Sunday, June 28, 2015

黎莉莉 Li Lili: Shazam!

I *love* this photo of Shanghai film star Li Lili (ca. 1934). It’s both charmingly vintage and surprisingly modern.

It shines with a timeless golden light that evokes my formative childhood memories of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, late teenage infatuation with the comic book heroines of Jaime Hernandez, and more recent fascination with Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties.

Among Chinese cinema’s many superwomen, Li Lili will always be the most super.

P.S. Check out this wonderful tribute to Li Lili by her grandson-in-law and this fab review of her signature film Queen of Sports.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Olive Young’s Great Depression Blues

Finally, after seven years of searching for ephemeral traces of her life, HERE is my story about Chinese American film star Olive Young. Honestly, it still feels like an incomplete puzzle with more than a few pieces forced together, but I hope at least that it conveys something of the spark that drew me to her.

A big round of thanks to Daniel Riccuito, editor of The Chiseler for presenting my piece in his smart and stylish web magazine about people and things forgotten. I had been planning on writing some version of this for Soft Film, but Daniel’s interest and encouragement helped me reach the finish line with something much stronger than if I’d been left to my own temperamental devices.

Finally, I’m both happy and sad to announce that this will be the final definitive post of Soft Film. A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has followed my ramblings and obsessions at any time during the past six years, especially to those of you who took the time to say hello, offer a word of thanks, or share your enthusiasm.

Best wishes to you all!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

-:¦:- Aloha Sunshine -:¦:-

Best wishes to all my readers! I hope your holidays are full of cheer. I’m going to take an extended leave of absence as I contemplate my next incarnation. For those of you following my Olive Young research, I’ve been invited to write about her for another blog and will make my next post there. Otherwise, I’ll see you back here, or someplace entirely elsewhere. 再見!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Lily Yuen: Afro-Chinese Dance Maniac

Lily Yuen (Pittsburgh Courier, January 10, 1931)
The thing I love most about the past is that it never runs out of surprises. A couple of days ago I was trying to re-find a full-page feature about the legendary Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu that had appeared in American newspapers at the time of her death in 1935. I remembered that the article had referred to her as Lily Yuen. Searching for that name, I unexpectedly came across another Lily Yuen.

Born around 1902, this Lily Yuen grew up not in Shanghai, China, but in Savannah, Georgia, and was famous during the 20s and 30s as a dancer, singer, and comedienne. Beneath a headline proclaiming her “A RACIAL PUZZLE”, an article in The Afro-American (June 20, 1925) revealed that “Miss Lily Yuen, a tall, agile, brown girl... is typically Negro, and yet she is the daughter of a Chinese subject and of a colored woman.” It went to say that her father was an immigrant from China named Ton Yuen [also known as Joe Yuen] who settled down in Savannah, opened a laundry business, and married an African American woman [named Josephine, also known as Josie].

Lily started dancing professionally in 1922 and a year later was performing with Jones’ Syncopated Syncopators, an African-American vaudeville revue led by Joseph Jones, who was known as “the best Jewish impersonator among colored actors” (The Afro-American, October 5, 1923). She soon earned a reputation for her Charleston strut and “eccentric” dance steps which left audiences clamoring for encore after encore.

In 1926 she joined Irvin C. Miller’s “Brown Skin Models” revue, billed in newspaper advertisements as “The Greatest Array of Colored Stars Ever Assembled” and “The Ziegfeld Follies with a Palm Beach Tan”. Lily was one of the show’s leading attractions and “a fully recognized star in her line and exceptionally in the Charlestonian realm” (Pittsburgh Courier, February 13, 1926).

Newspaper ad from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 26, 1926
By the end of 1927 Lily had left “Brown Skin Models” to form her own trio called the Three Dance Maniacs. The next year a short profile of Lily appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier (December 8, 1928), summing up her successful career thus far:
Fifty Thousand Dollar Legs
This may be only a small part of the real value of the shapely dancing limbs of one Lily Yuen, good looking, fine personality and a stage favorite wherever she puts on her large flat shoes, sweater and cap that rests at a saucy angle upon her pretty tresses. Miss Yuen has been dancing about five years. Reaching efficiency of a charming type which placed her on many bills in big time white houses, where she never failed to score. Sometimes she works in a trio other times alone. But at all times she is earnest and a hard worker. She originates all her steps, many of which are now being copied and used by Broadway white girls.

