From Bond girl to badass grandmas, Tsai Chin has had an extraordinary career. As LFS members we will experience this in Lucky Grandma, but most will have seen Chin in one of her many roles from Lindo, the mother in Joy Luck Club to Auntie in Memoirs of a Geisha. Yet there is far more to her story.
Tsai Chin learned to be tough, she reckons, from her mother, Shanghai socialite Lilian Qiu. “She instilled early in me a sense of my self-worth, which served me well throughout my life, especially in the profession I have chosen.” Her father was Peking Opera master Zhou Xinfang. Tsai Chin was born on 1 September 1933 and by about 19 had arrived in London from her native Shanghai via Hong Kong. Her aim: to study drama.
Her big break came in the 1959 West End production of The World of Suzie Wong, a critically damned but popular adaptation of Richard Mason’s novel about a British painter who meets and falls for a sex worker in a Hong Kong brothel. “Suzie Wong was based on girls who left the mainland after the Communist takeover in 1949 and got stuck in Hong Kong with no other way to make a living,” she explains.
The following year she had a global hit with Lionel Bart’s ‘The Ding Dong Song’. “Lionel asked me if I wanted to make a record. Being young, foolish and fearless, I said yes. Before I knew it, I was in the Decca studio with a large orchestra behind me. I had never taken a singing lesson before. Millions were sold but most were pirated so I didn’t get any money.”
Tsai Chin was one of the very few Chinese faces on British TV during the 1960s, appearing in Emergency Ward 10, Dixon of Dock Green and That Was the Week That Was. She became so famous that in 1965, London Zoo named a leopard after her. But this was only a prelude to her greater celebrity. In 1967, she starred as Ling, one of two Asian Bond girls in You Only Live Twice. “People nowadays are SO impressed that I was a Bond Girl,” she sighs. “So I might as well go along with it. People also ask me what was it like being in bed with Sean Connery. I said, ‘Fine.’”
In the 1960s, Tsai Chin starred in five films as Fu Manchu’s daughter. The oriental megalomaniac was played by the Belgravia-born Christopher Lee. Did she have to fight to make Asian roles less stereotyped? “You bet!” The institutionalised racism of the times meant she rarely got good roles. How would she describe the 60s? “While we in London began swinging and loving, China began swinging but hating. My parents suffered and died.” Her mother died after rough treatment by the Red Guards. In 1975, her father died in Shanghai. Tsai Chin suffered financial ruin in London in the 1970s and struggled with mental health problems, in part because of her parents’ fate. Only since Mao’s death in 1976 has she been able to return to China.