One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited the set of the first commercially released feature film made by Chinese-Americans.* She reported that the production company was named Wah Ming Motion Picture Company and they were headquartered in Boyle Heights. Their movie was called The Lotus Blossom and it was based on a Chinese fable, “The Soul of the Great Bell,” which told the story of a bronze bell whose making required a virgin sacrifice. They had been working on it for three months and were almost done. The production cost around $100,000 and they already had a distributor lined up, the National Exhibitors’ organization.
They had high hopes for their film. The star, Lady Tsen-Mei, told Kingsley, “I want to make the world see that Chinese people are as artistic, as intelligent, as capable of accomplishment as any nation in the world.” The supervising director and scriptwriter, Leong But Jung, also wanted to educate audiences, saying, “you see, we can appeal to the whole world for China through the pictures. Therefore, we are carefully maintaining a balance. We are making them according to universal appeal, full of feeling and action, and yet we are remaining true to Chinese history and tradition.”
Unfortunately, the drawings that illustrated Kingsley’s piece as well as some of the rest of the article demonstrated exactly why they needed to inform the public. Robert Day’s cartoons were straight-up racist, with pidgin English and captions like “most people think the Chinese are tongmen or laundrymen.” Kingsley at least admitted to embarrassment for assuming Lady Tsen Mei didn’t speak English and asking a companion if “the dear little heathen’s daddy wears a pig-tail” right in front of her. The star quickly interrupted, “displaying utter savoir-faire in not permitting me to further entangle myself,” and Kingsley was able to recover and chat about the project. The actress must have gotten a lot of practice fending off ignorant remarks.
Lady Tsen-Mei told Kingsley some untruths about herself; she said she was born in Canton to a noble family and came to the United States when she was three. After graduating from the law school at Columbia University she went into vaudeville. She was actually born in Philadelphia in 1888, and her name was Josephine Moy. She didn’t get to attend college, but she did go into vaudeville as a singer and actress in 1915. In 1918, she starred in a film for the Betzwood Film Company, For the Freedom of the East. After The Lotus Blossom, she went back to vaudeville. She was in one more film, The Letter (1929). If you’d like to learn more, Ramona Curry is working on a biography about her.
The Lotus Blossom premiered in Los Angeles in November 1921. The L.A. Times main critic, Edwin Schallert, admired it, writing “it contains much of the beauty which is associated with the Far East of high imagining. It doesn’t flinch, either, at an unhappy ending, although there is an epilogue which shows the lovers, who have been separated by death, reunited as shadows. Except for some abruptness in the approach to the climax, the story is a very interesting and a truly appealing one. It is told with a fine sympathy for the leading characters.”
The Lotus Blossom only ran for a week on Los Angeles, but it did get distributed nationally, on a state’s rights basis.
To coincide with the film opening, Kingsley interviewed Leong But Jung, who had anglicized his name to James B. Leong. He had dissolved the Wah Ming Company and founded the Chung Wah Motion Picture Company. He was planning to make four films per year, and the first was to be called The Bond of Matrimony. Set in Korea, he said it would illustrate ancestor worship. Eventually he hoped to start a studio in China. Unfortunately, the company disappeared after that. Leong became a character actor in Hollywood. In 1930, he re-named his film Daughter of Heaven and it played at the Filmarte Theater in Los Angeles. A fragment has been preserved at the UCLA and can be seen on the More Treasures from American Film Archives DVD.
If you’d like to learn more, Rudy Martinez, a member of the Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board, wrote a well-researched three-part blog series about the film.
* In 1917, Marian Wong made the first Chinese American film in Oakland, California, a six-reel feature called The Curse of Quon Gwon, but it didn’t get commercial distribution. You can read more about it at the Women Film Pioneers site.