Trading in Cultural Spaces: How Chinese Film Came to America

Curry Fulbright Lecture Poster

Principal Investigator: Ramona Curry, Associate Professor of English and Media & Cinema Studies

Grant Program: Summer Stipends; Fellowships for University Teachers

Years: 2008; 2011

"Cinema scholarship has well documented how movies 'made in the USA' have dominated screens globally for almost a century; only recently have scholars writing in English begun to offer much-needed detailed accounts of intra-regional and community-based film circuits that do not fit a “West to the Rest” model of media flow.  “Trading in Cultural Spaces: How Chinese Film Came to America” draws on dense archival research to document individuals, practices, and locales comprising an unwritten strand of American cinema history:  the long-standing trans-Pacific flow of Chinese-made movies into and within the U.S.  

"Decades before Ang Lee achieved Chinese film’s so-called 'U.S. breakthrough' with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), even years before Chinese American martial artist Bruce Lee won widespread film fame, pioneering Chinese, Chinese American, and Euro Americans brought to U.S. film screens a wide range of Chinese images and voices. 'Trading in Cultural Spaces' elaborates on the work of film producers, writers, and directors who from the 1910s through the 1940s made Chinese-focused films in the U.S. (e.g., Marion Wong, James B. Leong, Joseph Sunn Jue, and Esther Eng), along with that of performers like Lady Tsen Mei (heralded across the U.S. in 1918 as 'the first Chinese film star') and Olive Young (a Missouri-born star in silent Shanghai cinema), crucially augmented by the contributions of trans-Pacific film distributors and exhibitors like Benjamin Brodsky, Moon Kwan, Sol Lesser, and Harold Lee.

"The book-length project richly documents the emergence early in the 20th century of a multicultural transnational cinema network linking Chinese film production and exhibition in Shanghai, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.  Dozens of Chinese-made films circulated across the Pacific and around the U.S.,  gratifying immigrant and U.S.-born ethnic Chinese movie-goers while challenging stereotypes and forging avenues for cross-cultural exchange, for the films played not only within 'Chinatowns,' but also in art cinemas and some mainstream theaters. Combining biography and cultural geography with social historical and arts-institutional analysis, the project seeks to revise American film historiography by centering on vital activities held to the margins (or fully ignored) in standard U.S. 'Hollywood' cinema histories.'Trading in Cultural Spaces' thus aims to enrich transnational and national film and social histories and make a broader intellectual contribution consonant with National Endowment for the Humanities 'Bridging Cultures' initiative."

Ramona Curry


Publications resulting from this grant:



The Past Five Years