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.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Olive Young 楊愛立: An Annotated Filmography (1925-1932)

Even if one leaves aside Olive Young’s ambition to become a film producer and her post-acting career as a traveling blues singer, her unique status as an American-born Chinese who became a leading actress in 1920s Shanghai makes her one of the most fascinating figures of early Chinese cinema. I’ll have much more to say about her life and work in the coming months, but as a first piece of that project, here is an annotated list of Olive’s films.

Note on availability: The survival rate of films from the silent era is generally quite low. For American feature films, it’s believed that only 10 to 25 percent (depending on the year) survive in archives today. For Chinese films, the rate is even lower: just 5 percent. It’s no surprise then that only three — as far as I can tell — of Olive Young’s 18 films survive today: all of them sound films made in Hollywood during the early 1930s. Of those three, only The Mask of Fu Manchu (in which she appears in an unbilled bit role) is officially available on DVD.

Among the few Chinese films from the 1920s that do survive are two from the Great Wall Film Company, the studio where Olive made most of her films. A String of Pearls (1925) and Poor Daddy (1929) are both available online and give us a chance to imagine the general look and feel of Olive’s Great Wall films.

I should also mention that Olive evidently appeared in an issue of International Newsreel. In the summer of 1926 Hearst cameraman Ariel Varges filmed an informal dog show involving the actresses of Great Wall and their canine companions. According to an article in the North China Herald (July 24, 1926), the footage was going to be sent to the U.S. for distribution. Evidence suggests that Olive and Varges had some kind of relationship (more on this in a future post), so she may have appeared in a few other episodes of the Hearst newsreel.

Disclaimer: Although I have tried my best to present as accurately as possible the information that I’ve found, there are undoubtedly some mistakes or misinterpretations on my part. Some of the facts given below are new and some contradict previous accounts. If you spot any errors or have missing pieces of the puzzle you want to share, please get in touch with me.

