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Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
Remind Me

Daughter of Shanghai

Anna May Wong's second film for Paramount, Daughter of Shanghai (1937), directed by Robert Florey, opens with a montage juxtaposing San Francisco newspaper headlines with footage of a small airplane loaded with Chinese people and flown by Harry Morgan (Anthony Quinn) and an associate.

The smuggling of foreigners is on the rise and when Quan Lin (Lee Ching-Wah), a shop owner, refuses to cooperate with area thugs in this 'business venture,' he and his daughter Lan Ying (Wong) suffer the consequences. Father does not survive the resulting gunfire, but his daughter does and vows to avenge his death. Kim Lee (Philip Ahn), a federal agent, is also trying to discover the identity of the smuggling operation's head honcho. Lee and Lan Ying initially pursue leads separately: he goes undercover as a cargo handler on a ship, and she heads to a night club in Central America. As the sixty-three minute film builds to a climax, the protagonists realize that the den of corruption is closer to home than they could have imagined.

The filming of Daughter of Shanghai started in the fall of 1937 and was released in theatres by the end of the year. Wong biographer Graham Russell Gao Hodges notes in his book Anna May Wong: From Laundryman to Hollywood Legend that Daughter of Shanghai "did well at the box office and a few months later, Paramount released Dangerous to Know, the second 'B' movie directed by Robert Florey and starring Anna May and Gail Patrick."

As a Paramount B-movie, Daughter of Shanghai is quite well executed. While the editing and acting (from minor actors) are somewhat underwhelming, the production values are very good. The film is overall an improvement in its less exoticized portrayal of Asian characters. Daughter of Shanghai was touted as a positive depiction of Chinese people. If "positive" refers to screentime and speaking parts (and close-ups for that matter), then Florey's film delivers with respect to shot composition and plot. On the other hand, being in the foreground is only part of a broader issue.

The struggle to be seen is the struggle to be heard, which then becomes a desire to be understood and, ultimately, accepted. Visibility and empowerment are inherently tied to the representation of minorities in pop cultural texts. Daughter of Shanghai reiterates the tendency for visibility to arrive first and accurate representation later - never mind the issue of gender. Despite the nascent loosening of negative images of Asians, each substantial step forward was undercut by a tug backward.

For instance, Lan Ying might be a woman of 'action' in that she does what she decides to do, but her tasks are rarely completed without help from another character, usually male and in the form of Agent Lee. Yet, Lee's agency diminishes when he is trying to save Lan Ying-there's always a third character to facilitate the process by which the two Asian main characters are able to retreat from harm. The ideological implications are problematic, but Daughter of Shanghai was nonetheless significant in expanding the range of possibilities for Asian images on screen.

Producer: Harold Hurley, Edward T. Lowe Jr.
Director: Robert Florey
Screenplay: Gladys Unger, Garnett Weston
Cinematography: Charles Edgar Schoenbaum
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Robert Odell
Music: Boris Morros
Film Editing: Ellsworth Hoagland
Cast: Anna May Wong (Lan Ying Lin), Philip Ahn (Kim Lee), Charles Bickford (Otto Hartman), Buster Crabbe (Andrew Sleete), Cecil Cunningham (Mrs. Mary Hurt), J. Carrol Naish (Frank Barden), Evelyn Brent (Olga Derey), Anthony Quinn (Harry Morgan).

by Stina Chyn



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