“The China Film”: Madame Chiang Kai-shek in Hollywood

The time is short; the enemy is sly;
And all who once loved peace and sorely tried;
But she shall take her people this reply:
“Our cause is common, and your pride our pride
Your triumph ours: sacred as ours, your loam,”
When she goes through the far horizon, home.

– Anonymous, Sonnet III, “Three Sonnets Written for Madame Chiang” [1]

The China Film - Life magazine coverIn spring 1943 an article in Life magazine described Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s diplomatic trip to Los Angeles in the following way, juxtaposing the real life drama of war-torn China with the fabricated dramas of the Hollywood dream factory:

To the tinseled home of make-believe last week went a realistic star of the first magnitude. Under the serene blue California skies, Madame Chiang Kai-shek concluded her nationwide tour at a spectacular mass meeting held in the Hollywood bowl. All Hollywood had contributed talent toward making this event a triumph of showmanship. But it was Madame Chiang’s gracious charm, her indomitable spirit and her deeply stirring account of China’s six-year war against Japanese aggression which made the dramatic climax of the afternoon. [2] The blurring of reality and fiction in this passage characterizes media coverage not only of the visit, but also of Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang’s given name) as a popular political celebrity in the United States during the late thirties and early forties. David O. Selznick, best known for producing classic blockbuster films such as Gone with the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), and Since You Went Away (1944), played a key role in welcoming the international luminary to Los Angeles by organizing the spectacular, star-studded pageant mentioned above. In the months after Soong’s departure, Selznick tried unsuccessfully to turn footage of the Hollywood Bowl event into a documentary film, which, bearing the working title of “The China Film,” was made but never distributed.

This essay provides a case study of “The China Film” and the historical event it chronicles, drawing on primary documents in the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin and a rough cut of the film from the Margaret Clapp Library at Wellesley College. The research centers on a period of approximately eight months from March 1943 when Selznick began preparations for the event to October 1943 when he scrapped his plans for the documentary.

It begins by giving some background of the visit, focusing on the ways in which existing perceptions of Soong and wartime China framed her reception in Los Angeles then proceeds to show how these perceptions shape the formal and narrative structures of “The China Film.” In particular this essay examines Selznick’s maintenance of the public image of Soong as a global “model minority” – simultaneously Chinese and American, foreign and domestic – and discusses how this image was instrumental in constructing an appealing, Americanized vision of the “New China” for US audiences.


Madame Chiang Kai-shek arrived in Los Angeles on 31 March 1943, a week later than planned due to ill health. Indeed the primary reason for her visit to the US was to receive medical treatment. When she left China in mid-November 1942, she was suffering from skin, stomach and sinus problems as well as an addiction to sedatives; after a three-month stay at Presbyterian hospital in New York, Soong was diagnosed with “exhaustion” and put on a strict regimen of rest and pills. [3] Drawing strategically on tentative plans for this private trip, the Roosevelts extended an invitation to China’s First Lady, in the hope of strengthening ties between China and the United States. [4] As a prominent nonwestern feminist with a Methodist Christian upbringing and a Wellesley College education, Soong seemed perfectly positioned to bolster the notion that the US was anti-racist and culturally pluralist in contrast to its Axis enemies.

She landed in New York on 27 November 1942 and left for China on 4 July 1943, speaking in a number of cities, including New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Ontario, and Atlanta. [5] Upon her arrival in LA on 31 March 1943 she was greeted by its civic leaders, Mayor Fletcher Bowron and Robert Smith, the chairman of the Citizen’s Committee for the Bowl event, and by Selznick who had been working with usual obsessive compulsive fervor to get the banquet and program ready in time. A parade and reception were held in her honor, and the mayor gave her the key to the city in front of an enthusiastic crowd of Angelinos, including schoolchildren who had been given the day off to attend the event. [6]

Madame Chiang hosted two hundred Hollywood film celebrities at a tea on 1 April and a press conference the next day, followed by a lavish banquet in the Gold Room of the Ambassador Hotel where she was fêted by leading figures in the Hollywood community and the local government. [7] On 3 April she held a private meeting with a select group of studio heads to discuss the motion picture as a mode of visual education in postwar China. Momentarily breaking her diplomatic mask, she critiqued racist stereotypes of Chinese in Hollywood films and urged the surprised moguls to provide more “accurate” cinematic representations of her people. [8] Soong’s visit culminated on 4 April at the Hollywood Bowl where she gave a forty-five minute speech following a colorful pageant held in her honor. Thirty thousand people attended the historic event, which was broadcast nationally on radio. [9]

