Tsai Chin’s life has been full of tragedy. Speaking about the death of her mother in Shanghai, Chin says “I think it’s terrible to say this, but I think it really did make me a better actor.”
Growing up as the daughter of legendary Peking opera star Zhou Xinfang, Chin left China to pursue a career as an actress in London, becoming the first Chinese student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art London.
Now, decades since that first move to the UK, directors Michelle Chen Miao and Hilla Medalia have put together a fascinating documentary on her life: Daughter of Shanghai, an adaptation of her best-selling 1988 memoir of the same name.
Speaking about Chin’s story, Chen Miao tells us: “It’s a universal story. It’s a family story and it’s about her personal struggles. I think you get a hint that this is a woman that we all know.”
As an actress and singer Chin is best-known for her work in Western films like The Joy Luck Club, You Only Live Twice, Casino Royale and Memoirs of A Geisha, however, her life resembles a mashed-together jigsaw puzzle made up of pieces of varying shapes and sizes, and peppered with contradictions.
On the one hand, her breakthrough came at the end of the ’50s and early ’60s as she played the lead role as a Chinese prostitute in The World of Suzie Wong. The play was critically panned, but was a commercial success and saw Chin become a sex symbol and one of the most recognizable Asian faces in the acting world.
Interestingly her first few roles on screen and stage saw her take up roles as stereotypical ‘oriental’ characters, while also contributing to the musical canon with her idiosyncratic versions of songs such as ‘Slow Boat to China’ and ‘Chinese Charleston.’
However, her fierce, demanding performative demeanor was very clearly on show throughout her appearances in society, as well as when she took to the stage during her brief sojourn in cabaret performances.
Image via Michael Ward/IMDb
“When you think about that time, racism, sexism and all that -ism, it wasn’t really talked about,” Chen Miao tells us, continuing “So it’s a very traditional society and as a woman and as a Chinese woman and as an actress, just imagine how many difficulties that she was facing.”
It wasn’t until much later in her life that she was allowed to fully express her expansive acting range. One aspect of her career in which the documentary expands on Chin’s original book is what the actress herself calls the ‘Third Spring’ of her acting career, which saw her make the move to Hollywood in the early ’90s and nab roles in TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, as well as films like Now You See Me and Memoirs of A Geisha.
Tsai Chin at 85 years old is still full of life. Her untamed physicality and effervescence is still very much on show. On the other hand, her contemporaries who contribute thoughts to the documentary, such as Elizabeth Rees-Williams and Jonathan Aitken, speak in ragged voices, are hunched and seem drained of energy.
As producer of Chinese TV show The Dream of Red Mansions, Li Xiao Wan says about Chin: “She is a cat with eyes closed, but a lion with eyes wide open.”
Daughter of Shanghai hits cinemas around the country today (July 2). Watch below to catch a snippet of the film (VPN off):
[Cover image courtesy of Michelle Chen Miao]