A poster for the documentary Daughter of Shanghai features Tsai Chin. [Mtime]
Thirty years before actress Michelle Yeoh Choo-Kheng shone her Chinese feminine beauty as a Bond girl in the 1997 film, Tomorrow Never Dies, Shanghai-born actress Tsai Chin, also known as Irene Chow, had already mesmerized Sean Connery as a secret double agent in the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice.
Apart from being the first Chinese Bond girl, Tsai Chin has many more "first" titles under her belt. For example, she was the first Chinese student admitted to the prestigious British drama school RADA, the first Chinese actress to star in a West End show in London and the first Chinese artist to release an album in Britain.
Revered by Chinese-American actors as their godmother, the name Tsai Chin, however, has remained largely unknown to most Chinese until recently, when the film Daughter of Shanghai brought her legendary life story to big screens across China.
The 90-minute documentary directed by Chen Miao, a female Chinese director, features Tsai recalling memories from her past, scenes from the films and TV series she once starred in, and footage of celebrities talking about how Tsai influenced them.
Unlike a hagiography, the film gives a warts-and-all portrayal of Tsai's life. Apart from presenting Tsai as a performer who has lived and breathed acting throughout her life and as a strong-willed woman who has weathered the storms of life, it does not shy away from Tsai's tensions with her family, especially disputes with her brother.
The recognition arrives late for the 86-year-old actress, who now lives in Los Angeles, but her exotic adventures in the drama world spanning the past six decades can still provide fertile inspiration to today's young people, especially girls who want to carve out a career of their own.
Now let's keep reading and take a closer look at this living legend.
A photo of the Zhou family: Zhou Xinfang (3rd, R), Qiu Lilin (3rd, L), and Tsai Chin (2nd, R). [Mtime]
Daughter of Peking Opera master Zhou Xinfang
"I was born in a costume trunk. My fate was tied to stage ever after," the actress said in the movie's trailer. Tsai Chin has drama running in her blood, as her father is Zhou Xinfang, a Peking Opera master who shared equal popularity with his contemporary, Mei Lanfang, as the spokesman of the Shanghai School.
She enjoyed acting as a child and her love for the stage won unstinting support from her mother, Qiu Lilin, a socialite who was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant family engaged in the jewelry and tea business.
Her father endowed her with the gift of acting while her mother always pushed her to make a career out of it. Her mother, a woman with a western educational background, kept spurring her on by instilling the importance of independence and hard work.
Tsai, aged 17, was on the cusp of adulthood when she bid farewell to her family and began her solo westward journey to the UK, where she made her way to RADA and became the school's first Chinese student.
A half-length portrait of Tsai Chin. [Mtime]
Tsai Chin rose to stardom by starring in the London West End show, The World of Suzie Wong in 1959. [Mtime]
Breaking into London show business
When studying at RADA, Tsai was a misfit. Her fellow students believed this 150-centimeter-tall Asian woman would end up nowhere, as London's theater scene was never short of Eastern faces.
However, the 23-year-old Tsai shot to stardom overnight in 1959, leaving most of her old fellows in the dust. That was due to a stage drama, The World of Suzie Wong, in which she bared her shoulder in a satin slip as Suzie Wong, a Hong Kong courtesan.
Tsai Chin's name and the show The World of Suzie Wong are displayed on the neon sign of the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in the early 1960s. [Mtime]
The West End show was a big hit and played to sold-out audiences, making Tsai Chin's name glitter on a huge neon sign at the Prince of Wales Theater throughout its three-year run. Meanwhile, the Chinese actress started a fad in London where women vigorously copied her style, dyed their hair black, wore qipao dresses, and used make up to create almond-shaped eyes.
In the 1960s, aside from captivating western audiences by playing doe-eyed Chinese beauties in James Bond and Fu Manchu films, Tsai Chin branched out into the music industry by recording her single, The Ding Dong Song for Decca Records. The single soon hit the top of the music charts in Asia. In her heyday, the artist was so popular that she even had a Chinese leopard in the London Zoo named after her.
Tsai Chin is dressed to the nines for a party in London in the 1960s. [Mtime]
Surviving an all-time low in life
Her mother's tragic death in 1968 dealt a painful blow. To top it all, Tsai lost her London property amid Britain's terrible economic crisis in the early 1970s.
Dogged by a series of misfortunes, Tsai began to suffer from mental health problems and was sent to an asylum, where she tried to kill herself.
One day she suddenly realized that she was destined to be an actor on the stage. She left London for the United States. In her new country, the former London superstar started over like many immigrants, and did menial work as a restaurant waitress, a typist and a librarian.
Summoned by the deep-down call to return to the stage, Tsai began to resume her acting career by performing in Boston's small theaters. She polished her craft and rediscovered herself in those small theater productions before she made her way to Tufts University to work on her master's degree.
A scene from the 1993 film Joy Luck Club, in which Tsai Chin plays Auntie Lindo. [Mtime]
Embrace a new spring in her career
In 1998, the 62-year-old Tsai moved to Hollywood where her acting career gained new momentum, ushering in the "third spring of my acting career," as described by the actress herself.
A good sword always remains sharp, and Tsai's acting skills only seem to get sharper with age. She kept radiating her glamour through a number of roles, such as the unwavering Auntie Lindo in the big hit, The Joy Luck Club (1993), Auntie in the epic drama, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), the hardheaded Madame Wu in Casino Royale (2006), and Jay Chow's grandmother in Now You See Me 2 (2016).
Leading roles for women of a certain age are thin on the ground, but Tsai, hale and hearty in her eighties, offers an exception to this rule. The recently released Lucky Grandma, a crime caper, cast the veteran actress as the protagonist, an ornery and chain-smoking grandmother in New York's Chinatown.
Tsai Chin chats on set with Chen Miao, director of the film, Daughter of Shanghai. [Mtime]
"I heard about Tsai Chin a long time ago and Daughter of Shanghai gave me a deeper understanding of this legendary woman. Chen did a great job in presenting her warts and all and we can have a complete picture of her life. I hope more people can be as moved as I am by the film and Tsai's life stories," said Gu Changwei, a prominent Chinese director during an interview.
"Tsai is so posh with her European manners. People with a passion for art and creation never get old. I find her eyes still brimming with radiating vigor. Having navigated all the ups and downs in life, she is such an embodiment of power and courage," a viewer commented on Douban, China's most popular film reviewing site.