Commemorating Soong as a symbol of the “New China,” the Bowl event publicly celebrates the military and diplomatic links between the United States and the Kuomintang government under Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship. At the same time, the event also illuminates the highly symbiotic relationship between the White House and Hollywood during the war and the ways in which this relationship dramatized the war, organically fused nationalism and entertainment on- and off-screen. As secretary general of aeronautical affairs, ardent supporter of missionary work, and instigator of Western-style modern reforms in China as well as a popular author, radio commentator, and celebrity in the US, Soong was firmly situated at the intersection of both sets of connections, a double position that contributed to the initial success of her speaking tour. [10]

A year before Madame Chiang’s visit, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had mobilized the entertainment industry for the war effort by forming the Office of War Information (OWI) to liaise between the press and the government and to disseminate information through radio and motion pictures. The Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), a department under the OWI, more specifically addressed the film industry by reviewing scripts, screening pictures, and working with studios to ensure that movies would carry appropriately patriotic, pro-war messages. [11] Unlike his counterparts in Germany, Italy and Britain, who suspended civilian film production so that movie studios could concentrate on producing military propaganda, FDR opposed studio conversion because, as Thomas Schatz notes, he “realized … that the most effective propaganda often took the form of ‘mere’ entertainment.”[12]

This tight collaboration between the government and the entertainment industry not only kept the latter intact but led to the biggest boom in revenue in Hollywood history. The industry explicitly supported the war by producing orientation films such as the Why We Fight Series directed by Frank Capra along with many newsreels and documentaries. More implicitly, Hollywood hyped America’s role in the war through the creation of new genres such as the combat film and the homefront drama as well as through the infusion of war themes in existing popular genres such as musicals, melodramas, and comedies. Genres such as film noir and the psychological western, which provided more critical and complex reflections on the war and its aftermath, also emerged during this period.[13] Meanwhile, off screen, the War Activities Committee (WAC) worked with the BMP to screen government films and sell war bonds in the movie theatres; the Victory Committee shipped Hollywood talent abroad to provide live entertainment for the troops; and members of the film industry participated in various charity and relief efforts.[14]

It was within this political and cultural context, two years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance in the war that Selznick volunteered to help organize Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s visit to Los Angeles.


Selznick Out of Commission

In 1943 Selznick was at home, manning the Hollywood home front while most of his colleagues were abroad fighting for the American ideals being broadcast daily over the radio. David Thomson quotes Selznick’s first wife, Irene Mayer Selznick, commenting on her husband’s desire to enlist as a soldier at the beginning of the war: “His spirit was fine, his idea was impractical – he was nearsighted, slewfooted, overweight, overage. He didn’t need an enemy, he’d kill himself.” [15] Thomson goes on to list the ideas that Selznick submitted to the government for the war effort after Roosevelt rejected his initial offer to make overtly political war films. They included forming a Bureau of Photography for the Navy (shot down due to Selznick’s “egomaniacal” tendencies), making a movie about Air Force hero Eddie Rickenbacker (which dwindled into the “Rickenbacker belt,” a supplies holder for servicemen that never left Selznick’s drawing board), and oiling down the Navy with axle grease to keep them warm in the northern seas.[16]

Selznick gave up proposing ideas to the government in 1943. At the time, he was resting on his Academy laurels from Gone with the Wind (hereafter GWTW) and Rebecca, had faced racial heat at the Atlanta opening for his stereotypical representations of
Black characters in GWTW, and had formed David O. Selznick Productions after dissolving Selznick International Pictures in 1942. Selznick’s restlessness was understandable: he needed a project that could combine his penchant for melodramatic spectacle with the patriotism that he was unable to prove on the battlefield. That project appeared in early March when Selznick’s friend, Henry Luce, owner of Time magazine, encouraged him to become the Hollywood Chairman of the activities for Madame Chiang’s upcoming visit. Already president of the Hollywood chapter of the United China Relief Fund, Selznick proved more than eager to take on the role of publicist-producer for the four-day publicity event.

The preparations for the visit began in early March under enormous deadline pressure and strain between the two committees that had been appointed to organize the event. In a nine-page memo to Robert Smith dated 23 March 1943, Selznick rails on the decisions of the Citizen’s Committee – from its hotel choice for the banquet and “tasteless” invitation designs to its lack of radio coverage for the program and suggestion that African Americans be excluded from or segregated at the events.

