Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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The Lady Vanishes – on the Archive Drive for a Feminist Ethnic Cinema
Yiman Wang

Last modified: 2010-02-22


Suppose I wanted to write on Lady Tsen Mei and her contribution to early Twentieth Century Chinese American cinema, I need to first track down her biographical experiences, and then study the films she participated in, retrieve reviews and any other coverage about her and her films, as well as her interactions with her ethnic and professional communities.  Ultimately, I need to address her legacy, that is, the ramifications of re-evoking her at a conference on women film pioneers.  Or in other words, how does the singular case further or revise the agenda of the project on women film pioneers?

To undertake this study would require the building of an archive around Lady Tsen Mei.  The fact that she played an important role in pioneering the earliest attempts of Chinese American filmmaking seems indisputable.  Yet she starred only in two films, For the Freedom of the East (1918), Lotus Blossom (1921), and played a supporting role in an early talkie, The Letter (1929).  Of the two silent films only one reel has survived.  In terms of print coverage of Lady Tsen Mei, New York Times has one short piece on her introducing the strategy of tying thrifty stamp donation with fans’ photo request.  Los Angeles Times has three short pieces, with two on Lotus Blossom.  Giving the paucity of materials on her, scholarly study of Lady Tsen Mei is non-existent.

How does one negotiate the gap between the non-existence of an appropriate archive and the desire to “fill in a blank” in the history not only of women film pioneers, but also of an embryonic beginning of an ethnic cinema in America?  What exactly is the connection between one case and the history of an ethnic cinema?  In which ways could one start to build an archive that is attentive to the very fragmentation and lacunae of the process of 'archivization'?  What kind of historiography would one produce with such an archive that acknowledges its ineluctable inadequacy and treacherous ephemeral-ness?  And how does this historiography shape our understanding of an ethnic cinema that emerged with the new mass audio-visual medium, yet was truncated, and did not reappear until after the Civil Rights Movement?   

This paper ruminates on these questions in an attempt to develop a methodology for constructing the embryonic phase of a minority cinema from the feminist perspective.



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