Charles Fang, Exhibitors Herald, November 11, 1922.
At a time when Chinese born in the United States could not become citizens, could be easily deported, and were prevented from immigrating to this country due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Charles J. “Charlie” Fang became the first Chinese American film performer identified onscreen, working to bring respect and dignity to his fellow Chinese Americans. Sometimes called “the Chinese Charlie Chaplin” in the press, Fang not only acted but composed music for motion pictures, before appearing on the Broadway stage.
Little is known of Fang’s early years. His World War I draft record says that he was born August 10, 1882, in San Francisco, three months after President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese first arrived on the West Coast in 1848 after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. Eventually, many moved to other occupations, such as running laundries, farming, or helping build railroad lines across the West but felt discrimination and violence wherever they went. By 1882, many on the West Coast resented the Chinese presence, claiming their work led to declining wages and difficult living conditions, leading to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6, 1882, suspending Chinese immigration to the United States for 10 years, which was later extended.
No records at the moment exist to account for Fang’s years between 1882 and 1916, beside census records that state he only attended school through the third grade. There is no information listing parents, siblings, or the like, or his work during this time. Some newspaper accounts say that Fang was born to wealthy Chinese parents in Canton before he was taken to San Francisco as a child. Fang told newspapers that received an honorable discharge after serving four years in the 1890s as a steward for Admiral George Dewey on his flagship, the Olympia. Fang supposedly discovered his acting talents in performing playlets aboard ship. He appears to have acted on the vaudeville stage in the mid-teens before coming to moving pictures, as some accounts state that he presented a “pretentious,” high-class act in vaudeville for two years called A Night in Chinatown. From 1920 on, census records show Fang living in New York City in boarding houses in respectable parts of Manhattan.
Fang’s roles on film, however, remained less “pretentious,” forcing him into playing servants or villains with no hope of starring parts, often with demeaning names, costumes, or even dialogue. The actor worked to make the parts as respectful to the Chinese as he could. It appears that director Rex Ingram discovered Fang in some fashion, casting him in his first film role for the 1916 movie Broken Fetters, the story of the daughter raised by a wealthy Chinese family after her father, an American diplomat, is murdered. As an adult, she is tricked into accompanying a slave trader to New York and Fang plays a servant who helps set her rescue in motion.
The diminutive actor once again played valets in two serials starring Francis X. Bushman and his wife, Beverly Bayne. Advertising for these films said Fang had been born in Canton and supposedly graduated from Yale, granting him a measure of respect and dignity. Fang pushed to make Chinese characters less stereotyped and more realistic. That same year he played a role in the Lionel Barrymore short The Quitter, the story of a rough mining camp with Fang playing the role of a menial character. Newspaper stories reported that he objected to wearing a queue, or pig-tail wig for the part, only doing so in order to prevent his firing. Entertainment trades praised his work, calling him very popular, expressive, and “celebrated.” Some even reported that Chinese had felt their race was misrepresented and ridiculed in films until they saw Fang’s strong performances, gaining their respect for motion pictures.
Later in 1916, Fang appears to have become the first Chinese American to score music for a film, with his composition for the Unity Co.’s serial The Yellow Menace. Newspapers noted that he was the first person to compose a film that actually revolved around his nationality. An article in the September 3, 1916, Buffalo Times stated that Fang watched filming and studied Asian themes before composing a score that blended Chinese elements and popular music. The actor also wrote the booklet sent to exhibitors explaining “how to produce the proper effects to bring out the value of his music.”
Fang described his approach to composing. “In writing music for The Yellow Menace, I have tried to carry out a certain definite underlying theme which carries the thread of the Oriental story throughout the pictures. Music is to a picture what the laying on of colors is to a work of art. That is to say, I believe music holds certain color values.”
Fang promoted Chinese food, music, and the arts in newspaper stories, acknowledging the long history and sophistication of his culture. In a March 3, 1917, Boston Post story, Fang described the value and nourishment of Chinese food at a time of high food costs in Massachusetts, even providing recipes and acknowledging the American creation of chop suey. Fang stated he cooked American and Chinese dishes for parties at his home, with attendees such as Bushman, Bayne, and director Christy Cabanne enjoying the food and asking for recipes. He even prepared a dish served onscreen during the making of the film The Great Secret.
An ad for Scrantonia films, Moving Picture World, March 30, 1918.
In 1917, Fang, “the only funny Chinaman in pictures” even supposedly formed his own company called the Scrantonia Photoplay Co. in partnership with director Robert B. Carson and C.R. deBarge to create one-reel shorts in which he would star, to be released as states’ rights films with the publicity line, “refined in nature, yet possessing novelty and a refreshing idea of humor.” Full page ads for the company, however, show him in a somewhat demeaning pose with buck teeth. Six titles were filmed: The Chinese Musketeer, Feet and Defeat, Cheerful Liars, Fate and Fortune, Parson Pepp, and The Ring and the Ringer. Although it appears that at least two received some type of theatrical release, Parson Pepp and Fate and Fortune, the others failed to sell, and the company quickly folded.
Over the next few years, Fang continued playing minor roles as servants but in some high-class releases, appearing with Norma Talmadge in the 1917 movie The Forbidden City, in Hugo Ballin’s first directorial effort in 1920 called Pagan Love, and in D. W. Griffith’s 1921 film Dream Street.
In 1922, Carson decided to once again form a company to produce and release films starring Fang and others. Called Lustre Photoplays, Inc., Carson and J.W. Foster organized a company operating out of Plattsburgh, New York, to produce one-reel comedies starring Fang, along with western shorts and five-reel features. While press releases trumpeted the company, no films appear to have reached completion.
Fang continued appearing in films, ranging from top-notch productions with actors like Lionel Barrymore and Alfred Lunt, and as the valet to master illusionist Harry Houdini in the 1923 serial, Haldane of the Secret Service. In 1929, the actor possibly appeared in the Jeanne Eagels’ film The Letter and once again played a valet opposite Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March in the 1931 movie My Sin.
At this point, Fang turned his attention full time to the stage, appearing in giant successes as well as quick failures on Broadway. In 1929, he appeared in the Lee Shubert play South of Siam, which was adapted from a German play by Zoe Akins. Fang appeared in another adaptation of a German play for a 1930 production called Roar China, directed by Herbert Biberman for the Theatrical Guild. The play featured many actual Chinese in parts, as well as actors Eric Blore and William Gargan. For a 1931 Sam Harris’ production set in a Chinese laundry called Just to Remind You, Fang appeared onstage with such actors as Peg Entwistle, Jerome Cowan, and Paul Kelly. Fang appears to have bowed out of Broadway in a big way, appearing in the massive 1934-1935 musical hit Anything Goes starring Ethel Merman, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by P.G. Wodehouse.
New York papers appear to list only a few roles after these, including a 1940 Maine summer stock production of Shanghai Gesture starring Florence Reed, a Works Progress Administration production in 1942, and a Chicago play in 1947. His death was never reported in a U.S. newspaper or the trades.
While Fang gained no lasting fame nor appeared in major starring roles, he did provide dignified performances of Chinese characters often played by white actors in yellowface in many early silent film productions, bringing a measure of respect to his race and people. Fang led the way for other Chinese American performers like Anna May Wong, Keye Luke, and Nancy Kwan to make their marks in motion pictures, only to remain forgotten himself.