Throughout the memo, Selznick compares preparation of the Hollywood Bowl program to the production of an A-class movie, constantly using his authority as a top producer to denounce the opinions of Smith’s committee and to seize control of the preparations himself. This rhetorical approach is encapsulated in the passage below:

I have always taken the position … in connection with motion pictures, that nothing whatsoever matters except what is on the screen, that the feelings and opinions of individuals are of no importance in the preparation of something designed for an audience numbering tens of millions … since the possible influence of what we are doing is certainly of comparable importance with the making of a motion picture.[17]

Given the international scope of Madame Chiang’s visit and its purpose – to garner support for the Chinese military and economic aid for war-torn Chinese citizens – Selznick felt the quota Smith set on the number of invitations for Hollywood folk to be unfair:

I have to be sure that nothing is done to lose the support for the Chinese (and indeed I have to gain new support) from the masters of the most influential international medium in the world, the motion picture … People who are devoting six months of their lives to pictures dealing with the Chinese problem, pictures that will be shown in every town and hamlet of the free world, are being frozen out of the banquet to make room for dry goods merchants.[18]


Here Selznick holds the banner of internationalism as the standard to be set in planning the performance to be staged at the Bowl. Later, he stresses the need for both committees to work together to “handle Madame Chiang’s visit as it should be handled – not from a local or provincial viewpoint, but from a national and international viewpoint.”

The most repugnant example of the “provincial” mindset evinced by Smith and the Citizen’s Committee, according to Selznick, was their proposal to draw a color line between black and white guests at the banquet, which he critiques as follows:

I can’t commence to tell you how horrible, in my opinion, was the advice you received in connection with the question of negroes being at the banquet. One of the very top objectives of Madame Chiang’s visit to this country was to sell the idea of equality of races. She is going from city to city preaching that all men are created equal. She herself is the outstanding personality today among the colored races. And yet, at a banquet in her honor, your people … wanted to draw the color line … The sooner the banquet is rid of these complainants the better off we are. Indeed this goes not alone for the banquet, but for the world itself.[19]

Madame Chiang as Asian American Ambassador

Whether Selznick’s impassioned reaction came from the consciousness-raising session he had received in Atlanta, imagined affinities he felt with the “colored races” due to his own Jewish heritage, or tasteful liberal protocol remains a mystery.

Noteworthy in any case is his upholding of Madame Chiang as an exemplary representative of the nonwestern world. This idealized image was based on the role that Soong embodied and performed so well as an unofficial ambassador of the “New China” and a transnational member of the Chinese elite. Her governmental and class position precluded her from openly critiquing the color line that Selznick saw her challenging. While she occasionally pointed to American racism (and then usually only as it affected the Chinese), she officially remained silent about racial segregation and discrimination, disappointing those on the Left such as NAACP founder and secretary, Walter White and author activist Pearl S. Buck.[20]

In such actions, Soong can be read as a precursor to the “model minority”: an exceptional person of color whose inclusion in dominant culture is used to affirm the supposed end of systemic racism. Introduced in 1966, the idea of the model minority was based ironically on the seemingly successful postwar reassimilation of Japanese Americans and would be pitted against the pathologized image of African Americans in the 1965 Moynihan Report.[21]

As Karen Leong points out, Soong’s main ideological function was to embody and strengthen diplomatic ties between two countries that feared each other’s military presence on a then extremely unstable world stage. For most Americans at the time, Madame Chiang and her husband symbolized the “good” Asians in Asia and the Pacific, who became allied culturally and militarily with Americans through their mutual hatred of the Japanese. The Generalissimo and his wife were lauded firstly, for fighting the Asiatic Axis power that had “invaded” the US and threatened its power and security, and secondly, for embodying the hope of transplanting the American Dream in East Asia after the war.

Madame Chiang’s unique positioning as an upper-class Chinese woman who had spent most of her childhood in Macon, Georgia and her young adulthood in Boston, Massachusetts made her the perfect poster child for this liberal vision of China as a domesticated and feminized “Oriental” counterpart to the US. At the same time, as a more familiar substitute for and representative of her less westernized husband, she helped assuage potential yellow perilist fears of the Kuomintang government.[22]

In these ways, Soong epitomized the transnational ties that have structured Asian-American identity and historically rendered it invisible in the US. As many scholars in the field have discussed, this phenomenon is expressed in the consistent stereotype of Asian Americans as perpetually foreign, unable to fit within the racial binary of black and white that have defined national identity in the US. [23] By promoting the “New China” as a feminized, developing nation and by rendering herself both familiar and exotic as a hybrid product of China and the US, Madame Chiang was able to present a globalized, Western vision of China that would have tremendous appeal for the American public.

This vision of China and the woman who embodied it, seems to have drawn out and intensified certain tendencies in Selznick, namely, his zeal to prove himself a faithful and productive American patriot and his penchant for dramatic narratives of strong ethnic heroines such as Irish-American Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW and later, “half-breed” Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun (1946). Like these characters, Selznick and Soong were also ethnic minorities, passing as symbolically white through their class privilege and cultural capital. Selznick was part of the Jewish elite, which dominated the Hollywood industry and Soong, of the transnational Chinese elite, which strategically performed both anti-colonialist and self-orientalizing roles to maintain their power in China and the West.

