Bessie Loo

Girls see Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Copyright Los Angeles Public Library - Harry Quillen Collection. All Rights Reserved.

In 1902, Bessie Loo was born into a traditional Chinese family in Hanford, California. Growing up with her two brothers and sister, Bessie Loo seemed to be the only child who fully developed a Chinese American identity. Her older brother had strong ties to Chinese culture, thus he did not receive an American education like other Chinese Americans. He was well-educated in Chinese and established a Chinese school in Hanford, where he taught about thirty students. After his wife’s death, he went to China to remarry. Her brother influenced Bessie Loo to be conscious of her Chinese culture and convinced her to learn Chinese. In 1915, her sister got married through an arrangement by her parents, whereas Bessie Loo chose her husband. In Bessie Loo’s family and her life, Chinese culture was prevalent in many different aspects.[1]

In 1943, the First Lady of the Republic of China made an appearance to the Hollywood Rose Bowl in Los Angeles Chinatown. Her visit to the local Chinese American community generated enthusiasm and excitement. Prior to her visit, prejudice and racism barred Chinese Americans from equal access to life in the United States. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, a powerful figure in China and the United States, was an influential and important woman figure in the eyes of China and the United States. As the wife of China’s nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, her overachieved the role of China’s First Lady and was “a strong woman at a time when many were powerless.”[2]

Bessie Loo intersected many aspects of her Chinese culture to her American culture. She exemplifies the many Chinese American women who encountered challenges in developing their multiracial identity. These conflicting expectations from both cultures were demanding. Growing up as a Chinese American, “language suffered the most erosion,” however, language was an important cultural aspect in Bessie Loo’s life.[3] Greatly influenced by her older brother, Bessie Loo studied Chinese for two to three years. Her family encouraged Bessie Loo to always speak Chinese at home, and English was spoken outside the home. As a mother, Bessie Loo thought transmitting Chinese language to her kids was salient. She hired a tutor to teach her children during the summer, but realized how difficult it was to enforce learning Chinese to her children.[4]

Bessie Loo experienced challenges in developing her Chinese American identity as the American culture challenged Chinese cultural values and traditions. During the 1930s and the 1940s, Chinese Americans made appearances as extras in the entertainment industry. Bessie Loo was among the many Chinese American women who pursued a career in the entertainment industry, and was among the very few who were successful.[5] As she began emerging herself into forbidden territory–the entertainment industry–Bessie Loo was always mindful of her father’s wishes: to be a doctor or optometrist. Bessie Loo’s acting career launched when she signed a contract with MGM for the Good Earth. At the same time, she worked at the studio as an assistant director. In 1939, Bessie Loo became a casting director for Central Casting. In the same year, Bessie Loo finally received pay for working as an agent for actors; she received a 10% commission.[6]

For example, the American public formed its own perceptions of Chinese Americans in the media. Chinese American women were stereotyped as the “Dragon Lady” in the movie industry. The “Dragon Lady” was perceived as an overbearing, mysterious and seductive woman. The Western stereotype of the Chinese American woman conflicted with Chinese American women and their identity. Bessie Loo’s prominent role in the entertainment industry refutes and challenges the “Dragon Lady” stereotype. She utilized her influence in the industry to remove Chinese American actors and actresses from derogative films such as Opium Eater and Shanghai Gesture.[7] Despite her emerging part in the entertainment industry, Bessie Loo challenged Chinese culture and the common perception of Chinese Americans in the industry, and advocated for improving Chinese American roles in the industry.