Around this time Lily settled down in New York and during the next few years performed in such shows as “Ginger Snaps of 1929”, “Fidgety Feet”, “S’prise Me!”, and “Jazz-Mad”. She continued performing throughout the 30s, including a stint with Ethel Waters in 1938. Lily was reported to have married in 1941, but that didn’t seem to stop her career. In 1946 she was headlining nightclubs in Baltimore and Washington D.C.

It’s a real shame that the memory of Lily Yuen has slipped through the cracks of history. I’d love to know more about this racial puzzle, this dance maniac with the fifty-thousand-dollar legs.

“Lily Yuen, singing comedienne, better known throughout the East as the ‘Hoy-Hoy Girl’...” (The Afro-American, September 28, 1946)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

It's Here! Chinese in Hollywood

Bruce Lee teaches Nancy Kwan some of his moves on the set of The Wrecking Crew (1968).
More good news for your bookshelf! The long-awaited Chinese in Hollywood by Jenny Cho and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California is now available, just in time for the holiday season. I highly recommend it to all fans of Soft Film, and not just because it includes about a dozen photos from my own collection, several of which never been published here or anywhere else.

Author Jenny Cho has created an astonishing and eye-opening panorama of Chinese contributions to American film and television. From Marion Wong’s groundbreaking independent feature The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916) to Ang Lee’s 2013 Academy Award for Best Director, the all-too-often marginalized history of Chinese Americans working in Hollywood is brilliantly brought to light through more than 200 rare images and informative captions.

Even though I consider myself fairly well-versed in the subject, I found Chinese in Hollywood chock-full of new discoveries and surprises, such as early comedians Charlie Fang and Chai Hong, an absolutely priceless photo of Olive Young greeting Peking opera legend Mei Lanfang on his visit to Los Angeles in 1930, plus a whole lot more.

Right now Amazon is selling the book at a really good discount, so what are you waiting for? Get yourself a copy!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chinatown Paper Dolls: Playing with Chinese-American Fashion History

Chinese nightclub and Peking opera outfits from Kwei-lin Lum’s new book Chinatown Paper Dolls.
I’m very excited to announce that Kwei-lin Lum, who created the extraordinary Pearl Chang paper doll set for me last year, has recently released a new set called Chinatown Paper Dolls. Regardless of your age or whether you cut it up or keep it on your shelf, this is a fun book and makes a great gift for the holidays. From first-generation immigrant laborer and “Yellow Peril” villain to 1960s Asian-American activist and modern-day hipster, Kwei-lin playfully incorporates a full range of outfits and identities. Check it out!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Frances Fong: Chinese Hep-Cat

Because just one post is not enough to contain the goodness of Frances Fong, here’s a little something that I recently discovered thanks to an item from the Chicago Tribune (January 8, 1956) that hipped me to Frances’ uncredited appearance as a “Chinese hep-cat” opposite Alan Ladd in Hell on Frisco Bay (1955). Check it out, daddy-o!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Meet Frances Fong (née Chung) a.k.a “Huckleberry Fong”

Legendary angler Bill Curtis and actress Frances Fong pose with a Biscayne Bay bonefish (1966).
Here are two fun fishing-related items about Chinese-American actress Frances Fong that I found recently: the photo above, which accompanied a syndicated article about Florida bonefishing in February 1966; and the profile below, which appeared in the October 25, 1962 issue of The Miami News. If you follow my blog, you know that I have a soft spot for forgotten and lesser-known actors. Although her career spanned more than four decades, Frances never got the kind of high-profile role that would ensure her memory in the history of American film and television. That both IMDB and AFI have her listed as two separate actresses (Frances Chung and Frances Fong) is proof of her relative obscurity.

Born in Hawaii in 1927, Frances Fong (née Chung) started performing professionally during her childhood. By the age of nine, she was singing and dancing at U.S. military bases in Oahu. Later during her teens, she sang for the USO. In 1945 she moved to the Mainland and found work as an actress in Hollywood. Credited under her maiden name, she made her film debut as Keye Luke’s wife in the 13-chapter serial Lost City of the Jungle (1946). The next two years saw her playing bit parts, one notable exception being the WWII exploitation thriller Women in the Night (1948). A true independent film — produced by St. Louis–based theater exhibitor Louis Ansell and shot in Ensenada with a Mexican crew — Women in the Night was publicized as “a semi-documentary picture depicting the atrocities committed by Japs and Nazis against women of conquered countries” (San Diego Union, February 22, 1948). One ad for the film exclaimed, “Every Shameful Incident is Shockingly True! NOW IT CAN BE TOLD! Recommended for Adults Only!” Despite its lurid marketing, Women in the Night is tame by today’s and even pre-Code standards. But it did offer Frances Chung what was probably the biggest role of her career, an undercover Chinese resistance fighter plotting against the German and Japanese armies.

