When the Far East mingles with the West

The Curse of Quon Gwon, from http://festival.asianamericanmedia.org

In 2004, American filmmaker Arthur Dong was working on a documentary, Hollywood Chinese. He came across two reels of a lost and barely-known silent film from 1916-17. Amazingly, it was made by and for the Chinese-American community. The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West was all the more remarkable for having been written and directed by a woman, Marion Wong. It was instantly recognised for its national importance, and in 2006 it was added to the National Film Registry of American treasures marked out for permanent preservation.

The film was found in a basement in Oakland, California, Marion Wong’s home town and location for the film. The film’s exhibition this week at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland has generated a far bit of publicity, and a local news report on ABC7 News which is worth checking out because it has some clips from the film, plus an interview with Dong. The same clips are also available on the site of Deep Focus Productions, which made the documentary Hollywood Chinese, and which has background information on Wong’s film. It’s a graceful, professional-looking production, offering a tantalisingly narrow window on a community and on a little-known strand of American filmmaking.

Little seems known about the film itself. Marion Wong made it for Mandarin Film Productions, and employed mostly family members for its production. Wong herself acts in the film, as do her sister-in-law Violet Wong (whose daughters had held on to film until Arthur Dong discovered it) and her mother Chin See, while other family members worked on costumes, sets and finance. Overall there was a Chinese cast of thirty. The surviving film is incomplete, reels four and seven of what may have been an eight reel feature. A 16mm print duplicates this footage while adding an additional ten minutes. The film is now preserved by the Academy Film Archive.

What other Chinese-American filmmaking existed in the silent era? The Curse of Quon Gwon is thought to be the first Chinese-American film, but what led Marion Wong to produce it, and what followed it? Was it actually shown in public? There doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence that it was screened, just that it lost the family a lot of money. The Deep Focus website tells us that Motion Picture World of 17 July 1917 noted the film, saying that its plot:

… deals with the curse of a Chinese god that follows his people because of the influence of western civilization. The first part is taken in California, showing the intrigues of the Chinese who are living in this country in behalf of the Chinese monarchical government, and those who are working for the revolutionists in favor of a Chinese republic. A love story begins here and is carried through the rest of the production.

Another press notice from May 1916 has Wong’s thoughts on her film:

“I had never seen any Chinese movies,” Miss Wong said today, “so I decided to introduce them to the world. I first wrote the love story. Then I decided that people who are interested in my people and my country would like to see some of the customs and manners of China. So I added to the love drama many scenes depicting these things. I do hope it will be a success.”

There’s a helpful family history for Marion Wong on the CineMedua site, but I’ve found nothing else of Chinese-American filmmaking in the silent era (plenty of Chinese-American characters of course, usually of the tedious ‘yellow peril’ villainous type, alas), certainly not in the American Film Institute catalog. So maybe it’s a remarkable one-off, not a fragment of a lost history but a fleeting vision of a history that might have been. [See comments]