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Orient excess
[January 15, 2006]

Orient excess

(Daily Mail Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Think of a Chinese movie or play made in the West, and the chances are that Tsai Chin was in it: The World Of Suzie Wong, The Joy Luck Club, The Fu Manchu series. Now the veteran actress stars in Memoirs Of A Geisha, a stunning film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Arthur Golden. It tells the tale of nine-year-old Chiyo, who is dragged from a remote fishing village, never to see her family again. She is sold to a geisha house in Japan.

There, she is bullied and ill-treated by her owners and yet, despite many hardships, goes on to become Sayuri, one of the most celebrated geishas in the country.

Tsai Chin, who also starred as a Bond girl opposite Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice, plays the geisha house's kindly Auntie.

She tackles the role with her customary verve, although her own story is even more compelling than the one detailed in the movie.

The daughter of an actor and opera singer known as 'China's answer to Olivier', Tsai moved to London when she was just 16, studied at RADA, enjoyed affairs with Albert Finney and theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, and hung out with the likes of David Frost and Bernard Levin, earning herself the nickname of 'the intellectuals' moll'. Stars such as Marlon Brando and Cary Grant flocked to court her and the 1960s, and the 1970s, swung wildly for her.

By the 1980s, however, everything had come crashing down around her. Her father was imprisoned by Chairman Mao's widow and, later, Tsai discovered that, as one of the many atrocities perpetrated during China's Cultural Revolution, her mother had been beaten to death by the Red Guards. Tsai subsequently suffered severe depression, stopped acting, lost her home and attempted suicide, before she clawed her way back with her role in the 1993 hit, The Joy Luck Club.

So eventful has her life been that her memoirs may be made into a film.

'There has been a lot of talk about it,' she says, 'but a part of me is scared of having my life made into a movie.

My autobiography was like my daughter, and so making a film of it is like choosing a son-inlaw - you don't know if it is going to be rubbish or any good,' she laughs. 'Although I would quite like it to be done while I am alive.' Tsai is 68 but, impeccably groomed and coiffed, she looks easily 20 years younger. Her energy would shame a 30-year-old and one can tell that she is fiercely independent. She has lived what can only be termed a full life and concedes that, 'One of the benefits of being old is that nothing surprises you any more.' Even the controversy that has swirled around Memoirs Of A Geisha, with many complaining that it was inappropriate to cast Chinese actresses in the lead roles of a Japanese-based story, fails to can't ever play an American and Meryl Streep can't ever play a Polish woman. And remember, it wasn't so long ago that Katharine Hepburn was playing a Chinese peasant and Christopher Lee was playing Fu Manchu, so it seems silly to split hairs like this now.' The actresses attended a real geisha school for three weeks prior to filming, 'in order to learn how to speak with a Japanese accent and how to walk like a geisha. And, even though I played a poor woman, my costume still took half an hour to put on. One thing I am proud of, though,' she smiles, 'is that they had to colour my hair grey because, as you can see,' she says, gleaming, 'my hair is still black and I don't dye it.'

Considering the life that Tsai has had, it is a miracle that she hasn't pulled out her hair in despair altogether. She has lived in London most of her life but, having been married twice, she now resides alone in an apartment in Los Angeles where the roles still keep coming. 'I'm a career woman by inclination and education, and I am alone by choice. I'm a lone wolf and I love my work, although when I was coming up in this profession, I had to fight like mad to get here because of my race and gender. I still have that fight in me.' The daughter of Zhou Xinfang, China's most renowned actor in the traditional Peking Opera style and a man venerated in his homeland, Tsai grew up in Shanghai in a family of six children in a privileged and relatively liberated household.

At 16, she and her 13-year-old brother Michael (who subsequently founded the upmarket Mr Chow restaurant chain) were sent by their parents to England for their education.

'It was lonely,' says Tsai, 'but when you're a child, all you think about is survival and about how you are going to absorb the new culture.

Our parents let us go for our own benefit and risked never seeing us again in order for us to be free and to make lives for ourselves.' Tsai trained at RADA (the first Chinese actor to do so), where she was a contemporary of Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Glenda Jackson and Sian Phillips. 'My mother had given me lots of clothes to bring with me to Britain and, among my things, were a mink coat and a diamond ring. At the time, I assumed everyone dressed like that, but when I went to RADA, everyone thought I was a Chinese princess. My best friend there was Elizabeth Rees-Williams [later to become Elizabeth Harris, wife of actor Richard Harris] and we would sit in the cafeteria, looking at people like Albert Finney, and say,"Oh, those working-class men!"' Tsai laughs. 'We had a wonderful time.' At 18, Tsai embarked on a brief marriage to first husband Frank Chang, 'although when he got nervous and said, "awful wedded life" instead of "lawful wedded wife" at the ceremony, I think that was a sign that things weren't going to work out,' she recalls.

The couple had a son, Bruce, but just two months after his birth, Tsai left her husband to live with her baby 'in a grotty bedsit in London's Bayswater. I was just 19 and had about GBP5 a week to live on and it was very difficult. I also longed to get back to acting and so I reapplied to RADA. I put Bruce in the care of a nursery outside London and went back to RADA, although every Sunday I would visit him. It was heart-wrenching to have to leave him at the end of that day, but I picked my career over my son.

I had Bruce for about two years and then I agreed to let his father take him back East. I didn't get to see much of Bruce when he was growing up - his father kind of stopped me. My relationship with my son now is not good and I don't think he ever forgave me for what I did. I think Barbara Stanwyck said that being an artist excess

but the role turned Tsai into a star. In the meantime, she married her second husband, English director Peter Coe.

