The World Of Tsai Chin
A film by Michelle Miao Chen and Hilla Medalia
Tsai Chin is one of the first Chinese actresses to make it in the West. She is the daughter of Zhou Xinfang, the father of traditional Peking Opera who was brutally killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution,and whom she didn’t get to see again after leaving in 1953.
Tsai Chin started her acting career in London, at first she was given small stereotypical roles, being the submissive and exotic woman, usually the ‘bimbo’. Her tenacity and big personality didn’t allow her to let go until she managed to break the stigma and make a real change in the way Asian women were depicted on TV and film. She is the only Chinese who played in both West End and Broadway and was even a Bond girl twice. Parallel to her success in acting,she started singing and immediately was signed by Decca,the same record label as the Beatles.
Her quick rise to stardom was followed by a big and painful fall. She lost all her fortune andfound left alone and anonymous,waiting tables at her brother’s restaurant,’Mr.Chow’s’,to survive.
Tsai’s is bigger than life. Her dramatic life story begins in a different, almost magical place and time. One that is gone forever. With the help of her unique and dramatic storytelling we are transferred to this era, to the Peking Opera, to the cultural elite of China and from it to the western world, the biggest stages, the lime light,the star dust that covered her life for so many years. Her fall from grace after being in the highest of places is a dramatic tale of resilience.
Tsai Chin’s role in The Joy Luck Club was groundbreaking and changed forever the portrayal of Asian Americans, especially women, in American culture. But this benchmark was not an easy or an obvious one for Tsai Chin. It came after a life filled with ups and downs, the peaks of fame and fortune and the lows of lonesomeness and anonymity.
Tsai Chin was born in 1933 in China. To be precise, she was born “on the road” with the Peking Opera crew that was led by her father Zhou Xinfang- the big master of the Peking Opera With such extreme beginnings,The rest of her unusual life story,only seems fitting.
Tsai was raised on and behind the biggest and most prestigious stages in China. She dreamt of becoming a professional actress since the age of 3, even though in China, acting was perceived as as low class occupation.
In 1953 she moved to London, and became the first ever Chinese student at the prestigious and posh Royal academy. Leaving China in those days was very unusual and a privilege saved for a selected few. After leaving, Tsai never saw her father again. Both her parents were brutally killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.“I think it’s terrible to say this but I think it made me a better actor.”
It was made clear to her from the beginning, that she was expected to be quiet, small and submissive. “There were people in the Royal Academy that said – ‘you will never get a job when you get out of here’. But inside me I already knew.I will show you”
Her first job was as a presenter for the Taiwanese opera. She took it and in ‘her world’ saw it as an opportunity to stand at one of London’s biggest stages. After her first performance, though she was ’just a host’,the critics couldn’t get enough of her.Her career skyrocketed overnight.
Expectations were never something to stop this tenacious woman. Even at the cost of big sacrifices. At the age of 19 she had a son but decided to leave him for her husband’s family to raise. As she said “I wanted a career and in those days you could not be both”.
Tsai Chin’s little brother, Michael Chow, traveled with her to London. To this day she feels she deserves at least some credit for his success with the chain of restaurants he opened in the 70s in London and LA, the famous Mr.Chow.
When Tsai first started acting in the UK and in America, Asians were given small stereotypical roles, especially women who were mainly portrayed as small, submissive and exotic, usually typed cast as ‘bimboes’. She was a bond girl twice and was the only Chinese to have played in both in the West End and Broadway. In the UK her fame was only getting bigger and in 1962 she was given a record deal at the iconic Decca record company and recorded“The World of Tsai Chin”.
Tsai was on top of the world. She led an extravagant lifestyle, however, she was that success didn’t last long, and a combination of events lead her to lost everything on top of losing her parents to the Cultural.
Revolution. Her homes were repossessed and she was left with nothing. When Tsai turned to her brother for help, she claims his attitude was very insulting. He had turned into a “Trump wannabe”. He gave her a job as a waitress, which she perceived as demeaning as she still saw herself as an international star. Their relationship hit rock bottom as Michael had her sleeping on the floor. “He humiliated me and wanted to control me. One day I said goodbye. He turned white, he thought he had me”
Tsai made the decision to leave LA and never look back. She moved to Boston to live with acquaintances that used to be her tenants in one of her apartments in London. To make ends meet, she took a clerical job in Harvard University.As far as she was concerned,her acting days were behind her.
For almost 20 years she disappears from the public eye until one day she is invited back to China to teach. She is welcome with great honor as a famous actress and as the daughter of Zhou Xinfang, who was purged and persecuted by the Chinese government 40 years before.
Following her visit to China, in 1989 Tsai gets a renewed wave of recognition, and is cast in David Henry Hwang’s M.Butterfly in London’s West End, alongside Anthony Hopkins.