Similarly, the efforts of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek created a positive effect on the Chinese American community. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was a prominent and compelling Chinese American woman, who was known and remembered as an icon in the Chinese American community. Like Bessie Loo, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek obtained an American education at the well-known Wellesly College, majoring in English Literature and minoring in Philosophy, in 1917. As the First Lady to China’s Nationalist leader, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek utilized her position to persuade the United States to help in their fight against Japan.[8]

As second generation Chinese Americans, an American education was highly valued in the development of Chinese American culture. In Bessie Loo’s family, she was the only child who was able to obtain a complete American education. In contrast, her sister didn’t have more than a third grade education. Growing up, Bessie Loo estimated there to be about 800-900 Chinese living in Hanford. Among her class, she was the first Chinese to graduate from Hanford Union High School. For college, she attended the University of California Los Angeles she majored in education. However, her mother became ill and withdrew from UCLA, and moved to San Francisco, where her mother received medical treatment. She continued her education at San Francisco Teachers’ College and graduated in 1928. During her two years at UCLA, Bessie Loo recalls only two or three Chinese American girls attending the university.[9] As a result, the disparity in the Chinese American student population impacted the growth of her Chinese American identity.

In Chinese culture, interracial marriages were not acceptable and expected to marry within their district groupings. Unlike her sister, Bessie Loo was able to choose her husband, which contributed to her Chinese American identity. She met her husband in Stanford, when he was attending the University of California Berkeley. In 1929, she got married to her boyfriend of four years in San Francisco. Her husband was offered a job as a store manager in 1936. In that same year, Bessie Loo and her husband moved to Los Angeles. Five years later, Bessie Loo gave birth to twin girls, Beverly and Angela.[10]

Aside from her personal life, Bessie Loo’s professional and social life exemplifies the conflicting Chinese American perception of Chinese American women. In 1947, Bessie Loo became a member of the China Society, an organization that promotes the friendship between the Chinese and Americans. Eventually, Bessie Loo expanded her role in the organization from a member to president in 1960 to 1963, and continuing her leadership in 1969 to 1971. In 1944, she became a charter member of the Los Angeles Chinese Women’s Club, which was federated with the Los Angeles County Federation of Women’s Clubs. She later became a board member.[11]

Similar to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Bessie Loo’s participation in social organizations symbolized her commitment to her community. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek traveled to the United States on behalf of her husband, in support for the Nationalists. Being a Chinese American woman, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek refuted many cultural taboos, but appealed to the Chinese American community. At the height of Bessie Loo’s leadership in social organizations, she and the rest of the community faced the effects of World War II.

Through different experiences in her life, Bessie Loo developed her Chinese American identity. In her academic years, Bessie Loo was unaware of her political identity and “didn’t believe the Chinese were too interested in politics.”[12] With the visit of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek in 1943, it created not only a national sensation, but also generated enthusiasm and excitement in the local Los Angeles Chinatown community. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek greatly influenced Bessie Loo’s perception of her Chinese American identity; she felt “very proud to be Chinese.”[13]

In some aspect, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek’s speech and presence at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl impacted Chinese Americans in Los Angeles Chinatown. Through Bessie Loo’s narrative and along with others, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek influenced their perceptions of their Chinese American identity. In addition, their stories contribute to the overall history of the Chinese American identity in Los Angeles Chinatown.


[1] Bessie Loo, interviewed by Beverly Chan and Emma Louie, Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project (1978-1991), Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, March 21, 1979.

[2] Vanessa Hua, “Chinatown Recalls an Icon’s Era/Death of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek Stirs Memories,” SF Gate, October 25, 2003, http://articles.sfgate.com/2003-10-25/bay-area/17513134_1_chinese-americans-blue-square-chinese-exclusion-act.

[3] Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, Linking Our Lives: Chinese American Women of Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: CHSSC, 1984), 52.

[4] Bessie Loo, interviewed by Beverly Chan and Emma Louie, Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project (1978-1991), Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, March 21, 1979.

[5] Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, Linking Our Lives: Chinese American Women of Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: CHSSC, 1984), 77-79.

[6] Bessie Loo, interviewed by Beverly Chan and Emma Louie, Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project (1978-1991), Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, March 21, 1979.

[7] Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, Linking Our Lives: Chinese American Women of Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: CHSSC, 1984), 79.

[8] Hannah Pakula, “Madame Chiang Kai-Shek,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/info/madame-chiang-kai-shek/.

[9] Bessie Loo, interviewed by Beverly Chan and Emma Louie, Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project (1978-1991), Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, March 21, 1979.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.