This postwar junior high school sits on a site that was once home to the Great Wall Film Company, founded in 1920 by a group of Chinese students and local Chinese American businesspeople. Incensed by the racist portrayals of Chinese in American-made films, the group decided to produce their own movies, raised $200,000 from local Chinese American investors, and founded the Great Wall Film Company. The next year, the firm leased this site at 2409 Crospey Avenue in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn and set to work making Chinese-language films for release in China and in Chinese American communities.
Those who worked at the Great Wall Film Company during its Brooklyn years included journalist Liu Zhaoming and students Cheng Peilin and Li Zeyuan. Like Liu, Great Wall employee Mei Xuechou was a reporter for a local Chinese-language newspaper (probably the Chinese Nationalist Daily, 民氣日報). Enthused by the company’s initial productions, he quit his job as a journalist, studied film and animation in New York, and eventually because an important movie director for Great Wall. Mei eventually collaborated with some of China’s movie pioneers, including screenwriter Hou Yao (候曜), and participated in the production of China’s first animated movie.
While the Great Wall Film Company proved a success, its location was problematic. Although formed by Chinese and Chinese Americans angry about negative film stereotypes, the company never intended to make movies for English-speaking audiences. Instead, its audience was in China, where almost all of the films that audiences saw were American-made movies with their captions translated from English (this was, after all, the pre-talkie era). In 1924, Great Wall’s staff shut down operations at the Brooklyn site, packed up the firm’s equipment, and relocated to Shanghai. There, the company had far easier access to its main markets, the growing populations of China’s coastal cities. According to the North China Herald, Great Wall thrived in Shanghai. With its spacious lot and modern equipment, it was about to make ten films a year while its rivals could produce only two or three.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression undermined many of Shanghai’s studios, including Great Wall, which closed down in 1930. By that point, its original site in Brooklyn had long since reverted to more conventional industrial uses. It eventually became the site of I.S. 281, renamed the Joseph B. Cavallaro Junior High School in the 1970s in honor of a conservative, anti-communist Board of Higher Education head who died in 1957.
Sources for this post include “The Chinese Mirror: A Journal of Chinese Film History“; Tan Ye and Yun Zhu, Historical Dictionary of Chinese Cinema (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012); The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Bulletin; North China Herald; New York Times; A Brief History of Chinese Film; and Yingjin Zhang, ed., A Companion to Chinese Cinema (New York: Blackwell, 2012).