'I loved Peter but he wasn't a happy man or a faithful husband. That said, I wasn't a dream to live with, either. I always wanted my own way and was quite needy. That marriage lasted, technically, for about a year. I wasn't the cheating type, but then,' she giggles, 'I was probably never married long enough to be unfaithful. I literally woke up one morning and thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be nice to wake up alone in my flat?" and so that's what happened.' Tsai may have woken up alone on occasion but she was never short of male company. During her two-year West End run, she enjoyed a one-night stand with Albert Finney. 'I may well have been in love with him at the time,' she says, 'but I was so fickle then, it probably wouldn't have lasted.

When you're young, you can get anyone, but he had so many girlfriends.

I remember my dresser for Suzie Wong advising me, "You don't want to be killed in the rush, dear, do you?" It was probably a blow to my ego to be one of a list of many women he was with.' Cary Grant was also an admirer, 'and although he took me out a few times, I didn't sleep with him. He was a very charming, very gracious man. I realised very quickly that with stars, you often played a game of who could say goodbye first. Once you had slept with them, they would lose interest and so you had to keep on playing this game.

For me, it was all about winning. I didn't want to lose to a man, which is why my marriages didn't work.' Tsai shrugs.

'There is always a price for everything you do and I was a hundred per cent willing to pay it.' Marlon Brando was an ardent suitor as well, 'and although he was irresistible, I managed to resist him. I met him through Kenneth Tynan who called me up one day and said Brando wanted to meet. He was filming A Countess From Hong Kong in London with Sophia Loren and so we had dinner and he walked me to my home and we said goodbye on my doorstep. He was a huge star and extremely charismatic, and I knew all too well that men like that like to play games. When he fixed his gaze on you, it was as if nothing else in the world existed but, although I was very attracted to him, I resisted. His secretary would call and say that Marlon had a "ding dong planned that evening", but I would never go to parties where there were lots of women. I was too proud to be just one in a long line of women.

'Another time, my ex-husband, Peter, phoned and said, "Could you come round with a wok?

Danny Kaye wants to cook some Chinese food," so I did and there would be Danny cooking and Shirley MacLaine watching. The Sixties,' she adds, 'were such a great time.' During this period, Kenneth Tynan managed to overlook his original 'Woozy Song' slur to embark on an affair with her. 'I was about 29 when I was with him,' says Tsai, 'and the way I would describe him is that he was a very lovable child; quite vain, but very funny. We never lived together, but when he woke up, he'd look at himself in the mirror and say, "I'm still the prettiest critic in town!" I'm not sure if loved him, but love means being able to sacrifice and I don't know if I was capable of that.

I was very appreciative of knowing him, though, and he gave me a lot of confidence.

'He loved hearing stories about my childhood and it was he who suggested I wrote them down and even tried to get a publisher interested in them.' Up until that point, admits Tsai, her life was pretty charmed. After Suzie Wong, she starred in You Only Live Twice (getting to spend a whole day in bed with Sean

Connery during filming) and the Fu Manchu series of films added to her increasing fame.

'There were difficulties being an Asian actress, but on the whole, people were kind to me and when I was young, I was optimistic and thought the world was wonderful. And then pow! Suddenly everything changed.' When Tsai had left home, her father, Zhou, had been a staunch supporter of the Communist government, but when the Cultural Revolution of China began, Madame Mao, herself a onetime actress, resented Zhou's fame and exacted her revenge by having him publicly denounced.

Although Tsai originally had word that her father had committed suicide, it later transpired that he had been imprisoned for a year and was then put under house arrest, where he went blind and was subjected to regular and random beatings at the hands of the Red Guards.

Tsai's brother, William, was also imprisoned for four years, simply for being Zhou's son, and was sentenced to a further five years hard labour. The fate of Tsai's mother was yet more horrific, however.

China was cut off from the world, so for about nine years, I had no news about my family,' says Tsai. 'I then found out that my mother had been taken away many times and beaten.

She went with the Red Guards willingly because she thought that if she did what she was told, then my father would suffer less maltreatment at their hands. The last time they took her, they beat and kicked her so hard, her body turned purple. She died of her injuries in 1969. I have had to stop myself from thinking about exactly what happened to my mum because it hurts too much. Even now, going to the dentist it is a painful experience because it reminds me that my mother had all of her teeth kicked out. I felt a great deal of guilt afterwards.' Soon after, Tsai's own life spiralled out of control. She took to drink and pills, and embarked on what she terms 'B-movie affairs with men' in order to dull the pain. She lost her home and found herself facing financial ruin.

She took an overdose, but was found by friends in time and sought psychiatric help. 'I came down very hard, but in many ways it was a great thing, because you end up seeing life as it really is. Losing everything was a turning point in my life.' Tsai decamped to the U.S., briefly working in her brother Michael's Mr Chow restaurant in Los Angeles. She realised, though, that acting was in her blood and she slowly started working again, performing in small theatres and eventually returning to China for the first time after the Cultural Revolution to teach drama in Beijing. In 1989, she returned to the West End to star opposite Anthony Hopkins in M. Butterfly and since then, has never looked back.

That same year, Tsai performed a one-woman show, entitled Madame Mao's Memories, about the woman who had caused the deaths of both her parents. 'I had hated her for years, but when you play a character, you have to find parts that you can empathise with. She was a mean person, but at least she tried to make something of her life. I had a very strange feeling when she died - a mixture of relief and some sadness, because it signified the end of something.' This coming year, Tsai hopes to start working on a book about her father and, despite the many hardships she has endured, she still chooses to see all the good that has happened instead. 'I was told that when my father was in a bad way in hospital, every patient who could stood up for him because he commanded such respect. When I hear things like that, I feel so proud. And I am fortunate enough to be able to listen to his arias on tape, too. How many people can claim to be that lucky?' Memoirs Of A Geisha is on release now.


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