Based on education, language and cultural background, Madame Chiang was as Chinese- American as the children from the Los Angeles Chinese community who sang for her at the Hollywood Bowl. [24] This cultural hybridity gave her the tools and the authority to act as an effective diplomatic bridge between China and the United States. Embodying the successful merging of Western, Christian values with those of Eastern, Confucian ones, she symbolically opened up a space of possibility for the international convergence of racial, ethnic and national differences under the model of American pluralism. [25] This convergence, in the Chinese example, played a crucial role in rationalizing America’s involvement in the war.

Race and Propaganda

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States officially entered World War II on the side of the Allies. Following this event, Yellow Peril sentiments that had been reserved primarily for Chinese immigrants were projected onto Japanese Americans who were interned in concentration camps throughout California and the American West. Meanwhile, other Asian-American groups allied with the US such as the Chinese, Filipinos, and Koreans took on the role of the model minority.

In his examination of anti-Japanese racism during this period, John Dower points out that the binarization of Japan and China as “bad” and “good” Asian respectively comprised an attempt by the US government to erase the history of legal discrimination against Chinese in America while also attempting to preclude the potential organization of an international coalition among people of color. [26] As scholars such as Bill Mullen, Vijay Prashad and George Lipsitz have discussed in detail, the government thought that Japan would lead this coalition through the support of minority groups in the US – specifically radical African American groups such as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and feared that if Japan lost the war, China would take its place in a third world war that would pit people of color against white people. [27]

As well, America’s friendliness toward China at this time contained clear economic motives: China was experiencing massive industrialization under Chiang Kai-shek and appeared likely to become one of the largest markets for US exports after the war. [28] For very practical reasons then, the government launched a media campaign after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that included China in its liberal pluralist rhetoric and wooed it as an ally in the war against demonic, “racist” Axis forces. This media campaign, which lasted until the end of the war in 1945, consisted of newsreels, radio speeches and programs as well as grassroots programs of the kind promoted by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), a liberal organization which counted David Selznick as a member. Selznick had made a radio recording for the NCCJ in 1941, which was never released because of his failure to meet the organization’s deadlines. In a letter dated 3 September 1942, Everett Clinchy, NCCJ president, asked Selznick to write another radio script with a December deadline for release in February 1943. The project was dropped later in favor of a radio skit featuring Dore Schary, Bob Young and Marsha Hunt. [29]

The literature in the NCCJ files that was used as research for the radio script contains many examples of patriotic war rhetoric. Among the papers in the Selznick archives was a brochure endorsing “Brotherhood Week” (slated for 19-28 February 1943), a time for Americans to celebrate their democratic heritage. Inside, Roosevelt connects his notion of international democracy with that of the “American Dream” in the following way:

The American Idea is … that from more than 40 Old World Lands have come people who are determined to make here of many nationalities one nation. Sons and daughters of all racial strands promise to live together as one human family. Worshippers at many altars agree in this country that Protestants, Catholics and Jews are separate and yet united as citizens, like the hands, eyes and ears of a single body. All of these Americans together have agreed upon a constitution guaranteeing the freedom of the … soul of man – every man. Forms of abuse and hostility which lead to overt hostilities are ruled out because we are, and must continue to be, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. This is the American Dream … Some day the peoples of the whole globe will catch on to the American Dream. We must help to create one world indivisible with liberty and justice for all mankind. [30]

Here the goal of establishing peaceful ties among nations is framed overtly in the political language of American democracy and the religious language of Judeo-Christian conversion. Conspicuously missing is mention of non-Judeo-Christian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, which in the West have been associated with Asian cultures. The passages use tropes of the family and the body to imagine a new global order. The style of democratic pluralism conveyed by these tropes assumes that allegiance to a single national ideal – the “American Dream” – produces instant equivalences among racial, ethnic, religious and national identity categories that may have been in conflict with each other in the past. In so doing, the idea of the American Dream attempts to erase the history of power imbalance among these categories and ignores the frictions that result from their differences.

The metaphor of the nation as family continues in the second passage of the pamphlet, which describes America as a color-blind “human” family composed of various “racial strands.” Again, this analogy effectively elides the fact that in US history, one’s humanity often has been linked directly to one’s racial strand. Finally worth noting in these passages is the slippage that keeps occurring between the United States and a new international order via the model of American pluralism. The argument runs that if all nations espoused the values of the Constitution (i.e. “the peoples of the globe catch on to the American Dream” – much like “catching on” to a new trend or product), the world could become a global version of the United States.

This notion of an internationalized American Dream is central to the structure and rhetoric of the Hollywood Bowl event in its celebration of Madame Chiang as an exemplary Asian (American) woman – a model minority for nonwhite peoples around the world to emulate in her embrace and promotion of Christian ideals and US nationalism.