  • One Dollar 一塊錢 (1925, British American Tobacco Co. 英美煙草公司)
    The Magical Monk 神僧 (1925, BAT Co. 英美煙草公司)
    In 1922 British American Tobacco hired cameraman William H. Jansen to create cartoon advertisements for its cigarette products. Over the next few years, he ended up shooting hundreds of short films for the company, mostly scenics and newsreel-type stories. At the end of 1924, eager to capitalize on China’s growing motion picture market, BAT decided to venture into the production of fiction films. They set up a Chinese supervisory board that included some of the luminaries of the “Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies” school of popular fiction, such as Wang Dungen (founder of the best-selling weekly journal The Saturday) and multi-talented humorist Xu Zhoudai (known as the “Artisan of Laughter”). Newcomers Zhu Fei, Mary Lee, and Olive Young were hired as the studio’s leading players. An advance screening of the first two fiction films produced by BAT was covered in the North China Herald (March 28, 1925). According to the review, One Dollar was adapted from a play by P.C. Chang (then dean of Tsinghua University) while The Magical Monk was based on an ancient tale about a beggar who dreams he is the Emperor. The company was congratulated for “its success in filming dramas of lively action, with detail which is true to life and acting which is natural and appealing”. However, despite such praise and BAT’s avowed intention to produce movies with “an educational or moral theme”, the films were attacked by Chinese journalists for being products of cultural imperialism. Alleging that scenes of gambling, theft, and arson (evidently from One Dollar) portrayed Chinese in a bad light, an article in 影戲春秋 (May 10, 1925) warned BAT not to make these kinds of “harmful” films or else the Chinese people would rise up against the foreigners making motion pictures in China. These words turned out to be quite prescient. During the May Thirtieth Movement, which was ignited when British soldiers opened fire on demonstrators protesting the killing of a worker at a Japanese-owned factory, BAT was singled out and boycotted more than any other foreign company. In early June all 15,000 of the workers at its Shanghai plants went on strike. Throughout the country, BAT products were confiscated and destroyed. Local merchants and street hawkers caught selling the company’s cigarettes were “beaten, fined, imprisoned, and in one case, dragged through the streets in chains” (Cochran, Big Business in China). In the face of such public outrage, BAT’s Chinese advisory board and many of its employees quit the company, leaving the studio temporarily shut down. It was not an auspicious beginning for Olive Young’s career.
  • Filial Piety [The Realm of Love Finally Mended]
    情天終補 (1926, British American Tobacco Co. 英美煙草公司)
    After the turmoil of the May Thirtieth Movement had subsided, cameraman William Jansen took up the reigns of director and continued BAT’s production of Chinese fiction films. It’s not clear whether Olive took part in the subsequent features The Three Talismans (1925) and The Legend of the Willow Pattern Plate (1926), or any of the two-reel comedies produced by the studio, but she did star in Filial Piety, which was apparently the last film made by BAT before it shut down for good. Some filmographies list the film as a production of the Great Wall Film Company, where Olive ended up spending most of her Shanghai career, but reviews in the North China Daily News confirm that Filial Piety was in fact a BAT production. Although the film was released in Shanghai in September, it must have been completed several months previously. Jansen had left Shanghai in June on a trip to the United States to secure distribution for BAT’s films. In August he arrived in Los Angeles with copies of the films, including Filial Piety. Unlike the previous BAT features, Filial Piety was a contemporary drama. It told the story of a young man who returns to China after completing his education in America. During the journey home, he meets a “modern, up-to-date girl” (played by Olive). It’s love at first sight, and the two promise to keep in touch. There’s just one problem: the man has been engaged since childhood. The ensuing conflict between filial piety and romantic love is eventually resolved by the hand of fate, and the film ends, after many melodramatic twists and turns, with the marriage of the two lovers. The film was prominently advertised in the North China Daily News, where it was billed as “The Most Satisfying Picture of Modern Chinese Life Yet Produced”. Although a reviewer for the North China Herald complained that there was “too much modernity” in the film, the film was praised for its acting, direction, and lighting. Olive was singled out for her excellent performance, with the writer concluding, “Surely, she is deserving of the title, the Chinese ‘Mary Pickford’.”
  • The Singed Moth
    浪蝶 (1926, [Fei Fei Film Co.] 非非影片公司)
    After leaving BAT sometime around June, Olive got a part in this film produced by famed Cantonese opera performer Sit Kok-sin. According to a biography of Olive that appeared in the film’s program magazine, Sit was friend of her family. During this time, Sit was lying low in Shanghai because of personal trouble with triads down south. He made productive use of his exile, absorbing the myriad sights and sounds of China’s most cosmopolitan city. A big fan of the cinema, Sit decided to make his own movie. Under the pseudonym Zhang Fei 章非, he set up the Fei Fei Film Company. In addition to taking on the role of producer and director, Sit played the “singed moth” of the film’s title, a licentious playboy who forces himself on his virtuous cousin as well as the wife of another cousin. After wrecking the lives of those around him, he ends up killing himself in repentance. Sit’s female counterpart in the film was played by Olive, who allegedly had a provocative scene showing her chatting on the phone while taking a bath (Chearavanont, Film Stories). When the film opened in Shanghai in December, Olive’s name was singled out in an advertisement appearing in the North China Daily News.
  • Ways of Youth [A Couple’s Hardship and Joy]
    苦樂鴛鴦 (1926, Great Wall Film Co. 長城畫片公司)
    In the July 1926 issue of Shanghai’s leading pictorial magazine Young Companion, Olive was announced as the new leading actress of the Great Wall Film Company. The company was founded in New York in 1921 by Chinese students (some of them American-born) who were upset by Hollywood’s negative portrayals of the Chinese. With the help of local merchants, including the Lee Family of New York Chinatown, they trained themselves in filmmaking, opened up a studio in Brooklyn, and produced two short films about Chinese traditional costumes and martial arts. In 1924 they moved their operations to Shanghai, where they established themselves as one of the leading companies in China’s emerging film industry. During the end of her stint with BAT, Olive was offered a contract with the Mack Sennett Studios and was supposed to voyage to Hollywood that summer. But according to the announcement in Young Companion, she wanted to make one more film for “a good Chinese-owned movie company” as a parting memory for the Chinese audience. Olive was the featured star of Ways of Youth, appearing on the cover of the film’s program magazine wearing a fashionable but modest full-length, loose-fitting cheongsam and sporting a “Colleen Moore bob”. Unlike her following film, where she played an unrepentant flapper, here Olive played the successful founder of a women’s sports academy — a shining example of the modern woman. A review of Ways of Youth in the North China Daily News (November 29, 1926) proclaimed that Olive was “the particular bright star of the film and, not only in her appearance but in her acting as well, [stood] out from the group of competent actors.”
