The Movie Mogul
He next pops up in 1896 as manager of the rather posh Astor House Hotel, established in 1846 as Richards’ Hotel and Restaurant on The Bund in Shanghai, which existed until 1 January 2018 when it was shut to turn into office spaces. Apart from being supposedly the finest hotel for foreigners in the city at the time, it was also a meeting place for smugglers. Authorities in Hong Kong were strict on smuggling, including arms, but Shanghai was very different.
on 7 July that year, he married Ms. Marcella Olsen in Shanghai, who had previously lived in Hawaii, at the Astor House Hotel.. Meanwhile, about the same time, the Philippine Revolution against Spain got underway.
In April 1897 a “Professor” Maurice Charvet first demonstrated the Cinematograph in Hong Kong. It was, almost certainly, a pirated copy of the Lumiere Brothers machine. Johnson was keen for new attractions to increase custom to the Astor House Hotel and had an eye open for business opportunities and in May that year started showing films at his hotel. He teamed up with Charvet and, as “Johnson and Charvet” demonstrated the new movies around China, Hong Kong, Shanghai and elsewhere. He often sinicised his name to Yong Soon in publicity materials. Johnson was a key player in the development of cinema in Asia.
Meanwhile, a Spaniard, by the name of Pertierra, has started showing movie shorts on the ground floor of the Casino Espanol at Calle Perez, off the Escolta, Manila’s smart street at the time. Another Spaniard, Ramos, introduced the Lumiere Cinematograph in August that year. There weren’t a lot of films going and Ramos closed his cinema in November 1897.
It was in 1897 that Philippine revolutionaries went into exile in Hong Kong. They had fought the Spanish to a stand-still, had no money, and few guns, problems the Spanish did not have. A deal was done, the junta was exiled, the Spanish thought they’d broken the back of the revolution and barring something like the Spanish-American War, problem solved. The Junta, led by Aguinaldo, kept funds given to them by the Spanish to await an opportunity to kick-start the revolution in the Philippines and needed to buy arms and smuggle them into the Philippines. Johnson often visited Hong Kong and given his background it would be strange indeed if he was unaware, or uninterested in the Junta and what was happening in the Philippines.
Johnson’s last known cinema performance in China was in January 1898. Sometime between then and March 1898 he upped sticks and went to Manila with his now-pregnant wife and his business partner, Maurice Charvet and a probably pirated cinematograph machine that could both record and project film..
The problem for Johnson and others was a limited library of short films. The wonder of the silent moving picture was wearing thin and there was not enough new product entering the business and little that was of interest to the overwhelmingly Chinese audience.
Cinema arrived in the Philippines in January 1897 with a Spaniard called Pertierra using a Demeny-Gaumont chronophotograph camera/projector then, in August that year, another Spaniard opened a salon showing Lumiere films. Perhaps Johnson thought Manila presented new opportunities which he could add to what appears to have been a moving picture show in the real sense, moving from place to place.
What happened next is best left to him to explain, and explain he did.
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3. The Movie Mogul