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.