The Search for Madame Liu-Tsong

If you had to hazard a guess, when would you say the first television show starring an Asian-American aired? I doubt most people would come up with 1951, the year that Hollywood star Anna May Wong debuted as the title character in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. I was recently surprised to learn that after a groundbreaking (if at times frustrating) film career often spent playing “exotic” ingénues, dragon ladies, and other stereotypical roles — not to mention lobbying for the starring role in 1937’s The Good Earth, only to see it go to Luise Rainer in yellowface — Wong had, if ever so briefly, appeared in a lead television role written just for her.

The intentionality can be found in the name itself: “Liu Tsong” was Wong’s Chinese name; she was the draw. And how could you not be hooked by the show’s bare-bones description — Anna May Wong runs a global empire of art galleries and also solves crimes! I’ve long possessed a deep and unflagging love of mystery shows, my favorite being the ever reliable gosh-this-indefatigable-amateur-lady-detective-has-a-knack-for-finding-criminals formula exemplified by Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, and Phryne Fisher. To date, Elementary, a CBS procedural co-starring the flawless Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, is the only pop-culture offering that’s ever managed to combine my two deepest and most enduring television obsessions: badass Asian women, and detectives solving murders. So I immediately knew I had to try and find out more about The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. How, I wondered, had I never heard anything about Anna May Wong’s trailblazing role as one of TV’s first detectives?

As it turns out, there wasn’t much to hear. The DuMont Television Network made and aired ten episodes in 1951, canceled the show in 1952, then shuttered for good by 1956. According to the 1996 Library of Congress testimony of actor Edie Adams, most of the DuMont series kinescopes — including, presumably, any remaining episodes of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong — met a watery end following a legal dispute over the network’s archives in the ’70s: “[One of the DuMont lawyers] had three huge semis back up to the loading dock at ABC, filled them all with the stored kinescopes and two-inch videotape, drove them to a waiting barge in New Jersey, took them out on the water, made a right at the Statue of Liberty, and dumped them in Upper New York Bay! Very neat, no problem!”

Still, this did not stop me from spending weeks hunting for information. I revisited biographies of Wong, received gracious help (if no new leads) from librarian Mark Ekman at the Paley Center for Media, and spoke with historians of film and television. All were happy to talk with me about the show and the network on which it had aired, but no one knew of any lost tapes or scripts squirreled away in archive or attic. Even UCLA, which houses the largest collection of DuMont programming, had nothing to share.

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.”

It’s easy to see that exclusion in action in the years following The Gallery. Thompson told me about a 1976 show called Mr. T and Tina, which only lasted five episodes, starring Pat Morita as a Japanese inventor who moved his family to the U.S. and hired an American governess for his children. NBC aired the Shogun mini-series in 1980. There was an ABC detective show, Ohara, also starring Pat Morita, which got two seasons in 1987 and 1988. I told Thompson about one of my childhood faves, Nickelodeon’s The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, starring Irene Ng and — guess who? — Pat Morita. And, of course, we both remembered Margaret Cho’s short-lived All-American Girl, the first Asian-American family sitcom. Though offerings have improved in recent years, shows starring Asian-American leads remain exceptional. Few shows genuinely center Asian-American characters and give them depth, agency, and story prominence — though two recent ones that do, Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat, have found large audiences and critical acclaim. According to research conducted by Vulture last year, East Asians represented just 0.37 percent of Emmy nominations in acting categories as of June 2016, while South Asians represented 0.12 percent of acting nominees.

How was a straggling network like DuMont able to cast an actor of Wong’s caliber in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong? Thompson speculated that Wong, who was in her mid-40s in 1951, might have taken the role because her film career had stagnated. “At that point,” he said, “she probably wasn’t getting a lot of work.” Though Anna May Wong had long been a recognizable movie star — highlights of her filmography include 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad, the 1929 English film Piccadilly, 1932’s Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich, and Daughter of Shanghai in 1937 — the Motion Picture Production Code’s prohibition on interracial romance virtually made it impossible for her to co-star alongside a male lead who was not Asian, which often relegated her to supporting parts and contributed to the loss of that coveted lead role in The Good Earth. Wong made only three movies in the 1940s — Bombs Over Burma, Lady From Chungking, and Impact — and would not return to the silver screen until 1960’s Portrait in Black, her final movie before she died in 1961. Still, even without plentiful film roles on offer, most of the scholars I spoke with posited that a television show in 1951 would have represented a step down for Wong. “The major stars of that period did not want to go to television,” Brooks said, “but there were a lot of actors whose careers were over, or sputtering, and television was a lifeline.”

The show is lost, so we can’t corroborate his guesses, but Brooks suggested that The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong would have indeed been a “modest” (read: cheap) production, filmed on “a very plain set,” almost like a staged play for television. “It was in that early period when everything was still New York–bound” — as opposed to later, when most shows would be based in Hollywood — “live or filmed live on kinescope and then distributed, and very low-quality,” he explained. “People did accept a lot less from television back then, but even by those standards, DuMont was behind.”

Pointing to other programs like The Hazel Scott Show, Brooks added that DuMont might have been more willing to cast diverse leads precisely because they were based in New York. “New York was such a melting pot of a city,” he said. “When TV moved to Hollywood in the mid-’50s, minorities and ethnic groups who had been onscreen kind of disappeared for a while. What you saw was mostly white middle-class America, to the exclusion of everything else.”

When I tweeted about the show and my eagerness to learn more about The Gallery, I was swamped with replies from others equally shocked and dismayed that no scripts or episodes seem to have survived. “A show like that could’ve helped 9-year-old me imagine myself in mystery books, instead of a white version of me,” Erin, a fellow Asian-American writer, told me. I soon found myself in a group chat, discussing ways we could revive the story. I couldn’t help thinking of all the detective shows I’d watched and loved over the years, all the well-worn Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers novels lining the shelves of my childhood bedroom. Even if there was no way to see the show, I suppose I wanted to feel encouraged by the fact that it once existed.

I asked every scholar I spoke with if any of them had ever seen an episode — even a clip — of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. Most said no, though Thompson told me, “I met somebody once who claimed to have seen it, but they didn’t remember much.” All we’re left with, in the end, is a tantalizing idea, an episode list, and a handful of reviews. In a Variety review sent to me by Brooks, a critic credited only as “Rose” acknowledged the promise behind the concept but insisted The Gallery was “strictly out of the pulp mill.” Later in the season, the Long Island Journal’s John Lester noted that the title character was “on the side of the forces of good” and the show was improving, “but Miss Wong, not to mention the viewing public, deserves much, much better than this.”

As I read the poor reviews, I kept reminding myself that a show starring a Chinese-American woman in 1951 must have been rife with stereotypes. There are portrayals of Asian characters today that make me wince — and aren’t my beloved mysteries and procedurals among the worst offenders, full of ninjas, opium dealers, “exotic” and tragic, often doomed women, crime lords running evil empires?

It’s highly unlikely that Madame Liu-Tsong — an unsolved mystery whose clues are now lost to us — was the show I wish it were. And in a way, it doesn’t matter: It’s increasingly clear that what we need isn’t a single type of show at all; it’s many. I want shows that allow Asian-American characters to be just as complex, important, and alive as their non-Asian counterparts. I want shows that turn previously unknown Asian-American artists into bona fide stars. I want shows that allow countless Asian-Americans of varying backgrounds and identities to see characters who look and sound like each and every one of us. I want as many shows, as many roles, as many heroes and villains as white people have. I have to believe the stories are there — after all, they’ve always been there, for as long as we’ve been here.

The Search for Madame Liu-Tsong