  • A Flapper’s Downfall [No Way Out for the Profligate Woman]
    浪女窮途 (1927, Great Wall Film Co. 長城畫片公司)
    Billed in the studio’s program magazine as “a modern Chinese drama of love and tragedy”, A Flapper’s Downfall tells the cautionary tale of a rich girl — “a gifted beauty with all the qualifications of a social butterfly, being a fashionable dresser and an expert in the art of dance” — who falls in love with another woman’s fiance. Determined to possess the object of her desire, she abandons her own fiance and rushes headlong down a path of no return that ultimately ends in her death. This film was a flip from Ways of Youth, which had cast Olive and leading man Harding Loue as a modern couple who retained traditional virtues of integrity and hard work. Here they demonstrated the dark side of romantic love. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t survive, making it impossible to tell how well Olive was able to imbue her character with pathos and/or femme fatale charm.
  • [Single Arrow Revenge]
    一箭仇 (1927, Great Wall Film Co. 長城畫片公司)
    This film marked a turning point for the Great Wall studio, which had been founded with the intention of using motion pictures for education and moral uplift. Although its films were critically acclaimed for their exploration of contemporary social issues and high level of craftsmanship, they evidently weren’t successful at the box office. As historical costume dramas and martial-arts adventures started to gain favor with moviegoers, Great Wall decided to jump on the bandwagon. Where did this leave Olive, who was known for her “foreignized and flapper” roles? Instead of playing one of the many righteous heroines who were beginning to dominate Chinese screens, in Single Arrow Revenge she got stuck with the role of a woman who cheats on her husband with one of the evil gentry. It was a reprise of sorts of her previous role in A Flapper’s Downfall, only here she was no longer the star of the show.
  • Nar Jah [Nezha is Born]
    哪吒出世 (1927, Great Wall Film Co. 長城畫片公司)
    Olive continued to play the bad woman, but this time on a mythological level. Nar Jah tells the origin of the child diety Nezha, with Olive cast as the evil goddess Shiji. This was one of the first adaptations of the Nezha legend to reach the silver screen (another studio, the Great China Film Company, apparently released its own version that same year). Nezha was played by child actor Zhang Zhede, who starred two years later in Great Wall’s Poor Daddy (1929), one of the few films that survive from this decade of Chinese cinema. Nar Jah is a prime example of the martial arts–magic spirit movies that inflamed the public’s imagination during the late 20s and early 30s. When the Nationalist government and Chinese intelligentsia attacked the genre, criticizing its feudal ideology and unhealthy tendencies, an apocryphal story was widely circulated about a couple seen burning incense and bowing to the image of Ne Zha during a screening of the film.
  • The Mystic Fan [Flame Mountain]
    火焰山 (1927, Great Wall Film Co. 長城畫片公司)
    This film was adapted from the famous episode in the classic epic Journey to the West about the Monkey King’s struggle to take from Princess Iron Fan the magic fan that will extinguish the deadly fires blocking the heroes’ passage through the Flaming Mountains. Olive played Princess Iron Fan alongside Hong Jingling as the Monkey King and Wang Guiling as the Bull King. As was the case with Nar Jah, another version of the story was released the same year (by Tianyi, the first studio started by the legendary Shaw family). The story has inspired many subsequent adaptations on both the cinema and television screen, including most notably Princess Iron Fan (1941). Produced by the pioneering Wan brothers, who made two cartoons for Great Wall in 1926, it was the first feature-length animation made in China.
  • Kan the Great Knight Errant [The Hero Gan Fengchi]
    大俠甘鳳池 (1928, Great Wall Film Co. 長城畫片公司)
    The title character is based on the semi-historical martial artist and Han Chinese nationalist Gan Fengchi, who during the 18th century attempted to overthrow the Qing dynasty. A popular wuxia novel based on the legendary accounts of his heroic deeds was published in 1922 and may have been the inspiration for Great Wall’s film. Kan the Great Knight Errant was directed by Yang Xiaozhong, who was hired in 1927 and made most of the studio’s martial-arts movies (including Single Arrow Revenge and The Two Reformers). Gan Fengchi was played by Wang Zhengqing, who made his debut in Great Wall’s Retaliation 武鬆血濺鴛鴦樓 (1927) playing the well-known Outlaws of the March character Wu Song. I’ve been unable to find any information about Olive’s role, so I don’t know whether she played one of the good guys or one of the bad guys. Whatever the case, Kan the Great Knight Errant was apparently quite a sensational film. In an article appearing in the contemporary movie magazine 中國電影雜志 (Issue 13, 1928), the writer exclaimed, “We find ourselves today under the oppression of the powerful. This movie can truly be regarded as a remedy for our troubled times. After watching it, I unconsciously felt a new hope, a hope that Gan Fengchi would come again.”
  • The Two Reformers [The Hero’s Shadow in Evil Light]
    妖光俠影 (1928, Great Wall Film Co. 長城畫片公司)
    In her last film for the Great Wall studio, Olive played a bandit chief who falls in love with a local garrison commander (played by He Zhigang) out to capture her gang. She decides to renounce her criminal past and flee with the commander. Complications ensue when a fellow bandit leader who nurtures an affection for her must capture the two lovers and put them to death. When the film showed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it was advertised as “a picture crowded with romance, thrills, action, adventure, mystery and magic transformations.”
  • [Romance in a Poor Village]
    窮鄉艷遇 (1928, [New Century Film Co.] 新世紀影片公司)
    Sometime during the end of 1927, Olive left Great Wall and joined the New Century Film Company. Romance in a Poor Village was its first, and possibly last, production. An advertisement for the film proclaimed it an unprecedented romantic martial-arts epic. Billed as its “four big stars” were Yan Yuexian, Wei Guangshou, Olive, and “the Oriental Chaplin” Zhou Kongkong.
  • [The Hot-Blooded Man]
    熱血男兒 (1929, The China Sun Motion Picture Co. Ltd 民新影片公司)
    Released around the time she left Shanghai for Indonesia to shoot Resia Boroboedoer, this film was a return of sorts for Olive. Before she had made her motion picture debut with British American Tobacco, Olive was actually under contract to China Sun. Unable at the time to keep her working, the company let her join BAT. Written and directed by actor Wan Laitian, who also played the leading role, The Hot-Blooded Man was one of the last films made by China Sun before its merger into the Lianhua Film Company. A critique of arranged marriage and the dowry system, it tells the story of a cart-puller (played by Wan) who for more than ten years scrimps and saves so that his son (played by matinee idol Gao Zhanfei) can eventually marry his neighbor’s daughter. When his neighbor’s wife demands five additional pieces of jewelry for the dowry, the father reaches his wits’ end. And then, when his son takes the money and donates it to a “Save the Nation” drive, the old man is completely devastated. During the remainder of the film the father and son rescue a young student (played by Olive) from a gang of hoodlums and end up helping her flee from an arranged marriage. The final scene shows the trio — a new family joined by bonds of affection not money — as they leave their hometown behind.