Hollywood’s Role in the Media Campaign

Madame Chiang fit all of Selznick’s requirements for a heroic female lead. She was attractive and charismatic, brave and inspiring. At the same time, she appeared frail and feminine due to the automobile accident mentioned earlier. Photographs and film footage show her looking exhausted on the day of the Hollywood Bowl event. One speculates that the tired look of a martyr must have played well with the subject matter of Chiang’s speech, which dealt with her experiences commanding the Chinese Air Force, building female coalitions for the war effort, helping the war orphans (“warphans”) and generally working toward reconstructing her decimated country.

In her LA Times column Hedda Hopper quotes Cecil de Mille describing the First Lady the day after the Hollywood Bowl event: “I once made a picture of Joan of Arc. I didn’t know then that one day I’d have the honor of meeting her in the flesh.” [31] De Mille’s comparison again brings up the fissures between reality and its representation in Hollywood. These fissures became particularly sharp in the early to mid 1940s, when desire for news about the war sparked an explosion of newsreels and documentaries in the United States that would have a strong influence on the form and content of feature films during this period. According to Schatz, during this period “[m]any top filmmakers turned to the documentary form, which … encouraged a new realism in fiction filmmaking. By 1944-1945, fictional and documentary treatments of the war had reached a remarkable symbiosis, creating an on-screen dynamic utterly unique to the war era.” [32]

This symbiosis between the traits of the documentary, a genre commonly associated with its attempts to record social and historical “reality,” and those of the feature film, associated with entertainment and escapism, is precisely what David Selznick was trying to achieve in the Bowl pageant and the “China Film.”  The failure of Selznick’s film project begs the following question: is this symbiosis contingent on a unilateral movement in which the documentary form is better incorporated in the feature film rather than the other way around? In other words, to what extent might this documentary have failed because of its reversal of the more accepted order of movement toward generic symbiosis?

According to the paper trail of the project, Selznick planned to use footage from feature films and travel documentaries to enhance the dramatic realism of the documentary. However, he was unable to assimilate this footage into the rough cut of the rather long and somewhat monotonous Hollywood Bowl event. It is to this rough cut that I now turn.


“The China Film”

The lead-up to Madame Chiang’s speech in the Hollywood Bowl program reinforced her image as a cross between Selznick’s spitfire Scarlett and Oo-lan, the loyal and long-suffering Chinese peasant wife in MGM’s The Good Earth (1937) – a role for which Luise Rainer won the Oscar that year. The rough cut of “The China Film” opens with a long shot of Spencer Tracy introducing a reception committee of seventeen female Hollywood stars for Madame Chiang. Led by Mary Pickford, the committee includes Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth and Joan Bennet, who parade in twos across the stage, followed by Seaman Henry Fonda in naval uniform. Fonda introduces Dr. C.M. Wassell, a decorated Navy hero who served as a missionary in China for fourteen years before the war. After Wassell’s remarks, Honor Guard members file out from stage left and right. They stream into the audience to a medley arranged by Rudy Vallee and played by the US military service bands.

Madame Chiang then enters the Bowl in a car with her entourage, smiling and waving to the crowd. She steps out to be greeted by Pickford who bows and presents her with a bouquet. Once Madame Chiang is seated, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra joins the service bands to play the American anthem followed by the Chinese anthem. The camera cuts to medium shots of the Chinese and American national seals hung on adjacent sides of the amphitheater then to the flags flying under them. These are followed by medium close-up shots of three young Anglo-American servicemen, shot from below, saluting both flags, which recur throughout the film. Reverend James Baker, bishop of the LA Methodist Church, gives the invocation. After he exits, a short historical drama entitled “China: A Symphonic Narrative” (hereafter “China”) is performed to introduce Madame Chiang and her country to the audience members who are depicted in long and extreme long shots.[33]

Written by Harry Kronman, directed by William Dieterle, and narrated by Walter Huston, with music composed and conducted by Herbert Stothart, who had composed the score for The Good Earth, “China” provides a sense of the American perspective on China in the early 1940s. The stage pageant opens with the following prologue:

China gives us, for this precious hour, a great and gallant guest. A woman. Slim and fragile as a woman is, with all of woman’s immemorial strength … These hands – a woman’s hands – have helped to shape a nation’s destiny. This heart – a woman’s heart – whispers a simple woman’s hope, and all the world must pause and heed.

This is followed by a mythologized “history” of China as a huge feudal nation whose peaceful, loyal and hardworking citizens are at the point of modernizing their country to join first world nations only to have their hopes dashed by the Japanese invasion. Described as “great metal birds that drop their metal eggs and spawn a brood of death,” the Japanese are simultaneously bestialized and technologized in the narrative. The entrance of these unnatural human-machine hybrids break the harmony of the music with dissonant chords drowning out the “melody – ‘America!’” – the same melody that inspires Chiang Kai-shek and his mentor, Dr. Sun Yat-sen to construct the “New Democracy” in China.

