Film Examines Chinese Immigrant History from Women’s Perspectives

This past Saturday, in honor of Women’s History Month, JANM held a screening of the new documentary film, To Climb a Gold Mountain. The film recounts key moments in the history of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the experiences of Chinese women. Extensive commentary from writers and historians (including past JANM guest speaker Lisa See) is used to tell the stories, along with period stock footage, vintage photographs, and—in the case of a 19th-century prostitute about whom very little is known—a gripping reenactment.

Anna May Wong. Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Anna May Wong. Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The film begins on a dark note, recounting the squalid and abusive conditions endured by the first female Chinese immigrants, who primarily served as prostitutes for the bachelor society of Chinese men that worked to build the railroads. Conditions slowly improved as laws changed to allow these men to start families in the U.S.

The rise of the filmmaking industry comes into play next as the life of Anna May Wong, a talented and charismatic actress who pioneered Asian American representation in popular media, is examined. In spite of her widely acknowledged abilities, Wong suffered a bitter disappointment when she lost the lead role in the landmark 1937 production of The Good Earth to Caucasian actress Luise Rainer, who, along with lead actor Paul Muni, played the role in “yellowface.”

The appearance of the glamorous, articulate, Wellesley-educated Soong Mei-ling, who became a world power player when she married Chinese president Chiang Kai-Shek, signifies a historic shift in U.S.-China relations as well as a significant shift in how Chinese people were viewed by the American public. The film ends on a positive and reaffirming note with a profile of Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, who states unequivocally her continuing belief in the American dream.

U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo courtesy of chu.house.gov.
U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo courtesy of chu.house.gov.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with producer and co-director Rebecca Hu, who was brought on to the project by the film’s director and executive producer, Alex Azmi. As a Chinese Canadian, the topic of the film resonated with Hu, but she did not know about most of the women being profiled. Thus, the making of the film was an educational experience for her. She noted that the issues highlighted in the film—such as discrimination against Asians and lack of visibility in the media—are still relevant today, and drew a parallel with recent discussions about the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards.

Hu also shared the good news that To Climb Gold Mountain has been picked up by PBS SoCal. A shorter version of the film that screened at JANM on Saturday—cut to fit PBS’s guidelines—will air beginning on May 17.

To find out more about this film, visit the website, which includes a fascinating gallery of notable Chinese American women, including many who are not featured in the film.

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