Badass Ladies of History: Marion Wong

In 1916, 21-year-old Marion Wong wrote, directed, and produced the first film by a Chinese American and one of the first by a woman. The Curse of Quon Gwon, the story of Chinese American lovers cursed by the god of war and wealth, abandoned Hollywood stereotypes in favor of more realistic portrayals of Americans of Asian descent. The film has captured the attention of historians and documentary filmmakers in recent years, but the story of its bold, young, female creator is less known.

Marion Wong was born in San Francisco in 1895 and raised in Oakland, where her family opened Edwin’s Café in 1903. Wong attended school only until the move to Oakland, though as the youngest of five children she likely benefitted from additional instruction at home. In 1910, Wong and two of her brothers traveled to China so that marriages could be arranged for each of them, a common practice for middle class Chinese American families at the time. Although the Wongs were third generation Americans, the Geary Act mandated they carry identification cards and strictly limited the travel and legal rights of all U.S. residents of Chinese descent. The trio had only one year to find mates, or the Geary Act would have blocked their return to the country of their birth. This limitation became more pressing when one of Marion’s brothers contracted smallpox and the Xinhai Revolution began while they were in China. Albert Wong met and married Violet on the trip; she became Marion’s life-long best friend and supporter. Marion was paired with a potential husband, but she refused to marry the man. After several letters home to Oakland, her mother backed her decision to return to the U.S. without a husband.

Soon after her return to the United States in August 1911, Marion began writing The Curse of Quon Gwon. According to several Wong family members, Marion was inspired to produce her manuscript as a film after Charlie Chaplin shot A Night Out around the corner from Edwin’s Café in 1915. Marion convinced one of Chaplin’s cameramen to work on her project, which required financing by Marion’s uncle Ben Lim. Lim’s financing allowed Marion to form a production company, Mandarin Film Company of Oakland, and hire actors and production assistants. Marion’s decision to enlist a professional cameraman paid off; The Curse is unusually well-crafted for such a small, early production. The film’s representation of Asian Americans is also a sharp contrast to the stereotyped Asian characters in mainstream films of the period. Sister-in-law Violet played the film’s protagonist, a modern Chinese American woman in San Francisco. Marion, her mother, and Violet’s daughter Stella all had pivotal roles as well. Marion hired professional actor Henry Soo Hoo as the male lead, a Chinese American businessman.

By the spring of 1916, The Curse of Quon Gwon was catching the attention of local newspapers:

FIRST CHINESE FILM DRAMA WRITTEN AND PORTRAYED BY GIRL

OAKLAND, May 11.–Los Angeles may be the center of the motion picture world, but Oakland has the honor of producing the first Chinese film drama, acted entirely by Chinese, produced by Chinese with with Chinese scenery, and Chinese costumes designed by Chinese, and with a love tale running through it written by a Chinese girl. Mary K. Wong [sic], talented niece of Lim Ben, wealthy Chinese merchant and landowner, is the maid who is responsible for it all. She conceived the idea, wrote the play, designed the scenery and costumes, drilled the actors, directed the filming of the production, managed its details–and took the leading part. The Oriental drama–called by its creator the Mandarin Photo Play–was filmed near Hayward. There are seven reels of it. Miss Wong is the villain. Her sister-in-law, Mrs. Violet Wong, one of the prettiest Chinese girls in Oakland, is the beloved one of the play. There are thirty Chinese men and women in the cast. “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.” The film is to be given its first production at the Kinema Theater tomorrow morning–a private production for the benefit of Miss Wong and her friends. This is not the first time Miss Wong has brought her race to the attention of the Americans. She recently surprised her white sisters by appearing in concert, singing operatic airs in English and Italian. She was for a time a student at the University of California, where she took up special work.

Unfortunately, the political climate that forced Marion Wong to carry an identification card in her own country was similarly hostile to a nuanced story of Chinese American culture. The Curse had two screenings ““ the rough cut Kinema Theater viewing in 1916 and a formal premier in mid-1917 ““ but no distributor was willing to purchase a film without the racist tropes of calculating dragon ladies or bumbling coolies familiar to white audiences. Ben Lim saw no return on his investment and declared bankruptcy; Marion was devastated and asked the family to never speak of her film again. In 1917, Marion married Kim Seung Hong, the first Chinese American graduate of Berkeley and the first licensed electrical engineer of Asian descent in the United States. Hong supported Marion’s new goal: to perform in her own restaurant and nightclub. The Singapor Hut opened in Richmond, California in 1919 and became famous for “musical cabarets” where patrons could request a song and sing with the house band. Marion performed everything from traditional Chinese operas to popular music at The Singapor Hut. Sid Grauman, the owner of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, visited the restaurant on several occasions and hired Marion for his vaudeville productions throughout the 1920s.

By the end of the decade, Marion cut back her performing schedule to raise five children. Daughter Arabella Hong-Young attended Julliard and originated the role of Helen Chiao in the original Broadway production of Flower Drum Song. Hong-Young toured internationally for several years before becoming a lecturer at Julliard. Marion considered her daughter’s success her greatest achievement and did not realize the significance of The Curse in her lifetime. When she died in 1970, she had not been interviewed about the film since 1917. Only two reels of the eight-reel film survive, and they do not have intertitles to explain the characters or plot. Although many details of the film’s plot are lost, Marion Wong’s legacy is not. Long relegated to footnotes and vague citations, The Curse found a new audience with Arthur Dong’s documentary Hollywood Chinese in 2007. Dong highlighted The Curse of Quon Gwon through excerpts and interviews with Violet Wong’s daughters Gayla, Marcella, and Mai Lon. He also lobbied successfully to have The Curse added to the National Film Registry and cataloged with the Library of Congress, and the film has been shown in theaters and at academic conferences nationwide. Ninety-five years after the first screening of The Curse of Quon Gwon, Marion Wong and her film have finally garnered the accolades they deserve.

watch an excerpt of The Curse of Quon Gwon, via Hollywood Chinese

3 thoughts on “Badass Ladies of History: Marion Wong”

  1. Thanks so much for this, tart. I discovered Marion and Violet Wong through Arthur Dong’s documentary on PBS, Hollywood Chinese. More of her films hopefully will be discovered, a Blackbeard’s treasure trove in itself.

    There’s a youtube clip of Arthur Dong discovering the film, TCoQG : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAxpLXP6O_M&feature=player_embedded

    As Dong himself said it isn’t just Chinese American history, but also film history in general. Yay early women filmmakers!

    1. Me too, but it’s highly unlikely. It was originally on nitrate film, which is extremely volatile. Violet Wong’s grandson converted the 2 reels in her possession into 16mm in the late 1960s, which is why a bit survives. Since the film was never sold to a distributor, that was probably the only copy.

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