  • Resia Boroboedoer (1929, Nansing Film Corp.)
    At the end of February 1929, Olive arrived in Indonesia to star in this production from the Nansing Film Corporation, one of the first companies in Indonesia’s fledgling film industry. She reportedly received an extravagant sum of money for her participation, which some say contributed to Nansing’s bankruptcy later that year. Resia Boroboedoer was written and directed by Max L. Haasmann, the Java-born son of a Finnish diplomat who had previously worked as technical director for M.G.M. on Across to Singapore (1928) and Wild Orchids (1929). Haasmann’s story had originally appeared in a leading Dutch East Indies newspaper. Available synopses of the film read very much like a serialized adventure yarn. Olive plays a young woman from China who travels to Java in search of the ashes of Gautama Buddha, which according to her father’s journal are hidden at Borobudur. Besides being shot on location at the largest Buddhist temple in the world, the movie also boasted never-before-filmed scenes of Indonesian black magic. Resia Boroboedoer premiered in July in Batavia (modern day Jakarta) then traveled to other cities in Indonesia (such as Medan, Sumatra, in September). According to Haasmann, the film was slated for release throughout Asia. Whether it was ever screened outside of Indonesia and how it was received by the public remains a mystery. The most comprehensive account of the film comes from a contemporary review by novelist and playwright Kwee Tek Hoay, who complained about the poor picture quality and the absurdity of the story.