During the early 50s Frances sang with the Cathayans orchestra in San Francisco. She returned to the silver screen (now using her married name Fong) in a small part opposite Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune (1955). Over the next 25 years, she appeared in such TV shows as The New Adventures of China Smith (1955), Peter Gunn (1958), Bachelor Father (1960)My Three Sons (1965), Gomer Pyle: USMC (1967), Bewitched (1970), Mod Squad (1972), All in the Family (1976), M*A*S*H (1977), and CHiPs (1979). During the late 50s she also performed in Las Vegas in various Asian-themed revues. Variety called her “a good-looking chirper” who “pleasantly offers ‘C’est Si Bon,’ ‘Two Different Worlds,’ and other out-of-character numbers which make her a refreshingly different find” (May 28, 1957). In 1962-63 Frances traveled across the U.S. — and even to Kingston, Jamaica — in the stage production of Pajama Tops, an adaptation of the popular 1950 French farce Moumou by Jean De Letraz. The show was quite popular, no doubt because of its main attraction, Playboy model and blonde bombshell June Wilkinson. Frances played the maid, but unlike in Hollywood movies, here at least she probably had some good lines. One reviewer took note of her “properly saucy” performance.

From the little I’ve seen of Frances (check out the links above for examples of her work), she strikes me as a smart and sexy lady, equal parts glamor and down-home charm. She has a cool sophistication that reminds me a bit of Hong Kong actress Helen Li Mei. It’s a shame that her options in Hollywood were so limited. She could have been quite a star.

Actress Casts Line, Fish Bite On Cue

Meet Huckleberry Fong. She excels in swimming, bowling, horseback riding and fishing.

The real name is Frances Fong. She is a native of Honolulu, and her profession is acting. She is a member of the cast of “Pajama Tops,” starring June Wilkinson, which is currently playing at Coconut Grove Playhouse.

“I love fishing, especially for largemouth bass,” she said. “While I lived in San Francisco, I often went fishing for bass in the lakes out there.”

She was taught to fish by her father, in Honolulu. “I was his right-hand man,” she said. “Or would it be right-hand woman? Any way, I went fishing with him all the time. He would catch big fish which look something like your pompano. I would gaff them for him.”

She said before her father went fishing, he would go and catch bait. “We would drive along a road bordering the water... all the while my father would look for schools of fish. When he spotted some fish, we would hop out of the car, sneak up to where the fish were. Then my father would throw a large cast net to catch the bait. It was a beautiful sight to watch him cast the net,” she said.

The fish her father caught were often eaten raw. “It is customary to eat raw fish in Honolulu,” she said. “We often used raw fish in salads. But we were always careful that raw fish were fresh.”

Her father is a deepsea diver. He hunts lobsters in the deep water around the coral reefs. “I used to love to dive with him,” she said. “But I gave it up when I had a close encounter with a giant moray eel.”

She said they often speared squid to eat and to use as bait. “We would eat the squid raw,” she said. “Or, sometimes we would smoke it before we ate it.”

She explained that the squid was tough and had to be pounded with rocks to make it tender enough to eat. “Once we caught a large number of squid, and we didn’t think much of the prospect of having to pound them with rocks because it was quite a job,” she said. “So we dumped them into the washing machine in hopes the agitator would soften them up. It didn’t work too well.”

She explained about her nickname — Huckleberry Fong. “I acquired the nickname in California,” she said. “It seemed that I was always the only woman out fishing. The men would tease me at the dock by calling me Huckleberry Fong.”

The men didn’t think too highly of Huckleberry Fong’s fishing. “They would take all the live minnows and leave me a large number of squid, and dead ones,” she said. “I developed a system of jigging the dead minnows along so that they looked almost alive. One day, I caught four bass and the men caught nothing. They didn’t believe I caught the bass on dead minnows, so I demonstrated my system of jigging the bait and caught another bass right there on the dock!”