While doing that play, Amy Tan, the author of The Joy Luck Club approches her and offers her a role in the film.
Her role in The Joy Luck Club was groundbreaking as it was the first time Asian-Americans were featured leading roles as round characters and as individuals. It gave Asian Americans a real, authentic representation they could relate to and identify with.
Tsai was back. This time with a purpose. She became the go-to actress for the Asian mother role and became a sort of matriarch and mentor to young Asian actresses.
The film is based on the the vast amounts of archival materials from Tsai’s performances and interviews over the years as well as interviews with Tsai herself and people who knew her or worked with her throughout her life.
Tsai’s story reflects the story of the depiction of Asians in American culture, and the journey that many Asians had to make in order to find their identity within the stereotypical perception people had of them.
Tsai is a real-life bigger-than-life, over-the-top personality. Her way of talking and her gestures are mesmerizing and her storytelling can transport any listener into a another place and time. Her story begins in the biggest stages of the magical Chinese opera in the 30’s and passes through hollywood royalty parties and red carpet events in the 60’s and 70’s all the way to a painful fall and deep anonymity fromwhich she only emerged to fulfil the roles she waited for her entire life.
The World of Tsai Chin charts the career of actress, singer, and writer, Tsai Chin- her rise and fall and getting back on her feet.
Combining archival material with interviews of people who worked with her, her friends, family, waxing nostalgic and entertainingly portrayal of her life and work.
The film is based on the the vast amounts of archival materials from Tsai’s performances and interviews over the years as well as interviews with Tsai herself and people who knew her or work with her throughout her life. Friends and family like Elizabeth Harris Aitken, her close friend from the Royal Academy days, and lawyer Carlo Colombotti, famous restaurant owner and Tsai’s brother Michael Chow, her Son, as well as those who acted alongside her like Anthony Hopkins, Sandra Oh, Ming Ha, and British director Leslie Woodhead among others.
We choose to call the film The world of Tsai Chin which reflects her personality and the world she creates for herself,both on and off screen.We would use her music as the soundtrack of the film which adds another element to‘Tsai’s world.’
The film has an historical elements with Tsai’s family story from her father’s artistic work to her experience in the west; some are obvious like the story of her father and the traditional Pekin Opera, the cultural revolution, films and theater, but also other important historical elements for example when she arrived to London there was 1 single chinese restaurant and people weren’t used to seeing Asians, followed by the success of her brother’s restaurant, and today where the cities she lives in, LA and London,both have ‘chinatown’s.
The World of Tsai Chin is the inside story of a pioneer who inspires Asian Audience and Actresses to stand up and appear as they are. Most Chinese use American Names, even Michael Chow, Tsai’s brother, uses an international name. Tsai insisted on keeping her Chinese name, though she has a perfect accent, she stand strong to keep her heritage and is very critical of people who don’t do that. Therefore we will also have her speaking some chinese in the film.
We gained unprecedented access to Tsai, her personal archive (she keeps all her cuttings…), and the people around her allowing us to have an intimate portrait of her story with all the ups and downs.
HILLA MEDALIA – Director and Producer
Peabody Award-winning, three-time Emmy® nominated director and producer. Founder of Medalia Productions,a creative documentary production company operating in Israel and in the US.
Her films have garnered critical acclaim and screened internationally in theaters and on television including HBO,MTV,BBC and ARTE.
Among her films:
“Muhi – Generally Temporary” (2017), Muhi, a brave and spirited boy from Gaza has been living in an Israeli hospital, for 7 years. Caught between two homes and two peoples, Muhi is unable to return to Gaza. He is raised in paradoxical circumstances that transcend identity, religion and the conflict that divides his world. His time at the hospital is running out and Muhi now faces the most critical choices of his life. Premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival, screened at Hot Docs, AFI and Docaviv where it won the best debut film award.
“Censored Voices” (2015) BBC, ARTE, VPRO, Sundance Institute), a documentary about hidden recordings from the Six Day War, has premiered in 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival and screened at Berlinale – Panorama, Hot Docs, IDFA, BFI London, among others. It has won the Israeli Oscar for best documentary and has been released theatrically in the US and Europe.
“Web Junkie” (2014) dealing with Internet Addiction in China, which she co-directed and produced, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired by the BBC and released in the US and Canada.
“The Go Go Boys” (2014), the inside story of Cannon Films, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Dancing in Jaffa”(2013) is a hopeful portrait, following ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine as he returns to his hometown to teach 150 Jewish and Palestinian 11-year-olds how to move gracefully together. “Dancing in Jaffa” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, won the editing award at DocAviv and the «Honorary One Future» award at the Munich Film Festival and 6 Audience Awards. “Dancing in Jaffa” was released theatrically in the US, France, and Germany and participated in the Sundance Institute Film Forward program.
