Made in Oakland in 1916, First Asian American Film Still Inspires
The cast of "The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles With the West" (Courtesy of CAAM)
Gregory Mark remembers exactly when he found out about his grandmother Violet Wong’s brief silent film career. It was 1969, and she took him into the basement of the family home.
“And in the corner of the basement,” Mark said in a recent interview, "she pointed to a canister that had three reels of film. And she said to me, and I remember her exact words: ‘You do something about this.’”
The film was The Curse of Quon Gwon, and Violet was one of its stars. Marion, Violet’s sister-in-law and Mark’s great aunt, wrote, directed and co-starred in the film with Violet in 1916, a time when the movie business wasn’t a friendly place for women or people of color -- still an issue in Hollywood today.
Mark had the three surviving reels of Curse copied to 16mm film, and a few years later, he and some cousins watched Curse with his grandmother.
“We were all young men at that time period,” Mark recalled. “We teased her and said, ‘Oh grandma you’re so hot, you’re so beautiful’. And she loved every single moment of that, because we saw her as a 20-year-old woman in the film.”
Curse tells a melodramatic love story about two thoroughly-Americanized Chinese immigrants. It’s set mostly in Oakland, where Marion, Violet and their families lived. Mark, who teaches ethnic studies at Sacramento State, thinks the film was clearly designed to defy stereotypes common at the time about Chinese Americans, a persecuted minority in the U.S..
“Her intention was to show the world that we were everyday people,” Mark said. “That we were not all opium fiends, the women (were not all) prostitutes. Everyone (wasn't) a laundryman.”
Mark says Marion Wong tried to get distributors to put Curse in theaters, but she was turned down. Mark thinks part of the reason was prejudice against a woman of color, but he says there was also a limited market, with just 63,000 Chinese Americans living in the U.S. at the time.
There was no question about The Curse of Quon Gwon's historic importance as the first film made in the U.S. by an Asian American, back when Mark brought it to the attention of filmmaker Arthur Dong. He brought the 35mm nitrate reels to the attention of the Academy Film Archive, which restored the film in 2005. It was added a year later to the National Film Registry.
The Curse of Quon Gwon has been shown a few times since then. But Mark says this screening is meant to “do something,” as Violet Wong requested, for the next generation of Wong’s descendants.
Mark’s daughter Alexa says people sometimes ask her how it is she speaks English so well, even though she’s a third generation American, proving that the movie’s themes seem as critical today as they did 100 years ago.
"There’s still the fight for feminism," Alexa Mark said. "And this film just seems to have just everything we’re still fighting for embodied into one piece."
Gregory Mark expects dozens of the filmmakers descendants to attend a public screening of the film Sunday afternoon (August 9) at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.