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Lotus Liu – Straight from Shanghai

Posted: June 2nd, 2016 | 1 Comment »

In 1933 American Vanya Oakes decided working in the San Francisco Public Library was not for her and, depressed by the Depression, went to Shanghai. She had a vague idea about being a teacher. She decided she could either teach English to wealthy Shanghainese or open a theatre school. She thought she could perhaps become a great female theatre director in China. She did open a small acting school – not quite on the scale of the Moscow Art Theatre or the Comedie Francaise she’d envisioned – but popular all the same. By her own admission the theatre school was an ‘inglorious flop’. She did stage some rather amateurish productions and went on to try and write a China-themed ballet but soon closed the school in favour of a job as a journalist on the China Press newspaper. However, Vanya Oakes’s school did produce one success – Lotus Liu.

Lotus Liu did manage to attract the eye of Hollywood and, aged just 20, pitched up in Hollywood in 1936, ‘straight from Shanghai’ as the newspapers had it, to get a role in the movie version of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Lotus – born in 1916 or 1917 and “Eurasian” as they used to say – i.e. mixed race – was born in Shanghai. It was reported that her father had been a member of the Chinese diplomatic corps who married an Englishwoman he met at the University of California.


Lotus was signed up by Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The story goes that George Hill, the director of The Good Earth, spotted her on a bus in Shanghai. More likely he was introduced to her by Vanya Oakes at her theatre school while he was scouting talent in the city. Lotus claimed she actually wanted to be a dancer but came to Hollywood anyway, accompanied by her English mother and her brother who enrolled at the University of Southern California. At the time, and no doubt with some influence from MGM’s publicity department, Lotus was touted as the new Anna May Wong. The American newspapers liked her and marvelled at her clipped English accent (and claimed she’d been educated in English finishing schools). She may also have acquired a bit of English snobbishness too – asked her opinions of America she replied:

‘Your men suffer from a lack of lack of poise, charm and indirectness (NB: indirectness being a much prized English traits of course). They are much more brusque and abrupt than we are used to in the Orient. Directness may be a virtue in business, but not in social amenities.’

Lotus went on to a fairly good Hollywood career, mostly in Chinese-themed movies such as Oil for the Lamps of China, the Gary Cooper feature The Adventures of Marco Polo and North of Shanghai. She also did various theatre work (thanks to Vanya’s training again!) including in a Los Angeles production of Lady Precious Stream, alongside actors predictably in yellowface. The press though never quite knew how to handle her – commenting that she looked Chinese on screen and Russian off screen! I’m afraid I don’t know what happened to her eventually?



One Comment on “Lotus Liu – Straight from Shanghai”

  1. 1 Aimee Liu said at 5:57 am on June 11th, 2018:

    Hi there,
    Thanks for this piece! Lotus Liu was my aunt. She stayed in Hollywood, married 3 times, and became quite successful in real estate. She died several years ago, in her 80s.

    The story of her parents is the basis for my novel Cloud Mountain. They did indeed meet in Berkeley, CA. My grandfather became a Senator in China, my grandmother was an American, daughter of pioneers.
    Thanks again for your interest.

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