‘I have lived on my own since 1963,” says Tsai Chin down the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “It doesn’t mean I haven’t had a sex life.” But it does mean that the 87-year-old actor brings something special to her latest role as a beguilingly irascible, chain-smoking widow who faces down triad thugs over stolen money in the comedy Lucky Grandma. Apart from the smoking, Grandma Wong is my new role model.
“I’m tough but my heart is very soft,” she says. And that is the key to Grandma Wong, a woman who projects to the world the opposite of what she is inside. In the film, she has a shrine to her late husband in her meagre Chinatown apartment in New York. She’s alone and impoverished but isn’t quite ready to give up her independence and move in with her sweet if bougie son in his brownstone.
The film was dedicated by director Sasie Sealy to “Chinatown and all the badass elderly women who inhabit it.” Tsai Chin channelled these badasses, but she channelled someone else too: Auntie Lindo, the marvellously rude heroine she played in the 1993 film The Joy Luck Club. Grandma Wong is the east coast version: just as much attitude, but less bling.
Grandma Wong seems obliged to appear in every shot with a cigarette. The film starts with a bunch of elderly Chinese New Yorkers boarding a chartered coach to Atlantic City. Grandma Wong has been advised by a fortune-teller that her luck is in, so she takes her life savings and goes on a high-rolling spree. As she elbows her way rudely past white Americans to the roulette table, she is clearly channelling yet another of her previous roles: Madam Wu, the card sharp with whom Daniel Craig’s 007 did battle in Casino Royale.
Is she anything like the title character? “We are both tough women except for at least three things. I don’t know how to bargain. Most Chinese are good at it. I am not. I am too lazy. You need to have good arithmetic and I don’t. I hate gambling, which is almost a national sport. And I don’t think I would keep the money.” What’s the film’s moral? “Respect. Old people are not a pushover.”
Tsai Chin learned to be tough, she reckons, from her mother, Shanghai socialite Lilian Qiu. “She was an original. She instilled early in me a sense of my self-worth, which served me well throughout my life, especially in the profession I have chosen. I still think of her daily when I wake up.”
Her father was Peking Opera master Zhou Xinfang. Tsai Chin was born on 1 September 1933 – “I am not someone who is shy about age,” she says, confirming the date – and by about 19 had arrived in London from her native Shanghai via Hong Kong. Her aim: to study drama.
“I was supposed to follow my elder sister to America to finish my education, but I received the Rada prospectus and that sealed my fate.” She was the first Chinese student there, and from a much more privileged background than her peers. “I found a lot of the students were very poor. Because I had so many clothes, a fur coat and a diamond ring, they thought I was a princess. I was surprised that a lot of female students were wearing makeup and some were very intimate with each other, which is not so in China.”
Her big break came in the 1959 West End production of The World of Suzie Wong, a critically damned but popular adaptation of Richard Mason’s novel about a British painter who meets and falls for a sex worker in a Hong Kong brothel. “Suzie Wong was based on girls who left the mainland after the Communist takeover in 1949 and got stuck in Hong Kong with no other way to make a living,” she explains.
The following year she had a global hit with Lionel Bart’s The Ding Dong Song. “Lionel asked me if I wanted to make a record. Being young, foolish and fearless, I said yes. Before I knew it, I was in the Decca studio with a large orchestra behind me. Lionel also asked me to sing very high, which I did, although I had never taken a singing lesson before. And lo and behold, it became the biggest hit in Asia and Africa. Millions were sold but most were pirated so I didn’t get any money.”
Tsai Chin was one of the very few Chinese faces on British TV during the 1960s, appearing in Emergency Ward 10, Dixon of Dock Green and That Was the Week That Was. She became so famous that in 1965, London zoo named a leopard after her. When Tsai Chin met Tsai Chin, she wore long gloves and her three-month-old namesake settled down with her. “I smelled something strange, not unpleasant, so I came to conclusion that it was a fart.”