As the Chinese valiantly fight back, they hear Chaing Kai-shek’s voice (played by Edward Robinson), which monotonously repeats “Go to the West.” One could read “west” here literally (since the Japanese were pushing the Chinese westward) and figuratively (“west” as in Western civilization, framed in the terms of American democracy and technological progress). At this point, Madame Chiang enters the picture again as an appendage to and embodiment of her husband’s voice: “A soldier’s voice. And by the soldier’s side, a soldier’s wife – her glowing spirit fused with his, her strength and wisdom adding vibrant richness to his voice.” By the end of the narrative, she has herself become a voice – the voice of “the China of tomorrow” though still very much embodied in her supporting role as “a soldier’s wife, a statesman’s wise and understanding counselor.” [34]

At various points of the narrative, Chinese Americans from the Los Angeles community appear onstage in traditional dress. Occasionally, a few members – often girls and women – look out at the audience as they dance and sing snippets of traditional Chinese songs. More often, however, these impromptu Chinese American actors silently file onto the stage in single or double lines, walk quickly across it then into the audience. Like professional Asian American actors at the time, they are extras in their own histories, providing colorful background for an orientalized narrative about China while the protagonists of the drama are disembodied voices played by white male actors, Huston and Robinson. Among the indistinguishable mass of silent yellow bodies onstage, Madame Chiang stands as both “voice” (figured white and male) and “body” (figured Asiatic and female), a palatable representative of China to the American public due to her ability to weave together and perform these seemingly contradictory identities as a Westernized, strategically self-exoticising Chinese woman.

Having accompanied the Generalissimo on the battlefield, Soong had borne direct witness to the destruction wreaked by the Japanese military on Chinese cities such as Nanking, Hankow, and Chungking. After the pageant, she relates her experience of the war in a forty-five minute speech describing the military action in China against Japan and calling for world peace and international solidarity. In it she gives detailed descriptions of the battles and their aftermath on the Chinese population. For example, she paints pictures of the victims of the air raids over Soochow and the rape of Nanking in dramatic passages such as this one:

[In Soochow] the stretcher bearers worked like wordless automatons trying to clear the station platform of wounded while more and more wounded were unloaded. … [In Nanking] the invaders plundered and stripped the crucified populace of all means of livelihood, molested our woman and rounded up all able-bodied men, tied them together like animals, forced them to dig their own graves and finally kicked them in and buried them alive. [35]

She goes on to talk about the courage of the Chinese air force, fighting 5000 Japanese planes with 300 of their own, as well as the fortitude of the Chinese citizens, then discusses the work of the organizations she founded – the Chinese National Woman’s Advisory Council, to train girls and women for war activities, and the China Relief Fund, to feed, clothe and house war orphans.  Madame Chiang ends her speech by stressing the international importance of China’s victory thus, again placing China alongside the US in a global order that privileges American-style democracy and ethical ideals:

We have been fighting not only for our own homes and hearths; we have been fighting for the upholding of pledges and principles because the violation of one pledge means the breaking of the whole chain of international decency and honor. [36]



For his leading role in organizing Madam Chiang’s visit and the Hollywood Bowl pageant, Selznick was honored by the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. [37] As well, several guests at the banquet and the Hollywood Bowl event, including Hal Wallis, Commander Wassell and James Hilton sent Selznick “thank you” letters, expressing gratitude for their invitations and admiration for his ability to pull off the event with such panache. Most notable among these is a letter from Walter Wanger of which a section reads as follows:

The Sunday event (Hollywood Bowl) was certainly an extraordinary one, and I am amazed and chagrined that the press has failed to realize what an outstanding affair this was in the life of the community. One must realize what a lasting impression a pageant of this sort makes on the average mind. In my dual capacity as citizen of Los Angeles and member of the industry, I know of no single event that approaches in importance the Bowl ceremony … I have a faint idea of what you went through to put it together in such a short period of time, and as far as I am concerned, it is the most brilliant achievement of your already unusual career. [38]

Work on “The China film” in interoffice correspondence began on 9 April 1943 – less than a week after the event itself. Hal Kern (GWTW editor) and Ray Klune (GWTW general manager) were put in charge of writing a transcript based on the Hollywood Bowl program, incorporating the shots taken at the Bowl with those procured from war newsreels and feature films, and cutting and pasting together a short pseudo war documentary around Madame Chiang’s speech. Almost a month later, Selznick dictated an angry letter at his crew for failing to follow his orders:

I am really still terribly distressed about the Chinese film, and I don’t know what I have to do or how badly I have to feel, to get some help on this … I am trying to avoid our looking any more foolish with the Chinese over this film than threatens to be the case; but apparently I cannot get any help out of my own organization. [39]

He goes on to list all the errors Kern and Klune have made thus far: no time sheets, no synchronization between image and sound, poor stock shots from the other studios, and general lack of enthusiasm.

