HomeBad Ass AsiansJames Wong Howe – The Oscar-winning Asian American artist

James Wong Howe – The Oscar-winning Asian American artist

By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer

James Wong Howe, a Chinese American, pioneered cinematography during the silent and sound film eras in the White-dominated motion picture industry in Hollywood. He became the first Asian American to win two Oscars in cinematography from the Academy Awards.

Pasco, Washington

Born in Taishan, Guangdong Province, Imperial China, on August 28, 1899. Howe immigrated at Port Townsend, Washington, on May 12, 1904, aboard SS Tremont. Under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the federal immigration official classified him as a minor son of a merchant. Wong (surname) How, his father, owned three general stores in Pasco, Washington, a railroad town, known as Wong How Company. Note that father and son had different spellings for their last name-a result of immigration officials spelling the future cinematographer’s name one way and his father name another.

Howe grew up with his father, stepmother, and seven siblings. He attended West Side School. He discovered photography when he brought a Brownie camera at Pasco Drug.

In 1914, his father died. Howe left Pasco to search for his American dream in 1915.


In Portland, Oregon, he tried box fighting, but he lost interest. He held odd jobs to survive. Then he moved to Los Angeles.

Howe worked as a bellhop at the Beverly Hills Hotel. In 1917, he got his first Hollywood job as a janitor at  Famous Players-Lasky Studios. He gradually became an assistant cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille, the famed director.

His breakthrough came when he shot a portrait series of Mary Miles Minter, a silent film actress. Howe’s photography of her light blue eyes impressed Minter. She requested that Howe be her cameraman.

In 1923, Howe filmed Drums of Fate, a drama film starring Minter. During his career, Hollywood credited him with 142 films. His last film was Funny Lady, starring Barbra Streisand, in 1975.

Howe successfully transitioned from silent film and sound film during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Famous Players-Lasky Studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Warner Brothers contracted him to shoot their films. He worked with iconic directors and collaborated with leading actors and actresses.

Hollywood knew Howe for his innovative cinematography on the silver screen at the theater. His forte was dramatic lighting and deep shadows in black-and-white film. He used unique lenses and film stocks. His shooting techniques included deep focus, tracking shots, crane shots, and dolly shots. He conveyed the emotions of the protagonists.

Howe taught cinematography at the film school at the University of California Los Angeles. He mentored the next generation of cinematographers in Hollywood.

In an interview with American Film Institute, Howe spoke about the art of filmmaking in the context of lighting.

From 1940 to 1951, Howe owned  Ching How restaurant in Studio City. He served “Chinese food in the Chinese mater” (Cantonese dishes). Hollywood royalty and celebrities dined at Ching How.

James Wong Howe wins the Best Cinematography (black and white) Oscar for Rose Tattoo. 1956-03-22. By UCLA Special Holiday Collection via Wikipedia Creative Commons

The Oscars

Howe got the ultimate accolades from the Academy Awards when he received ten nominations for Best Cinematography.

Theatrical release poster for the 1963 film Hud. via Wikipedia Creative Commons

1938  – Algiers    

1940 – Abe Lincoln in Illinois       

1942  – Kings Row        

1943 – The North Star

1943 – Air Force

1955 – The Rose Tattoo

1958  – The Old Man and the Sea

1963 –  Hud

1966  – Seconds   

1975  – Funny Lady

In 1956, Howe got his first Oscar for The Rose Tattoo, starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster. In the black-and-white film, he created shadows to show the emotional turmoil of  Serafina’s (Anna Magnani) based on Tennessee Williams’s play.

In 1964, Howe got his second Oscar for Hud, starring Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, and Brandon deWilde. He used contrast to create space in black-and-white film. He also used the landscape, the barren West Texas plains, to highlight the psychology of the arrogant and amoral Hud Bannon (Paul Newman).

Anti-Chinese Sentiment

Howe faced the anti-Chinese sentiment, with its systemic racism, during his American life.

At Pasco, kids taunted and bullied him with racial slurs in the neighborhood and in West Side School. During film productions, several White crew members call him “The Chinaman” on the set. During World War II, he wore an “I AM CHINESE” button to show loyalty to America.

The Chinese American cinematographer James Wong Howe with his wife, the American author Sanora Babb. via Wikipedia Creative Commons

In 1937, Howe married Sanora Babb, a white American novelist and literary editor, in Paris, France. California’s miscegenation law did not recognize their interracial marriage. The “morals clause” in his film studio contracts prohibited him from publicly acknowledging their marriage. In 1948, the California Supreme Court ended the ban on interracial marriage.  On September 16, 1949, a judge married Howe and Babb. According to Richard Lee, his grandnephew, in MovieMarker.com, he wrote that the judge said “She looks old enough. If she wants to marry a chink, that’s her business.”

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Howe from becoming a naturalized American citizen. He was considered an alien. In 1952, The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act) ended the prohibition from becoming naturalized American citizens. On April 18, 1958, Howe became an American.

According to Franklin County Historical Society, Howe said:

By Dorothy Babb via Wikipedia Creative Commons

“One of the finest experiences of my life was when I became a naturalized citizen of the United States. I had long wanted to become a citizen and admit to feeling frustrated at times by the limitations of being a legal alien. I wanted to own a home and could not. My wife, Sanora Babb, and I were not permitted to marry in California until after World War II when a miscegenation law was repealed. My work in motion pictures often required me to be on long locations in other countries, but I had to rush back and forth every six months to prevent the loss of my residence.”

“Racial prejudice was painful, especially when I was a child and did not understand that it was ignorance. But I was determined to be one of the best motion picture photographers, not necessarily in competitions with other photographers, but with myself and my ideals. I couldn’t help being a perfectionist, and I never got over it. I worked hard and made every effort beyond the day’s job to know my medium and enjoyed my work.”

“Being an Asian contributed to my determination and my growth as a person. Lamenting the worst of the past is a waste, a dead end. There was just as much that was good. It takes both to make a whole, and it is up to us as individuals to come into balance.”


On July 12, 1976, Howe died in Hollywood.

According to IMDb, Sanora Babb Wong Howe wrote: “My husband loved his work. He spent all his adult life from age 17 to 75, a year before his death, in the motion picture industry. When he died at 77, courageous in illness as in health, he was still thinking of new ways to make pictures.”

Film critics and colleagues acclaimed James Wong Howe as the master cinematographer in Hollywood for his many innovative techniques in shooting films in creating art on the silver screen.

As an American cinematography pioneer in the motion picture industry and as an Asian trailblazer in White-dominated Hollywood, James Wong Howe is worthy of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Photography must be integrated with the story.

– James Wong Howe

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