1. She was discovered as a teenager
Known as “Chen Chong” then, Joan was discovered on a Shanghai school’s rifle range by none other than Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong. It led to her being placed in the Actors’ Training Program by the Shanghai Film Studio in 1975, when she was just 14 years old.
By the time she was 17, she was a movie star in China. She starred in her first film Youth (1977), followed by Little Flower (1979) — a movie which threw her into the spotlight and earned her a Best Actress Award in the prestigious Hundred Flowers Award — China’s equivalent of the Golden Globes.
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“I was considered the darling of the country,” she said in an interview with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. “Everyone had a picture of me in their home.” In fact, she was once dubbed the “Elizabeth Taylor of China” by Time magazine.
2. She was an Elvis fan
Joan was drawn to America because she had majored in English when she was in Shanghai. Back then, she would receive pages from Time Magazine that her mother mailed from New York. There was a piece about the tens of thousands of fans who had gathered in Central Park to commemorate Elvis Presley, which fascinated her so much she did an oral report in class.
She asked her mother for more information on Elvis and she sent her a tape. The result? Joan fell in love with the song “Love Me Tender”. “I wanted to see the country where Elvis Presley came from,” she told South China Morning Post.
3. She almost couldn’t leave China for America
Joan’s parents, both medical doctors in Shanghai, had won a Sloan Kettering fellowship to do research in New York. They made plans to bring Joan to the United States, but encountered several obstacles.
“I started the process in China to apply for a passport. But I was considered as a national treasure of some sort, and they weren’t going to let me leave. My leaving would be viewed as a form of treason,” she shared in an interview with aiisf.org. It took a year “begging at every door” in the Beijing bureaucracy to get a passport from the Chinese government. “That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I was 19,” she said.
4. She snagged her first Hollywood role by serendipity
Joan was then waitressing at a Chinese restaurant and attending California State University at Northridge. She began auditioning for bit parts to supplement her income. While walking across the parking lot after a failed audition, famous producer Dino De Laurentiis spotted her from the back, trailed her with his car and passed her his card. The brief encounter led her to starring as a concubine, May May, in his 1986 film, Tai Pan.
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In an interview with American news organisation National Public Radio (NPR), Joan shared that she felt the role was “ridiculous” then, but wanted to play it because they were so few leading parts available. She went on to star in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor in 1987 and in the television series Twin Peaks as Josie Packard.
5. She once thought her life was over at 30
Joan was celebrating her 30th birthday with friends when she suddenly felt that her life was over. In an interview with South China Morning Post, she said: “I had a huge party. There were all these flowers and for me it felt like a funeral. I said, ‘I have to leave LA. That’s it, my life is done’.”
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She was tired of being typecast into certain roles typical of the exotic Asian women, such as the “sexy vixen” when she was younger, and the “dragon woman” as she got older. She had also been in a series of what she called “bad” movies, such as On Deadly Ground directed by Steven Seagal (1994) and Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone (1995). “I just felt — you know, I didn’t feel authentic as an artist, and I was craving to do something meaningful,” she told NPR.
Photo: The New Paper
6. She found a love for writing and directing
Frustrated by the one-dimensional roles she seemed to be attracting, Joan decided to tell her own stories through writing and directing. She directed her first feature film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl in 1998, which went on to win several Golden Horse awards — including Best Director and Best Film — and a host of other prizes at a spread of film festivals. She also directed Autumn In New York in 2000, a film that starred Richard Gere and Winona Ryder.
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7. Her career saw a resurgence in the mid-2000s
Joan, who got married to her second husband, cardiologist Peter Hui in 1992, was for a while busy with the arrival of her daughters Angela (in 1998) and Audrey (2001). But by the mid-2000s, Joan began actively acting again in both Mandarin and English films. She starred alongside Zhang Ziyi in Hou Yong’s family saga Jasmine Women (2004) which snagged the Grand Jury Prize in the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2004, and in Zhang Yang’s Sunflower (2005), which premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
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She went on to gain critical acclaim for her role as a Hong Kong nightclub singer in The Home Song Stories (2007), which earned her several awards including the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actress and the Golden Horse Award for Best Actress. Other memorable roles that same year include Mrs Yee in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and Dr Lin in Jiang Wen’s The Sun Also Rises, where she received an Asian Film Award for Best Supporting Actress. She also starred as Patricia Cheng in HBO’s Serangoon Road (2013) and Empress Chabi on Marco Polo.
8. She has a food blog
Surprise, surprise, the veteran actress loves her food and loves penning thoughts about it too. She shares it with her daughter Angela, who writes reviews and edits her mother’s posts.
“We thought [the blog] would be a fun way to help me eat more mindfully. And it is,” said Chen in a 2014 interview with NBC News. “But what started out as short blogs of our daily meals became longer and longer, and turned into a form of self-expression that I look forward to writing every day.”
Although Hungry Empress hasn’t had an update since September 2016, there are plenty of interesting nuggets you can glean from it. Her last post was a whimsical reflection on a skinny fig tree in front of her childhood home, and how she and her brother would pick the figs before they were ripe to prevent other children from getting at them. She went on to share her recipe of Roasted Figs with Buche de Chevre and Balsamic Glaze. Other recipes include a Potato Salad with Fennel, Avocado and Eggs in Greek Yogurt Dressing, and an Asian Flavored Pork Chops with Sautéd Vegetables.
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Text: Joy Fang