AFI Catalog Spotlight: THE CURSE OF QUON GWON and Marion E. Wong – American Film Institute
Film still from - THE CURSE OF QUON GWON


AFI Catalog Spotlight: THE CURSE OF QUON GWON and Marion E. Wong


In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the AFI Catalog shines a spotlight on Marion E. Wong’s THE CURSE OF QUON GWON: WHEN THE FAR EAST MINGLES WITH THE WEST (1917), the earliest known Chinese American feature film and likely the first Asian film directed by a woman in the United States. Founder and president of her own production enterprise, the Mandarin Film Company, Wong sought to introduce Chinese life and customs to Americans through an authentic lens in motion pictures, with an emphasis on presenting Asian culture without the racist stereotypes that dominated mainstream media outlets at the time. Leveraging the new technology of filmmaking to create greater equity in her world, Wong was an early adopter of using movies to advocate for social change, much like her contemporary, Lois Weber. But Wong was located in Oakland, outside of Hollywood, and was challenged to secure distribution for her work. Although it remains unknown if Wong’s seven-reel picture was screened commercially during her lifetime, the film was stored in the basement of its star (and Wong’s sister-in-law) Violet Wong, who showed the canisters to her grandson in 1968.[i] Miraculously, the fourth and seventh reels survived on 35mm, along with an extra ten minutes of 16mm footage, and with the help of historian Arthur Dong, Violet Wong’s family arranged for a restoration at the Academy Film Archive in 2005. One year later, the remaining 35-minute film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry to ensure its lasting posterity.

Film still from Moving Picture World featuring Marion E. Wong, Violet Wong and Chin Shee

Born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, Marion E. Wong was just 20 years old when she established the Mandarin Film Company in 1916, and began to write, direct, produce, costume design and act in her first and only feature. By that time, Wong had been “discovered” by showman Sid Grauman, who heard her singing in her mother’s restaurant, according to family lore, and he included her in a touring show called “Midnight in ‘Frisco.”[ii] Wong was indeed listed as a performer in an Oakland stock company in a 1916 issue of the New York Clipper.[iii] The show was reportedly quite successful and took Wong to Los Angeles, where she met a cameraman named Louis Air. With a studio of his own in Hayward, CA, Air encouraged Wong to pursue her dreams of filmmaking, and she had earned enough money from Grauman to provide seed capital.[iv] A news item in the 1917 Oakland Tribune, as cited in Jenny Kwok Wah Lau’s article on Wong in the Women Film Pioneers Project, stated that Wong built a studio in back of her home and rented cameras and other equipment from an existing company in Oakland.[v] Through the help of her sister, who was married to a successful merchant, and a rich businessman from Oakland’s Chinatown, Wong was able to support her fledgling company and its mission. With a cast that featured family and friends, (including Wong’s mother, Chin Shee), filming took place in Oakland, as well as in Niles, CA, according to Lau, and some footage may have been shot on location in China.[vi] However, Wong’s relatives contend that none of the production took place abroad, and that Louis Air may have shared his Hayward studio with her, as well as his technical skills, which account for the “more experimental and innovative camera angles in the film.”[vii]

Portrait of Wong in Moving Picture World

In early summer 1917, the film industry trades reported that THE CURSE OF QUON GWON was set to be released on a states rights basis, in which films were sold locally by territory, instead of on a national release schedule. On July 7, 1917, Moving Picture World published a portrait of Wong and reported that she was currently in New York City to secure distribution for her film, with plans to make many more.[viii] The Mandarin Film Company was referred to as the only Chinese film producer in America. The same issue of Moving Picture World included a brief synopsis and review of the movie, suggesting there was a contemporary screening. The article, which called the film THE CURSE OF QUON QWON, stated: “It deals with the curse of a Chinese god that follows his people because of the influence of western civilization…The scenery and settings, especially in the latter half, are particularly interesting and show some wonderful Chinese scenery as well as strong dramatic sets, all combined with excellent photography.”[ix] But Wong set out to portray a love story, she told the Oakland Tribune in a 1916 article titled “First Chinese Film Drama Written and Portrayed by Girl,” before realizing she had an opportunity to authentically represent her culture.[x] Family members speculated that Wong was influenced by seeing Grauman exploit racial stereotypes in his productions, and that she saw a formidable market for depicting Chinese customs without exoticizing them or resorting to common prejudice. Grauman famously went on to establish several lavish novelty theaters in Hollywood that represented “exotic” foreign lands, including the landmark Chinese Theater, in 1927.

Marion E. Wong, courtesy of the Women Film Pioneers Project

Despite extensive marketing and publicity, which took Wong and her mother by train from Oakland to New York, THE CURSE OF QUON GWON did not acquire states rights distribution in 1917 as the trades reported, and her inaugural attempt at challenging racist tropes did not receive the audiences she had hoped for.  Though Wong, who also married in 1917, was not able to continue with film production, she applied her entrepreneurial skills as a restauranteur and followed in the footsteps of her mother. Wong was certainly ahead of her time, as stereotypes continue to proliferate and transform today, and data about current hiring practices in Hollywood show a severe deficit of Asian filmmakers, both behind and in front of the camera.[xi] Recently, however, a Chinese woman, Chloé Zhao, became the second woman in the history of the Academy Awards to win an Oscar® for Best Director, and two years later Michelle Yeoh was honored as the first Asian woman to win an Oscar® for Best Actress. Back in 1917, Wong’s family perceived her filmmaking venture to be a failure when it was not released theatrically, and they kept silent about its existence for many years, but THE CURSE OF QUON GWON is now widely accessible and appreciated by scholars and film fans alike. Just this year, Wong’s granddaughter and great grandson published an article about their enterprising ancestor that shares the Wong family’s oral history about the film and its production in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas. Marion E. Wong is finally centered as a pioneer in the creation of American filmmaking.


[i]American Film Institute, The Curse of Quon Gwon.

[ii] Kumaradjaja, L., & Kumaradjaja, C. (2024). Marion Evelyn Hong before and after The Curse of the Quon Gwon (1916). Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 1–19.

[iii] “King Back in Stock,” New York Clipper, December 13, 1916, 13.

[iv] Kumaradjaja, L., & Kumaradjaja, C. (2024).

[v] Lau, Jenny Kwok Wah. “Marion E. Wong.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Kumaradjaja, L., & Kumaradjaja, C. (2024).

[viii] “Marion E. Wong, Chinese Film Producer,” Moving Picture World, July 7, 1917, 63.

[ix] “The Curse of Quon Qwon,” Moving Picture World, July 7, 1917, 113.

[x] “First Chinese Film Drama Written and Portrayed by Girl,” Oakland Tribune, May 11, 1916.

[xi] Smith, S. L., Pieper, K. & Wheeler, S. (2023). Inequality in 1,600 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBTQ+ & Disability from 2007 to 2022. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

Comments (2)

Callie Woods

Marion is my grandmother! Love seeing the facts of her movie. She and Auntie Violet deserve this recognition…finally. Great article…thank you!

Callie Woods

Marion is my grandmother! Love seeing the footage of her movie. She and Auntie Violet deserve this recognition…finally. Great article…thank you!

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