No, this isn’t an alternate universe. There really was a film from the 1930s starring both Anna May Wong and Phillip Ahn. They’re not just supporting players or bit parts to fill in a few stereotypical roles, either, but actual leads. More amazing still, they both speak English without a hint of an accent. They are Asian-American, intelligent and brave — in an era lacking comparable heroes.
Ahn is a G-Man sent by the government to investigate a smuggling ring bringing in hordes of aliens from foreign locales. Wong is front and center as a woman whose father, a local merchant, will not cave to the strong-arm tactics. He ultimately becomes a casualty of the clandestine syndicate looking to elbow its way further still into the illegal trade.
Lan Ying Lin (Wong) escapes her captors and is intent on infiltrating their racket and putting an end to it, once and for all, to avenge her father’s death. She ends up going undercover as a dancer at an exotic dive in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. She does not know the meaning of the word danger, her finest attributes being a certain stubbornness and resiliency.
She makes quite the impression bringing her “Daughter of Shanghai” act to the seedy exotic cantina. Her boss (Charles Bickford) is a grungy braggart who discloses that he is instrumental in helping sneak certain people in through Uncle Sam’s backdoor. Bingo.
Meanwhile, Kim Lee (Ahn) takes up with a mangy sea captain who’s on the other end of the racket supplying the “cargo.” The inside man convinces his not too bright superior that he can speak Russian — a sample of his linguistic skills include those useful Russian phrases, “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Epsilon.” Being as “exotic” as he is, it’s easy enough to swallow and not another inquiry is made on the subject.
Despite being a quickie, clocking in at barely over an hour, Daughter of Shanghai still manages to have enough time for a couple murders, a barroom brawl, some exotic dance numbers, gambling, and copious amounts of alcohol. The dialogue’s a bit shoddy and there’s no time to waste so the story operates in very straightforward, uncomplicated turns. It’s B level without a doubt, but it utilizes everything at its disposal to draw up the punchy melodramatics necessary to make a story such as this impressionable.
In the end, our two heroes are reunited in their quest only to make the chilling discovery that villainy is a little closer than they ever dreamed. Ahn gets a chance to slug it to Anthony Quinn in a very early spot in the actor’s career. But he gets some much-appreciated help from a pug-nosed, good-natured chauffeur who makes up for his lack of brains with brawn.
One of the strangest dichotomies comes at this point because although Wong has been our guiding heroine thus far, she nevertheless watches the fighting between the men all but powerless to intercede. Regardless, justice is enacted. It’s a group effort.
Admittedly, if it wasn’t for the leads, maybe we would quickly forget The Daughter of Shanghai, but such a cast is so few and far between that this is a historical relic certainly worth unearthing and therefore worth remembering. That doesn’t imply it’s perfect by any means.
The road toward nuanced representation is a long and arduous one requiring baby steps only to be impeded with various obstacles and inevitable steps backward. Because it’s easy to be homogenous, unimaginative, and flat. The outliers are where we find intriguing artifacts suggesting exceptions to the rule, cultural documents that dared to give us a different portrait of humanity. In my labyrinthian odyssey to discover hidden gems, those are the ones I’m invariably drawn to.
Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn should have been bigger stars if not for the perceived impediment of their ethnicity. Daughters of Shanghai is a tantalizing taste of something altogether groundbreaking. That makes it worthwhile even as there’s an air of disappointment. Oh, what might have been. However, we must be thankful this treasure still exists.