But this was only a prelude to greater celebrity. In 1967, she starred as Ling, one of two Asian Bond girls in You Only Live Twice. “People nowadays are SO impressed that I was a Bond Girl,” she sighs. “So I might as well go along with it. People also ask me what was it like being in bed with Sean Connery. I said, ‘Fine.’”
She spent three days in bed with the star during filming. In one postcoital scene, Bond asks Ling: “Why do Chinese girls taste so different from the others?” Ling replies: “You think we better, huh?” Bond: “No, just different. Like peking duck is different from Russian caviar. But I love them both.” Ling: “Darling, I give you very best duck.” What does she think about that scene now? “It wouldn’t pass muster now, thank God. Then, Asian women were especially stereotyped.”
In the 1960s, Tsai Chin starred in five films as Fu Manchu’s daughter. The oriental megalomaniac was played by the Belgravia-born Christopher Lee. Did she have to fight to make Asian roles less stereotyped? “You bet!” For all that, she says, most of the people she worked with – with the exception of directors Michael Winner and John Dexter, who cast her opposite Anthony Hopkins in M Butterfly – were “very nice”. That said, she recalls one predatory producer who took her for a drive and put his hand on her thigh. “I said three words very slowly: ‘Don’t. Touch. Me.’ It seemed to work.”
The institutionalised racism of the times meant she rarely got good roles. “Another problem for minority actors is that we don’t often work with beautiful dialogue. And there were less chances of working with great directors and actors. That’s when you can learn a lot.” It was only in 1972 that, she says, she found a role matching her talents: she played Wang Guangmei, the wife of Chairman Mao’s chief rival Liu Shaoqi, in the Granada TV film A Subject of Struggle. As she wrote in her autobiography: “For the first time, the artist and the woman within me met at last.” Why did she write that? “Because she is a real person, not only did she exist but she is not a stereotype. I don’t have to say, ‘Vell vell, you no like me.’”
How would she describe the 60s? “While we in London began swinging and loving, China began swinging but hating. My parents suffered and died.” Her father was purged and her mother died after rough treatment by the Red Guards. In 1975, her father died in Shanghai. Tsai Chin suffered financial ruin in London in the 1970s and struggled with mental health problems, in part because of her parents’ fate. Only since Mao’s death in 1976 has she been able to return to China.
In 1993, Auntie Lindo in The Joy Luck Club was the start of an American adventure that has not ended. Is she disappointed she didn’t get an Oscar for that performance? Lots of critics thought it disgraceful she did not. “Not at first, because in the UK actors didn’t think of getting awards. But now I am pissed off. I remember a black actor telling me why I didn’t win an Oscar. He said, ‘It’s not your time.’ He was right. I stopped watching the Academy Awards a few years ago. What’s that got to do with me? But things are changing because of the rise of Asia.”
She has now been living in LA for 26 years. “I was 62 when I became a Hollywood star. That doesn’t happen to women, especially minority women.” She calls it the third spring of her career, during which time she’s played in such TV shows as Grey’s Anatomy and Agents of SHIELD, as well as films Now You See Me and Memoirs of a Geisha.
Now a just few years short of turning 90 – she gives her birthdate as 1 September 1933, Tsai Chin, like the ostensibly badass elderly women of New York’s Chinatown, is still working hard. She proves a delightful interviewee, happily fielding daft questions about farting leopards and racist and misogynist Bond movies. But there’s one subject she won’t broach. What does she make of Sino-American relations under Trump? “China is under super control. Trump’s territory seems to be falling off in bits. The pandemic is depressing enough. Do we need to go there? I’m very happy I’m going to be pissing off soon.”
Instead, she tells me what she’s been doing during lockdown. “Lots of little old ladies potter in their gardens. For me it is my library. It has every subject about China I can collect, and of course about theatre.” She has also spent a lot of time watching YouTube films of babies playing with dogs and cats. “They cheer me up,” she says, “because they are the purest things I can find at the moment.”
Lucky Grandma is released on digital HD on 9 November.
• This article was amended on 4 November 2020 based on confirmation of the actor’s birthdate. Her age is now given as 87 and age of arrival in London as about 19 (replacing 88 and 17).