As in his memo to Smith before the Bowl event, Selznick emphasizes the need for radio coverage – here the need for images of radio coverage that “have some semblance of authenticity”:

The film should be supplemented with angles worthy of our own pictures, film of radio towers, radio control boards, ships at sea, and with people in foreign lands, radios within planes, radios in submarines. [40]

Selznick’s zeal for radio images suggests the importance of that medium in establishing a sense of the immediate and international “simultaneous community” so crucial to the global model of pluralism for which the Allies were fighting. [41] He stresses that the film is being made “for presentation and patriotic purposes” only to contradict himself a few paragraphs later when he complains, “our chances of having the film used for other purposes grow slimmer every day, and with it my chances of recouping any money spent out of my own pocket.” Selznick also mentions the possibility of making a film that can be re-edited by a documentary group to help the Chinese. [42]

A little over a week after the memo was sent, the shots taken at the Bowl by Stanley Cortez and Alvin Wyckoff were organized, and the first cut was sent to Bob Richards at Vanguard Films for critique. On 26 May, Richards sent Selznick a detailed memo asking for more close-ups of crowd reactions and Madame Chiang so that the audience could establish identification with the subject of the film. In response to Richards’s comments, Selznick recruited George Yohalem to find film stock of China from feature films, travel pictures and documentaries. Among the features, there was an even distribution (two films each) from MGM, Twentieth-Century Fox, United Artists, Warner Bros., Universal and Paramount, and one (The Flying Tigers) from Republic. Travel films were taken from Fitzpatrick, MGM, RKO-Pathe, and Twentieth Century, and documentaries from various groups including Ankino, the March of Time series, the Canadian Government, First Anglo’s Garrison Films, Grand National, OWI and the Chinese Government. Yohalem also acquired newsreels from the East West Association Information Department. [43]

Prints of the film were sent to four parties: 16 mm copies to Madame and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and to Thomas Callaghan, a guest at the Hollywood Bowl proceedings, who apparently was enough of a Madame fan to request the film from the Selznick studio offices, and 35 mm copies to Wellesley College, Madame Chiang’s Alma Mater, and John Grierson, the head of the Canadian Film Board. [44]

The nine reel film failed to impress Grierson, who sent it back to Selznick on 25 August with the following comments:

Hollywood Bowl setting does not create sufficient background strength to create importance for the Chinese story. Technically of course Madame’s speech very long and attempt to relieve monotony by going away from speech and Bowl not successful. [45]

The final script for the film edited by Kern and dated 25 June is less than a page long, and leaves most of the narrative up to the speech and the documentary footage that the crew can find to correspond to the topics it covers. The information in the memos suggests that the camera would, at various moments of the speech, pan up from Madame’s figure to the sky then dissolve into stock shots. This is corroborated in the rough cut. One can easily understand why Richards felt disconnected from the scenes in the film and why Grierson refused to use the film in his documentary series.

On 17 December Hal Kern sent Selznick a memo asking if he could “please destroy some of the trims of negative and positive from the China Bowl film.” [46] Kern suggested leaving two nine reel prints of the film and a work print that already had been cut into a two reeler.

This is the last piece of interoffice communication available on the film. Selznick’s silence suggests he had moved on to more important and commercially lucrative projects. From 23 March to 24 June 1943, he had been filming The Song of Bernadette — the star vehicle for his latest protégé, Jennifer Jones (Phyllis Walker), who would win an Academy Award for her performance in the leading role in 1944. [47] Around the same time, Selznick had begun pre-production on Since You Went Away, a homefront melodrama about a middle class American housewife (Claudette Colbert) who sustains her two daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) as she waits for her husband to return from the war. “A sentimental weepie and a rallying cry for the women whom America’s fighting men had left behind,” the film was altogether an appropriate tribute to the war from Selznick. [48]

In fall of 1943, Selznick created Vanguard Films, another independent company; SYWA was in full production; and Selznick’s “Pygmalion complex” had blossomed into full-fledged obsession with Jennifer Jones. [49] By September, the Hollywood Bowl event, Madame Chiang and the documentary were old news.


“The China Film” and its production contexts constitute a forgotten moment in the history of the relationship between China and the US during World War II. By providing a description of Selznick’s attempt to document Madam Chiang’s brief Hollywood visit, this essay supplements recent studies on this key historical figure as well as on other historical Asian-Americans film celebrities such as Anna May Wong, Sessue Hayakwa, and Philip Ahn. [50]

Such studies are beginning to fill the gap that has existed in both film studies and ethnic studies on the important role of people of color as active participants in the ongoing creation of American popular culture. Future scholarship in these areas would do well to build upon this pioneering research, looking at the relationship between how these figures were represented in North American and Asian media and how the individuals themselves negotiated these representations. Hopefully this kind of research will give us a richer, more complex picture of the roles that Asians and Asian Americans have played in Hollywood and in so doing, provide a firmer historical and critical base for improving their presence in front of and behind the camera.


