                        Mako (aka  Mako Iwamatsu)                                 Michi Kobi                                    Miiko Taka     

                   Miyoshi Jingu                                      Miyoshi Umeki                                                  Noel Toy

   Paul Togawa                      Pat Suzuki                                                Patrick Adiarte                                            Paul Togawa         

                      Poncie Ponce                                              Reiko Sato                                            Robert Kino 

Shuji Joe Nozawa (aka Fuji)             Shuji Joe Nozawa (aka Fuji)                      Tsai Chin                                                    Victor Wong

            Virginia Ann Lee                                      Yuki Shimoda                                          Warren Hsieh 

                  Willie Soo Hoo

Not pictured: May Takasugi, Robert W. Lee, and William Yokota




Go for Broke
, I Was an American Spy, Korea Patrol, and Peking Express (all 1951); Feng ye qing, Japanese War Bride, and A Yank in Indo-China (all 1952); China Venture, Forbidden, and Target Hong Kong (all 1953); Hell's Half Acre (1954); House of Bamboo, The Left Hand of God, and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (all 1955); The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956); Battle Hymn, China Gate, and Sayonara (all 1957); The Inn of the Sixth HappinessChina Doll, The Geisha Boy, Ghost of the China Sea, The Quiet American, and South Pacific (all 1958); and Blood and SteelThe Crimson Kimono, and Tokyo After Dark (all 1959)

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)


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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May Is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 28, 2008 04:19pm | Post a Comment

Even in a multicultural, polyglot city like Los Angeles (which has the largest population of Asian-Americans (1.4 million) in the country and where the percentage of the population which is Asian-American is roughly twice that which is black) most discussions of race appear continue to be framed in the outmoded, bipolar terms of  black and white.  For example, whereas a lot of people and many organizations honor Black History Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is by comparison almost completely unrecognized except by some Asian-American organization and individuals.

The centuries-long struggle and strife of blacks in America is well-documented and worth honoring -- many have suggested that Black Americans invented the Civil Rights Movement (some Native Americans might take issue with that). Asians, like other non-whites, have also been subjected to legal segregation, racist violence, widespread discrimination and harassment. So why is it that the Asian-American experience is so... obscure? I hadn't even heard of its existence until I was hipped to it by reknowned Asian-American rights activist, Ngoc-thu Thi Nguyen.


According to polls, 23% of Americans are admittedly "uncomfortable" voting for an Asian-American to be President of the United States. This is in contrast to 15% compared with an African-American candidate and 14% compared with a (presumably non-Asian) female candidate. Just as many Americans used to fear that Catholics ultimate allegiance was to the pope, a lot of Asians are suspected and viewed of holding allegiances the Asian countries of their ancestors, a view which fuels the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype.


Asian-Americans are typically descended from more recent immigrants than the white or black population. Last year, coming up with movies to showcase for APA Heritage Month resulted in the suggestion of Chinese Kung Fu movies the distinction between Asians in Asia and Asians in America remains a lot harder for non-Asians than distinguishing African-Americans from Africans or white people from Europeans partly because America loves imported Asian movies and Korean dramas but Hollywood continues to be incredibly uncomfortable with Asian-American leads or ensembles. To date there've only been a handful of Asian-American television series. Even more troubling to me is the fact that many Asian-Americans born in America speak of "American food" and "Americans" as something separate and exclusive of themselves.


America's understanding and discussion of racial issues has almost always been overwhelmingly and frustratingly bipolar.  Look at the focus of most conversations about the current Democratic Party elections despite the fact that Asian-Americans are second only to Jews in their per capita political donations. This simple and distorted view exists despite the fact that other groups, such as Asians and Native Americans, have always been central to our country's history. The conversation has always been and remains, still, "black and white."


Asians are often paternalistically referred to as the "model minority" -- a special minority position that seems to involve the allowance of systematic marginalization. It's like saying "here's a gold star for not rocking the boat. We wish all minorities were so well-behaved." It suggests that (even though Asian immigration is growing at the highest percentage of any racial group) the fact that Asian-Americans are the least likely racial group to report crimes against themselves is to be commended. And even though rare modern instances of blackface provoke outrage, yellowface (whether literal or metaphorically practiced by Asian-American actors reduced to playing into stereotypes) is still not a big deal.


I have to assume that the term "model minority" doesn't  apply to all Asian-Americans, right? As a whole, Southeast Asian people including Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Filipinos and Hmong in the United States are, socio-economically speaking, much more aligned with Native Americans, Blacks, and Latinos. Anecdotally speaking, they seem less likely to be fetishized by both pop culture (appearing in advertisments, films and TV less often than East Asians) and non-Asian exoticists struck with so-called "Yellow Fever." And what of South Asians? For whatever reason, if one speaks of Asian-Americans of South Asian ancestral origin as being Asian-Americans (which they, of course, are), many non-Asians will react with confusion or even attempt to correct you. Anyway, enough of my musings on race... here's a brief history of Asian-American Immigration to the Americas.




A group of proto-Asian hunters walks from Northern Asia to the Americas on a land bridge.

Inupiaq dancer                    Yupik girl                      Inuit girls                   Alutiiq dancer                  Aleut boy


The last great wave of prehistoric migration from northern Asia to the Americas. These settlers go on to develop into the Inupiaq, Yupik, Inuit, Alutiiq, and Aleut peoples (among others).


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