Onoto Watanna, the First Asian American ScreenwriterRoundup
tags: film, Hollywood, Asian American History, Screenwriting
Ben Railton is Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He's the author of four books, most recently History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism; writes the daily AmericanStudier blog; and contributes public scholarly writing and teaching in many settings.
As we begin this year’s celebration of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, and as the members of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) continue their recently launched strike for fairer compensation and treatment in the entertainment industry, there’s no more compelling story to commemorate than that of the first Asian American screenwriter, Onoto Watanna.
Watanna was the pseudonym of Winnifred Eaton (1875-1954), one of twelve children of English merchant Edward Eaton and Chinese acrobat and performer Achuen “Grace” Amoy. (She also happens to be the younger sister of Sui Sin Far, the first American writer of Asian descent to publish fiction in English and the subject of my first Considering History column.)
In the five years after publishing her first romance novel, 1899’s Miss Nume of Japan, when she was not yet 24 years old, Watanna wrote and published five more books (while still contributing numerous stories to magazines as well), a stunningly productive start to a literary career. Of those six early books, the most influential in both her own career and American culture was her second, A Japanese Nightingale (1901), which became a bestseller and was adapted into both a 1903 Broadway play and a 1918 silent film. While Nightingale’s story of a beautiful and endangered geisha certainly echoed stereotypical ideas about Japanese culture and women that helped it gain those wide audiences, Watanna’s beautiful prose and nuanced characterizations helped ensure that her readers came away from the novel both moved and changed in any such prejudices.
In 1914-15, Watanna published two important books that took her career to significant new places. Her 1915 novel Me: a Book of Remembrance, serialized in two parts in the popular Century Illustrated magazine, was as profoundly autobiographical as its title suggests, so much so that Watanna originally published it anonymously before claiming authorship. It was also a passion project for Watanna; she composed the novel in a period of just two weeks after undergoing a hospitalization. Her friend and fellow writer Jean Webster called it “one of the most astounding literary feats I have ever known.”
Not long after the cookbook’s publication, inspired in part by the silent film adaptation of Nightingale, Watanna began to write “scenarios,” treatments for potential films. Much of that early screenwriting work went uncredited and was apparently poorly compensated at best, treatment about which Watanna wrote passionately in her 1928 Motion Picture Magazine article “Butchering Brains: An Author in Hollywood Is as a Lamb in an Abattoir.” If Watanna’s sole contribution to Hollywood were this article, it would be more than enough to justify better remembering her as part of film and entertainment history; she notes in her opening that not all authors who experience such mistreatment “go silently,” that “many fare forth shooting verbal fireworks behind them.” Few have ever shot off such fireworks more eloquently than Watanna does here.
But Watanna’s dedication and talent meant that even this frustrating reception did not keep her from making her own mark on early Hollywood history. Indeed, five of her six credited screenplays, all for Universal Studios, were produced in the two years after that article’s publication. Many of them brought together Watanna’s enduring interests in both romance stories and Asian American histories, as illustrated by films like Shanghai Lady (1929) and East Is West (1930). The latter film particularly reflects the complicated cross-cultural currents of early Hollywood, with Lupe Veléz (a groundbreaking Mexican American actress known as “the Mexican Spitfire”) playing Watanna’s Chinese American heroine Ming Toy, a woman torn between Edward G. Robinson’s “Chop Suey King” gangster villain Charlie Yong and the film’s romantic hero Billy Benson (played by All Quiet on the Western Front’s Lew Ayres).