Museum Director Musings on Collaboration and Its Unexpected Consequences

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the early 2000s, I had the privilege to work as a consulting research associate conducting oral histories and assisting in photo collection days, among other tasks, for the Japanese American National Museum’s phenomenal exhibit and related programming on Boyle Heights, including its multicultural history.  My interest was because Boyle Heights was founded in 1875 by William Henry Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, owners of the Homestead, but I learned so much more about the eastside neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The exhibit was so successful, not just in terms of the quality of the displays and programs, but also its intensive stakeholder investment, that the Boyle Heights Historical Society was formed in 2005.  I was honored to join the Society’s Advisory Board, a role I have enjoyed partaking in since.  Among my projects was serving for a couple of years as webmaster, giving talks and tours, and, since 2009, running the Society’s blog.

The blog has published some excellent information about the history of Boyle Heights and some of its best work has been done by fellow Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez.  Multi-part posts by Rudy have focused on early electric lighting, on the late, great black pianist Hadda Brooks, the saga of the statue of Jewish Revolutionary War patriot Haym Solomon, and the topic of today’s post, the filming in Boyle Heights of the early Chinese-American film, Lotus Blossom, starring “Lady Tsen Mei” (born Josephine Moy.)

Rudy’s detailed research and fine writing brought to life this very interesting element of Boyle Heights history, as well as that of Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles and of the silent film era.  I’m sure that he, as the author, and I know that I, as the editor, did not know the happy accidents and fortuitous consequences that would come from the posts.

Lady Tsen Mei

One was that, in doing some internet searching about the film and its star, he found that Ramona Curry, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, has done a great deal of research on Lady Tsen Mei.  So, when wrapping up the final installment in Rudy’s post just about two years ago, I sent her an email letting her know about it.  I added that, should she be coming to Los Angeles, to let us know so we could talk about scheduling a presentation because Rudy learned that she’d given lectures on the actress.

A couple of months ago, just before New Year’s Day, Ramona contacted me to say that she was coming to California for a conference and still at work on a book on early Chinese-American film, including a section on Lotus Blossom and Lady Tsen Mei.  With a window of time available for a potential talk here at the Homestead, we quickly worked with our public program staff here to book a date.

So, Ramona will be giving her presentation, “Lady Tsen Mei/Josephine Moy: The First Chinese (American) Film Star” on Sunday, 25 March at 2 p.m.  The talk will discuss the actress’ career and life, the making and showing of Lotus Blossom, and address “a particularly revealing history of the challenges of aspiring Chinese and other ‘racialized’ American entertainers in the early 20th century.”  An especially interesting part of the program will be the showing of clips from the film.

Then, came another surprise.  A U.S.C. student, Yiming Zhu, contacted me through LinkedIn asking about getting Rudy and me in touch with a film scholar in China who found the blog posts and wanted to talk more about it.  It turned out that the student’s mother, Xiqing Qin, is a professor at the Film and Television Institute at the National Academy of Chinese Arts.   Author of a 2008 book on early Chinese cinema, including a brief discussion on Lotus Blossom, she was so interested in Rudy’s work that she is intending to translate it for an academic journal in China called Contemporary Cinema.

While Xiqinq will not be able to attend Ramona’s talk (though we might meet with her this summer), Yiming will, along with Rudy, so we’ll be sure to highlight this remarkable international communication and collaboration that spans from Illinois to China with California somewhat in the middle!

Reservations for Ramona’s talk are being taken now, so please join us for this presentation about a fascinating element of the history of Boyle Heights, Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles, and early film.

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