Dr. Ramona Curry on Lady Tsen Mei, the First Chinese-American Film Star

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the early 2000s, I had the privilege of working as a contracted research associate for the Japanese American National Museum’s stellar exhibit on Boyle Heights, conducting oral histories and assisting at photo collection days, among other duties.  The exhibit was such a success that past and current residents of the Eastside neighborhood were inspired to form the Boyle Heights Historical Society in 2005 and I was honored to be asked to join the organization’s Advisory Board.

An outgrowth of serving on the board was that I created a Society blog on the history of the community, which was founded by in 1875 by William H. Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman of the Homestead, on land left to his wife Maria Boyle by her father and the neighborhood’s namesake.  While I contributed most of the posts on the blog in its first several years, I was happy to receive submissions from another Advisory Board member, Rudy Martinez.

His contributions have included entries that touch upon the ethnic diversity of Boyle Heights, from the black pianist and singer Hadda Brooks, to the many Russians who worked as extras in early Hollywood, to the remarkable story of the 1921 Chinese-American film, Lotus Blossom, and its lead actress, Lady Tsen Mei.  When Rudy sent in the material for this last subject, he noted that there was a professor, Ramona Curry, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who’d devoted much attention to the actress.


So, after the post, in several parts, was published on the blog a couple of years ago, I sent an email to Dr. Curry, sending her a link to Rudy’s excellent work and received a quick response, telling me of her delight in seeing what Rudy had done.  I extended an open invitation to her, letting her know that, if she was in the Los Angeles area, to let me know so we could talk about her giving a presentation on Lady Tsen Mei.

A few months ago, she did just that, so we scheduled her talk for today.  In the meantime, a student at U.S.C., Yiming Zhu, sent me a message on LinkedIn, which led to her telling me that her mother, Dr. Xiqing Qin, is a Beijing-based scholar of Chinese film history and was happy to read Rudy’s post.  I then put Dr. Qin in touch with Dr. Curry and Rudy, noting the remarkable circumstance of social media communication bringing together interested parties from Beijing, Los Angeles, and Illinois around a common interest and subject.  To further add to this, the daughter-in-law and granddaughter of Lotus Blossom‘s producer, James Leong, were contacted by Dr. Curry, who also has talked to Lady Tsen Mei’s daughter, now in her mid-nineties.

Dr. Curry’s presentation was a very thorough look at the film, the actress, and how the process of research and putting together the pieces of a life reveal so much about early film, race and ethnicity, and other key themes.  Snippets of scenes from Lotus Blossom and the 1929 talkie The Letter added to the interesting material.

Lady Tsen Mei portrait
Lady Tsen Mei (Josephine Moy) as she appeared in Lotus Blossom, 1921.  Courtesy of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

It was noted that Lady Tsen Mei was a successful vaudeville performer who sang, did impersonations, and reproduced bird sounds among other elements during the 1910s, including circuit tours in much of America and a tour of Australia and New Zealand.

She made two films for a New Jersey film studio before coming to Los Angeles, just after her first marriage, in 1921 to film Lotus Blossom at the Wing Mah Studio at Boyle Avenue and what is now Whittier Boulevard.  The film played for a month at the Alhambra Theatre, on Hill Street, and was screened at other theaters in the United States as well as in Shanghai in 1923 (this latter found by Dr. Qin.)

Afterward, Lady Tsen Mei made just one more movie, The Letter, released by Paramount Pictures, and starring Herbert Marshall and Jeanne Eagels (whose performance garnered an Oscar nomination, though she died later that year).  Lady Tsen Mei evidently continued to do some vaudeville work after that.  Married twice and the mother of a daughter, she lived to be nearly a century, dying in Virginia in 1995.

Production still from the film, Lotus Blossom, 1921
A still photograph from a scene in Lotus Blossom.  Also from the Herald Examiner collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

What Dr. Curry noted, however, is that the stage name also came with a promotional biography, in which Lady Tsen Mei claimed to have been born in Canton, China, emigrated to America at age twelve, graduated from the Columbia Law, and engaged in other activities that turned out to be fiction.

Instead, she was born Josephine Moy in Philadelphia in 1888 to a Chinese-born father and a mother who was 3/4 white and 1/4 black.  At age four, she was sent to foster parents, a Chinese man also named Moy who was a member of her father’s clan and a white mother, who raised her through childhood.  She did not go to Columbia and attend law school either and her excellent English was because she was born and raised in America.

Still, despite the fact that an alternative life was created for her (as was the case with so many film actors), she achieved an actual life that was quite remarkable, even if her film career was short.  As Dr. Curry works on a book that looks to recast the story of Chinese-American film, Josephine Moy/Lady Tsen Mei, takes on a central role as a pioneering woman of color in the early movie industry.

It was a pleasure to have Dr. Curry come to the Homestead to talk about this, especially as the museum continues to explore the topics of race and ethnicity, notably with the Workman and Temple families having a level of diversity that entailed self-identification and identification by others about their ethnicity that takes on fascinating dimensions.

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