Past event

"Chinese Telephone Girls Across the U.S. Mass Media, 1901-1949" Film Studies Speaker Series with Dr Xin Peng (University of Cambridge)

This talk traces the figure of Chinese female telephone operators in the San Francisco Chinatown Telephone Exchange featured across the U.S. mass media in the first half of the twentieth century. Repeatedly touted in newspapers, newsreel stories, and radio shows as “memory expert, linguist, and interpreter in one,” fluent in English and five Chinese dialects and carrying “2300 numbers in their heads,” the Chinese telephone girl was a staple yet marginal trope in Chinatown crime films, ranging from Orson Welles' classic The Lady from Shanghai (1948) to little known b-thrillers such as Phantom of Chinatown (1940) and Chinatown at Midnight (1949). This research challenges the claim that the occupation of telephone operators in the pre-WWII U.S. was exclusively white, not only through excavating the Chinese telephone girls in film and media history, but also through oral histories conducted with the operators' descendants. Rather than dismissing the Chinese telephone operators as an exception because they were segregated in an ethnic enclave, I show how this segregated exception complicates our knowledge of the telephone industry's exclusion of other racialized groups, especially of African American women. I contextualize the origin of the Chinatown Telephone Exchange in relation to the history of early telephony, where the effort to democratize the previously elite communications technology capitalized on the seeming incongruity between an oriental primitivity and Western modern technology, emblematic in such a description of the exchange as the “Queerest Combination of Oriental Custom with Occidental Science.”

Bio: Xin Peng is Assistant Professor in Film and Screen Studies at the University of Cambridge and the former Managing Editor of Feminist Media Histories. She is working on a book project titled, Inscrutable Medium: Hollywood Orientalism and Media Technology. Her work has appeared in Screen, Camera Obscura and the Women Film Pioneers Project.