CAAM Co-Presents Earliest Known Asian American film, “The Curse of Quon Gwon”

The Curse of Quon Gwon is the earliest known film directed by an Asian American, and one of the earliest directed by a woman.

We are excited to present, along with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, a rare screening of The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916–17), a silent black-and-white film directed by Oakland, CA-based Marion Wong.

The Curse of Quon Gwon is the earliest known film directed by an Asian American, and one of the earliest films directed by a woman. The movie features an all-Chinese American cast, including the star, Violet Wong, who was director Marion Wong’s sister-in-law. Most of the film was shot in Oakland, a few miles of where it will be screened in Chinatown on Sunday. Their family came to the U.S. in the 1850s during the Gold Rush Era.

Violet Wong gave the film reels to her grandson in 1968. Gregory Yee Mark, a Professor of Ethnic Studies and Director of Asian Americans Studies Program at California State University, Sacramento, transferred the 35mm film to 16mm.

“As Violet’s grandson, I’m very proud of our family. There’s three generations of women of my family in the film. My great-grandmother, Chin Chew Lam, Aunt Marion Wong, who played the villainess, and my grandmother, Violet Wong, who is the bride and the heroine, and the next generation, Stella Wong Lee, who plays the baby at the end,” Mark said. “The film wasn’t just a pioneer in Asian American media, but also in terms of women in film.”

The film was highlighted in award-winning filmmaker Arthur Dong’s Hollywood Chinese, a documentary about the 100-year history of Chinese Americans in feature films. The film was preserved and digitized by the Academy Film Archive in 2005. As a board member of the National Film Preservation Board, Dong nominated and lobbied for the film’s inclusion in the National Film Registry. The film is now a part of the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress.

“…This chapter of history confirms, for the first time, the contributions of Chinese Americans in the formative years of America’s film industry,” Dong noted.

The star’s daughter, Mai-Lon Gittelsohn, tells CAAM that she is grateful to the Academy Film Archive for restoring the film: “First, as a Chinese American and as a woman, I am proud of Aunt Marion for creating a film that is ahead of its ‘time.’ The people portrayed are not sinister or exotic ‘Orientals,’ but ordinary human beings experiencing some culture shock (and plenty of drama!). Second, as the daughter of Violet Wong who is the heroine in the film, I am touched to see her work as actor, to see my grandmother who I never met, and my Aunt Marion the writer, director, and producer.”

After the screening, CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong, Gregory Yee Mark, and other descendants will talk about the history of the film, the role of their families in the film, and what the film means to them.

Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased here!

Pre-sale: $8 CAAM & OACC Century Club members, $10 general.
At the door (if available): $12 CAAM & OACC Century Club members, $15 general.

– Ashlyn Perri and Momo Chang