This article was made possible through a Harry Ransom Center Skaaren Fellowship in 2007, which allowed me to travel to Austin, Texas to access the archives as well as through the generous help of Steve Wilson, associate curator of film at the HRC, who kindly pointed me to the Madame Chiang archives in the David O. Selznick collection, and archivist Wilma Slaight, at the Wellesley College Archives, who graciously allowed me to view one of three copies of the film in existence. I would also like to thank Professor Thomas Schatz for his support of the project since its inception in a graduate seminar on Hollywood cinema.

[1] Unperformed and unpublished sonnet cycle written for the Hollywood Bowl Event. Author unknown, box 291, file 11 (hereafter 291.11) from the David O. Selznick Collection at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.
[2] “Madame Chiang in Hollywood,” Life (14)16, April 19, 1943: 34. 291.11.
[3] Laura Tyson-Li, Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Eternal First Lady (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 193-194, 197-198.
[4] Karen Leong, The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong and the Transformation of American Orientalism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 131-132.
[5] Tyson-Li, 194-234.
[6] Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, March 30, 1943 (3819.3).
[7] “Luminaries of Filmland Will Meet Madame Chiang,” Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, April 1, 1943: A-3 (3819.3); Pearl Gross, “Filmdom Awed Before China’s Brave ‘Missimo,’” Los Angeles Examiner, April 2, 1943: Part 1, Page 9 (3819.4); Marjorie Driscoll, “Mme. Chiang Chats with Screen Stars,” Los Angeles Examiner, April 2, 1943: Page 1 (3819.4).
[8] “Madame Chiang in Hollywood,” Life (14)16, April 19, 1943: 35 (291.11); Leong, 148-149.
[9] Invitations for Hollywood industry members were limited to 400, and 10,000 tickets were placed on sale at the general admission price of $.55. The Hollywood Reporter, March 22, 1943 and Variety, March 23, 1943 (3819.3).
[10] Leong, 118-127.
[11] Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 134, 139-144; Clayton Koppes, “Regulating the Screen: The Office of War Information and the Production Code Administration” in Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s, ed. Thomas Schatz (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 269-270.
[12] Schatz, 139.
[13] Ibid., 248-250.
[14] Ibid., 144-150.
[15] David Thomson, Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 382.
[16] Ibid., 384-386.
[17] Letter, 1 (291.11).
[18] Ibid. 2.
[19] Ibid. 9.
[20] Leong, 139.
[21] David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 174-176.
[22] Ibid., 108-111.
[23] See for instance, Palumbo-Liu, 149-181 and Robert G. Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 145-196.
[24] Three hundred Chinese American children were chosen to sing in a choral group during “China: A Symphonic Narrative,” the pageant performed before Madame Chiang’s speech. Hollywood Reporter, March 25, 1943 (3819.3).
[25] This merging of Eastern and Western philosophies is most clearly reflected in the aims of the New Life Movement, a moral program launched in 1934 by Chiang Kai-shek to complement his social reform policies.  A large component of the movement involved the revival of traditional Chinese cultural values and their application to the conditions of modern, industrial life. President Chiang Kai-shek. Government Information Office, Republic of China (1972), 23.
[26] John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 147-180.
[27] George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 188-194; Vijay Prashad, Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 30-34; Bill Mullen, Afro-Orientalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 24-29.
[28] Dower, 171.
[29] Letter to David O. Selznick from Clinchy, September 3, 1942; letter to Selznick from Barbara McKeon, December 8, 1942 (2598.6).
[30] Ibid.
[31] April 5,1943 (3819.3).
[32] Ibid., 132.
[33] Program, 1139.5.
[34] Script, 1139.5.
[35] Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s speech for the Hollywood Bowl, 1061.5.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Letters from Loyd Wright, President and John Flinn, Executive Secretary of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers and James Hilton, Vice-President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 1139.5.
[38] Letter, 291.11.
[39] Interoffice memo to Ray Kune and Hal Kern from Selznick, p.1. 1139.5.
[40] Ibid., 2.
[41] See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 7, 24-36, 60-65.
[42] Interoffice memo to Kune and Kern, pp. 1-3. 1139.5.
[43] 1139.5.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Thomson, 193.
[48] Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988), 334.
[49] Ibid.
[50] See Leong, 2005; Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend (New York: Palgrave, 2004); Anthony b. Chan, Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961) (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007); Daisuke Miyao, Sessue Hayakawa: Silent cinema and Transnational Stardom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); and Hye Seung Chung, Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).