  • I’m Stepping Out with a Memory Tonight: A Gala Benefit Honoring Pioneers of the 1930s-40s Chinese American Nightclub Era (Chinese Historical Society of America, 1997)
  • Pajama Tops program (Playbill, 1963)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Judy Dan: Miss Hong Kong 1952

I was looking through my stuff last night and came across this pictorial piece about Judy Dan 但茱迪, who happens to be the daughter of Dan Duyu and Yin Mingzhu, director and star of The Cave of the Silken Web (1927), the lost film recently discovered at the National Library of Norway.

Born in Shanghai in 1931, Judy moved to Hong Kong with her family in the wake of the Japanese invasion. According to an article in the Independent Press Telegram (April 15, 1956), she made her film debut at the age of nine in one of her father’s movies, The Birds in the Flowers, and appeared in eight other pictures before coming to the U.S. (I haven’t been able to confirm this with Chinese sources.) In 1952 she won the Miss Hong Kong contest and went on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant in Long Beach, California, where she came in third runner-up. Her success led to a role in Destination Gobi (1953) and some television work (Cowboy G-Men, The Cisco Kid).

After a two-year break, during which she studied speech and drama at Pepperdine University, got married, and started a family, Judy returned to the entertainment industry, playing one of the wives in The King and I (1956) and appearing in the TV show Crossroads (1956). Plans to star in a Hong Kong feature apparently never came to fruition (Morning Advocate, July 1, 1956). Judy continued working in Hollywood, appearing in such shows as The Lone Ranger (1956), The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1957), Hawaiian Eye (1959–60), Hong Kong (1960), Bachelor Father (1961), Perry Mason (1962), My Three Sons (1963), and Get Smart (1969). Even though she eventually worked her way up to feature-film supporting roles (War is Hell, The Spiral Road, Stagecoach to Dancer’s Rock, Kill a Dragon), in the end it appears that Judy had few real opportunities to stretch her wings as an actress.

The following text and photos (plus the one above) come from the January 1953 issue of SHOW magazine.

*  *  *  *  *

Although Judy Dan did not win the Miss Universe contest in which she was Hong Kong’s entry, she did win the only female role in the Richard Widmark–starrer, Gobi Desert, plus a scholarship to Pepperdine College where she now studies when not busy at 20th Century-Fox.

Judy and her family fled their native Shanghai when Japs invaded in 1939; again sought freedom in British owned Hong Kong when Reds seized all China. There, her movie producer father groomed Judy for film stardom.

Now living modestly in a North Hollywood apartment, Judy irons one of her Chinese silk gowns (above l.), combs hair (r.) preparing for date with her agent-boyfriend; looks forward to happy, productive future in U.S.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lost Cave of the Silken Web Found at the National Library of Norway

Yin Mingzhu (left) and Xia Peizhen (right) in Dan Duyu’s The Cave of the Silken Web (1927).
Yesterday my good friend Dev Yang (author of the much missed blog The Golden Age of Chinese Language Cinema) emailed me with the news that a print of the presumed-lost The Cave of the Silken Web 盤絲洞 (1927) was found at the National Library of Norway. While the discovery of any film from Chinese cinema’s silent era is cause for celebration, the return of this particular film is especially exciting.

Directed by Dan Duyu, a former magazine illustrator and painter of calendar girl posters, this extravagant production is the quintessential “soft film”. Based on one of the most picturesque episodes from the classic Chinese epic Journey to the West, it vividly brings to life the erotic entrapment of the perpetually horny Pigsy and the pious monk Xuanzang by a bevy of sultry spider spirits. Featuring elaborate costumes and sets, optical effects, underwater photography, and scantily clad women, The Cave of the Silken Web helped set the stage for a rich tradition of fantasy filmmaking that would eventually come to abundant fruition in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The rediscovered film had its new premiere two weeks ago at the Films from the South Festival in Oslo. Tomorrow night the Chinese Visual Festival Film Club will be screening a DVD of the print at King’s College London. And rumor has it that The Cave of the Silken Web will eventually be making its way to the States (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, are you reading this?). In the meantime, for those of us who don’t live in Oslo or London, this news report shows a few tantalizing minutes.

UPDATE: Just found these program notes by Chinese film scholar Chris Berry.