  • Trailin’ Trouble (1930, Hoot Gibson Productions / Universal Pictures)
    This was Olive’s first film after returning to the U.S. She was signed to the picture within weeks of her arrival in Los Angeles on October 29, 1929. Production started in December. The film was released the following year in both silent and sound versions. Hoot Gibson, the movie’s star and producer, was a former rodeo champion and one of the biggest cowboy stars of the silent era. He was also popular in China. During the same period that Olive was making an impression on Chinese audiences with her westernized flapper image, Hoot was appearing on Shanghai screens in such films as The Calgary Stampede, The Phantom Bullet, and The Prairie King. In Trailin’ Trouble, Hoot plays a ranch hand who takes a shipment of horses to Kansas City for sale. His rival at the ranch conspires with a gang of crooks to separate him from the money. Olive plays the Chinese girl used as bait to swindle the simple-hearted Hoot. Reviews made note of Olive’s “highly amusing and appealing performance.” I don’t know if the film was ever shown in China, but it did make its way to Indonesia, where Olive received prominent billing with Hoot in newspaper ads.
  • Ridin’ Law (1930, Biltmore Productions / Big 4 Film Corp.)
    Hot on the heels of Trailin’ Trouble, Olive made this B-Western with Jack Perrin, another silent cowboy star trying to make a successful transition to the talkies. Her role this time around was minor, garnering significantly less attention than the film’s villain Yakima Canutt (“the Beau Ideal of Bad Men”) and Perrin’s horse Starlight (“as statuesquely gorgeous a horse as has ever been seen on the screen”). Unfortunately, the film doesn’t survive, making it difficult to fathom how Olive, in her role as “a cute Chinese flapper”, fit into this south-of-the-border story about a cowboy avenging the death of his father by a contraband smuggler. Like Trailin’ Trouble, Ridin’ Law was also shown in Indonesia. One advertisement doesn’t even mention Jack Perrin, only “de Chineesche actice Olive Young” — proof that Olive was still remembered from her visit the previous year.
  • The Man Who Came Back (1931, Fox Film Corp.)
    It must have been a disappointment for Olive, who arrived in Hollywood as “China’s Mary Pickford”, to find herself a year later playing a maid, sweeping the Honolulu bungalow of screen couple Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in Raoul Walsh’s The Man Who Came Back. It was a clear sign that her acting career was going nowhere fast. Meanwhile, Anna May Wong had returned from Europe and was making her successful Broadway debut in the play On the Spot prior to signing a contract with Paramount and starting production on Daughter of the Dragon (1931), in which she played the lead role of Dr. Fu Manchu’s daughter.
  • The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer)
    Long missing from her filmography, The Mask of Fu Manchu is the last movie that Olive made. Her uncredited appearance is a sad ending to a career that started with such optimism and promise, yet it’s also fortuitous in that it offers one more look at an actress whose best work has failed to survive the ravages of time. In this film Fu Manchu’s daughter is infamously played in yellowface by “exotic” star Myrna Loy. Was Olive ever considered for the role? And if so, would she have accepted? That’s an intriguing question that may never be answered. Instead we are left with a precious glimpse of Olive Young performing a song, symbolically marking the end of her transpacific journey as “China’s Mary Pickford” and the beginning of her itinerant travels through Depression-era America as a Chinese blues singer.

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