For her documentary“After the Storm”(2009, MTV), Hilla won an Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival and the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Festival. Past projects include “Happy You’re Alive” (Channel 1, Israel) and “Numbered” (YES) which won the Silver Hugo at Chicago International Film Festival and“Best Debut Documentary”at the Israeli Documentary Awards and “To Die in Jerusalem” (2007,HBO).
Hilla has been awarded the Paris Human Rights Festival Jury Award, Golden Warsaw Phoenix, as well as the jury award at FIPA and more.
She teaches at the IDC and is a regular lecturer at The NY Film Academy, NYU, EWA (European Women’s Audiovisual Network) and the New Fund for Cinema’s Women Greenhouse on the subject of production, directing and crowdfunding. Hilla is a mentor for the NFCT’s Business Card Program for Emerging Filmmakers she acts as lector and judge at film festivals and forums, Hilla is a board member of the Pacific Council, The Israeli Director’s Guild and The Israeli Academy of Film and Television and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Hilla holds an M.A.from Southern Illinois University.
MICHELLE CHEN MIAO – Producer and Director
Chen Miao is one of the well-known film directors of China New Cinema. A graduate of Beijing Film Academy, she went to study and work in Hollywood before returning to China to apply her Western experience to filmmaking.
Her first feature film “Mi Ni” (2005) starring famous movie stars–Angelica Lee and Liu Ye was theatrically released nationwide in greater China. “A Girl Thirteen” (2007) her second feature was entered into the 60th Cannes Film Festival for the Junior Competition and won Best Digital Film at the 2007 Beijing Youth Film Festival. Her third feature “Son of the Stars” (2012) won the Best Upcoming Director’s Awards at China American Film Festival, won the Best Actress Award and the Best Humanity Awards at Beijing Youth Film Festival, won the Best Young Writer/Director Award from Shanghai Culture Development Funds, etc. In 2013, she founded the digital-media platform “Temperature Movie”, a collection of more than 250 mini films made by Chen Miao and other filmmakers throughout China. Many of the mini films won awards at international film festivals including the“2015 Golden Angel for Minifilms”at 2015 China American Film Festival.
Chen Miao is the founder of “℃ Temperature Movie”, a multiple media website/WeChat account. She is a seasoned documentary filmmaker. Her films “The Snake Boy”, “Shanghai Dreams”, “Lulu and Me” have been critically acclaimed at various international film festivals and have been broadcasted by TV channels throughout Asia.
Her former work experience includes her role as the International Production Manager at Saban Entertainment, a Fox World Wide company and Founder/Executive Director at ChinaNow.com, a website in China. In addition, she teaches Filmmaking at the Shanghai Drama Academy and Shanghai Film Academy.
XIAO LONG-Executive Producer
Xiao Long is a curator for documentary film festivals and events, and a producer for documentary and actual contents. He is the co-founder and Permanent Secretory of Beijing International Film Festival Documentary Sector, the co-founder and director of FreshPitch, the co-founder of Outdoor Documentary.
Season, the co-founder and director of the Documentary Training Courses of SARFT Training Academy, the Annual Development Program of DocChina, the experts and writer of Study Report of The Development of Chinese Documentary.
He is the producer of the documentary of A VR Journey of Kyoto Gardens in the Fall Season, the documentary of The Champion of the Nature. Projects in development including Taste of China, The Gulf Course,feature-length documentary The World of Tsai Chin,Wild Ball,the Dream of Everest,etc.
RONNY MERDINGER – Line Producer
Film and television producer with extensive,diverse experience producing projects worldwide.
After graduating New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a film & television degree, Merdinger joined the production team of HBO’s cultural phenomenon Sex and The City. She went on to manage productions for BBC, HBO, NBC, Relativity Media, Paramount Pictures, Comedy Central, Warner Bros.,Showtime and Fox.
Due to the wide range of productions she helmed, including commercials, both narrative and documentary shorts and features, scripted episodic television, and music videos, Merdinger was able to build a unique type and level of experience. Her vast body of work includes Beyonce’s BET award-winning music video, Love on Top; Sundance smash, Half Nelson, for which Ryan Gosling was nominated for an Academy Award; and John Oliver – Live on Stage: Terrifying Times. Merdinger also produced HBO’s critical darling and Emmy award-winning comedy series, Flight of the Conchords.
She recently produced “Made Like a Gun”, a documentary following a group of Israeli army veterans dealing with trauma, on a motorcycle trip across the Himalayas.
A 14 min assembly made after two days of shooting with Tsai Chin and some of her former co-workers.
Contact: Hilla Medalia Medalia Productions +972-54-4791124
Michelle Miao Shnaghai Seeding Film inc. +86021-58586657