Anna May Wong was a pioneering Chinese American actor who starred in such classic films as SHANGHAI EXPRESS and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. In 1951, Wong starred in her own TV series, THE GALLERY OF MADAME LIU-TSONG, becoming the first Asian to headline an American television series. In his 2016 blog “The 50 Most Influential Asian Characters on TV (Pre-FRESH OFF THE BOAT edition)”, Offender Philip put Wong’s Madame Liu-Tsong and the show at #3 even though the series has been “lost” for decades with no episodes having been known to survive. He wrote:
If it’s hard to imagine an Asian lead on a TV series now, think of how impossible it must have seemed back in 1951. But Chinese American movie star Wong did just that—becoming the first Asian American lead of an American television series playing an art dealer/detective in a part that was specifically written for her. That alone should’ve made this the #1 pick for this list, if not for one major detail: no known episodes of the show exist today, so technically, unless you saw the show in 1951, there’s no way to know what the content of the actual episodes were. All the surviving kinescopes of the series were dumped into Upper New York Bay in the early 1970s by its distributor (a not uncommon practice during a time when it was felt certain shows had no historical value) so unless someone unearths their own copies that have been hidden away in their attics for the past 40 years (and if you do, please let me know), the world will be denied the opportunity to see an Asian American icon make television history.
Vulture’s Nicole Chung recently went on a search to find Wong’s lost show:
At times, I wondered whether my curiosity would have morphed into temporary obsession if shows starring Asian-Americans abounded. Despite the sparse and historically problematic portrayals of Asian characters on television, I don’t often feel invisible or powerless; I try to focus on finding and creating the space I never saw for myself or for people like me when I was growing up. But I found I couldn’t stop thinking about The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. Was it truly lost to us?
“I don’t think anyone was thinking of ways to save or monetize these shows back then,” Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told me. “It’s a TV historian’s dream, going to a garage sale and finding a lost episode of this show. Needless to say, of all the things supposedly polluting the Hudson, episodes of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong are some I would love to recover.”
Founded by inventor Allen B. DuMont, who made some of the first television sets widely available to the public, the DuMont Network never enjoyed the clout of networks like NBC, CBS, and, later, ABC. “DuMont was bringing up the rear, essentially, in financing, infrastructure, everything,” said Tim Brooks, a television and radio historian, former television executive, and co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946–Present. DuMont, Brooks explained, never had access to the number of major media markets or successful radio programs turned TV shows the other networks had. As soon as a performer found some success, a larger network like CBS could swoop in and offer them more money.
Perhaps that’s why DuMont was willing to break the mold with some of its programming. “NBC was excelling in live variety, CBS had sitcoms, so DuMont slipped in and tried to do weird things like the first TV game show, the first TV soap opera,” Thompson told me. “Even before The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, DuMont broadcast The Hazel Scott Show, the first network TV show hosted by an African-American. Prime-time sermons, a detective show shot entirely from the eye-level point of view of the detective, proto-reality shows, the trippy comic Dada of Ernie Kovacs — these were all DuMont innovations.” Still, Thompson allowed, a show featuring an Asian-American lead character, actually played by an Asian-American actor was indeed a marked exception “and would remain one, for the most part, for decades to come.”
To read the full article, go to Vulture: The Search for Madame Liu-Tsong