Tsai Chin: The Chinese film star China barely recognises

Decades before superstars such as Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi made their first forays into Hollywood, Chinese actress Tsai Chin played a Bond girl in the 007 spy film You Only Live Twice (1967). To shoot the scenes where her Chinese double agent character traps the debonair British spy in an assassination attempt, Tsai, also known as Irene Chow, was in bed with Sean Connery for three days.

Before that, Tsai had been the first Chinese star to perform in London's West End, earning rave reviews in the star role of Suzie in The World of Suzie Wong in the late 1950s.

Yet Tsai is far from being a household name in China, where audiences pay scant attention to her roles in American film and television productions, which include star turns in Memoirs of a Geisha, Grey's Anatomy and the recently released Lucky Grandma, a crime caper in which she plays the lead role as a chain-smoking, pension-age New York gambler caught between two Chinatown gangs.

Now, at the age of 85, the Shanghai-born actress, who lives in Los Angeles, could receive belated recognition at home, with a film based on her life opening in cinemas across China on July 2.

Tsai (second from right) in a family photo with mother Lilian Qiu and father Zhou Xinfang (centre).
Photo: Weibo/Daughter of Shanghai

Directed by Michelle Chen Miao, whose previous film Son of the Stars (2012) explores the struggles of migrant workers through the story of a woman from Inner Mongolian and her autistic son in the southern Chinese factory town of Dongguan, Daughter of Shanghai is a 90-minute documentary which features Tsai talking about her life, scenes from the films and series she has starred in, and footage of celebrities such as Canadian actress Sandra Oh talking about Tsai's influence on them.

Tsai is her role model, Chen told the Post

"She is fearless, daring and confident. She comes from a distinguished family. Every girl wants to be beautiful like her. She became a star overnight [in the West], hanging about in London's upper society. Just a sprinkling of such experiences will be enough [to make any girl happy]."

Tsai is one of six children from Peking Opera master Zhou Xinfang's second marriage. Her mother is Shanghai socialite Lilian Qiu. At the age of 17, in 1953, Tsai went to the UK and became the first Chinese student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

She shot to stardom playing the titular golden-hearted Hong Kong floozy on stage in The World of Suzie Wong. The drama played to sell-out crowds throughout its three-year run in London's West End. In the 1960s, Tsai mesmerised Western audiences playing doe-eyed Chinese beauties in James Bond and Fu Manchu films, and in television and cabaret roles.

After her mother died a violent death in 1968 at the height of the Cultural Revolution in China, Tsai ran into financial difficulties, had a mental illness and attempted suicide. She left Britain for the United States in the 1970s, where she made her name as the unwavering Auntie Lindo in 1993 film The Joy Luck Club .

Chen first met Tsai 20 years ago at a party in Los Angeles, and afterwards drove her home. That first encounter left an indelible impression on her, Chen says.

"She told me some life lessons," the filmmaker recalls. "She struck me as authentic and honest. In 2011, I went to see her with a famous [Chinese] film distributor. We told her we wanted to make a movie about her.

"The first time I mentioned it, she declined. But I earned her trust later [through repeated visits over the course of several years]. I brought the Son of the Stars DVD to Los Angeles for her to see and she thought the film has much integrity."

Chen's extensive research for the documentary included staying at Tsai's house for 10 days, tracking down friends and relatives, and reading her 1990 autobiography Daughter of Shanghai, which was reissued in paperback in 1994 and was translated into multiple languages.

Like the recent celebrity biopic Bohemian Rhapsody , which pulled no punches in revealing British rock star Freddie Mercury's drug-addled and promiscuous past, Chen's film is a warts-and-all account of Tsai's life that doesn't shy away from the tensions between her and her family.

Chen says she did not want to make a hagiography. "I went to see Tsai's son. But he didn't want to see me. I revealed this in the film, [where] two very good friends of [Tsai and her son] in Boston said she has a regretful relationship with her nearly 60-year-old son, but they have longing for each other, which is torture."

The main thread of Daughter of Shanghai is Tsai's relationship with her famous father - who was largely absent when she was growing up in Shanghai and who she never met again after leaving China for the UK at the age of 17.

Chen says she made this creative decision because Tsai's life as an actress originated from her father. "She didn't get any benefits due to her father's famous name. [However], she is somebody who is married to the stage. Her personal life is not perfect, but [acting] is something she loves with her whole heart.

"For Lucky Grandma, she has to stay in a smoke-filled basement for three months. She told me she couldn't decline the role because every scene in the script had her in it. The stage is the centre of her life. For acting, she can give up anything."

Chen, who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, where she was the only woman in a 20-strong directing class, says she will continue making films about women.

"There are brilliant female directors in China, but women directors have never become [mainstream there]. Making movies on women with women can [boost] our sense of sisterhood so that they will know that they are not in the fight alone. Like the involvement of Sandra Oh in Daughter of Shanghai: she drove to meet us in Los Angeles and shared how Tsai's spirit inspired her when she was young and at a loss."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post