Over the weekend, I went with friends to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While we were there, I took the opportunity to go through the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit again (I discovered that I’d completely missed two whole floors of the exhibit). Once again, I was drawn to the section of the exhibit dealing with Anna May Wong (1905-1961) who was the first Chinese American movie star. Along with her costume from Limehouse Blues, the exhibit featured dresses that were inspired by dresses that Anna May had worn in her films, along with clips of several of her movies including Toll of the Sea, one of the first Technicolor films, Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich (one of her best remembered films), and Limehouse Blues where George Raft unfortunately cast as Asian. Even with the sound off, Anna May Wong is so vibrant and alive in these clips, particularly the scenes from Toll of the Sea (1922) which is based on Madame Butterfly. The film and Anna May’s performance seem incredibly modern, not dated at all. It’s hard to believe that she was only 17 when the movie was made.
During her career she made dozens of films in Hollywood, London and Berlin. She was glamorous and sophisticated; photographers flocked to take her portrait. Despite never having graduated high school, she was worldly and articulate, with friends like Carl van Vechten, Evelyn Waugh and Paul Robeson. Yet she spent most of her career typecast either as a demure, submissive, painted doll ‘Butterfly’ roles or a scheming Dragon Lady. Some people see Anna May as a victim of Hollywood, condemned to play stereotyped Asian roles — lotus flower or dragon lady, and shouldered aside by white actors such as Luise Rainer and Myrna Loy in yellow face. Anna May Wong’s reputation has suffered over the years because of the roles that she played. The older generation blame her for playing stereotypical roles in the same way that Hattie McDaniel was condemned for playing maids. It’s hard to be the first one, whether it’s flying across the Atlantic or becoming the first Chinese-American film star. People had expectations that Anna found almost impossible to fulfill. She had no role models to look up to. And Hollywood didn’t jump at the chance to develop films for her or groom her for stardom. They just didn’t see her as leading lady material.
The newspapers and film critics in China were also harsh in their criticism of her film roles, that they were shameful. As if she were in a position to pick and choose, and she just chose the ones that had her playing prostitutes and dragon ladies. They didn’t know what to make of her, she looked Chinese but she was thoroughly American, with her western clothes and California accent. She partied hard, dancing the Charleston, the fox-trot and the tango, showing her knees.
Anna was born and raised in L.A., the daughter of a laundryman and his wife who were both second generation Chinese-American. She was given the name Wong Liu Tsong which means “yellow willow frost” on January 3, 1905. She was the second child and second girl, eventually the family included several more children including the much longed for sons. She didn’t grow up in Chinatown but just outside it, in a neighborhood of mainly Mexican and European residents. Initially Anna and her older sister went to a public school but after enduring racial taunts from her classmates, her parents enrolled them in a Presbyterian Chinese school. The classes were taught in English, but Anna attended a Chinese language school on the weekends. Although Anna's family had been in the United States since before the Civil War, they were still subject to intense scrutiny. Chinese immigration had been curtailed since the 1880's. Every time Anna made plans to travel abroad, she had to fill out paperwork detailing her plans, otherwise there was also the chance that she would not be able to return. Given her outspokenness, it wouldn't be surprising to find that the FBI kept a file on her activities.
Like many teenage girls, Anna May dreamed of being in the movies. She would sneak out of school, spending all the money she had saved going to the movies. But she managed to achieve her dream, first as an extra in films and then later on in featured and secondary roles. Lucky for her that the movies had relocated from the East Coast to the sunny climate of Southern California. Movies were being made in and around her neighborhood. From childhood, Anna May was pestering the filmmakers to get them to allow her to be in the movies. Eventually Anna May dropped out of high school to focus full-time on acting. “I was so young when I began that I knew I still had youth if I failed, so I determined to give myself 10 years to succeed as an actress.”
Despite her success, Anna May struggled her whole career to take somehow imbue the stereotypical roles she was cast in into something more. She worked closely with the costume designers and hair and make-up artists to create her characters, often bringing in clothes from home to wear. She lobbied hard to play the lead role in the MGM film of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth only to discover that to the producers, she “too Chinese to play Chinese”. The Chinese government also apparently advised against casting her in the role. Anna had to see a role that she had dreamed of playing given to a white Austrian woman, Luise Rainer, who won her first Academy Award for the role. Instead, Anna was offered the only unsympathetic role in the film.
The production code of the 1930’s stymied her career. Interracial love was taboo. If a non-Asian actor was cast to play an Asian male, Anna could not share an on-screen kiss with him. There was only one leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era, Sessue Hayakawa. Until other Asian leading men could be found, Anna’s career was stifled. In interviews, she was outspoken out the dangers of typecasting. The salary that she was paid were nowhere near comparable to what her white counterparts or even her Asian male co-stars. For Daughter of the Dragon (1931) Wong was paid $6,000 compared to Sessue Hayakawa who was paid $10,000 or Warner Oland who made $12,000 for 23 minutes of screen time.
In Europe, Anna May found fewer casting restrictions. In 1934’s Java Head, she actually got to kiss the white actor who played her husband on screen. She made her stage debut in play based on an Edgar Wallace novel starring a young Laurence Olivier as well as 5 films in England over the years. Moving on to Germany, she made four films before the Nazi’s came to power. Anna picked up languages easily, adding German and French to her repertoire. While in Germany, she became friends with Marlene Dietrich, leading to rumors that the two women were lovers which damaged her reputation and embarrassed her family. Even in Europe, Anna was considered wonderfully foreign, there were few Chinese living in England, France or Germany. In some ways, she was like a exotic pet at the zoo.
Throughout her career, Anna May worked diligently on her craft. When English critics complained that her voice was too American, she learned to speak with an English accent. She took voice lessons to work on her voice so that it could be heard in the theatre. When film roles were thin on the ground, Anna May created a cabaret act which she toured through Europe and the United States. After the disappointment of losing the role of O-Lan in the film version of The Good Earth, Anna May decided it was time to visit China. Her father and younger siblings had all moved back to the tiny village of her ancestors. She spent a year touring China, studying Mandarin and Chinese culture. Her plans were to eventually bring English translations of Chinese plays to the West to promote a better understanding of Chinese culture. Unfortunately those plans never came to fruition.
Returning to Hollywood in the late 1930s, Anna May Wong starred in a series of B pictures, where she finally got play Chinese Americans in a more positive light including King of Chinatown where she portrayed a surgeon! Once America entered World War II, Wong turned her attention more towards fundraising, devoting her time and her money to helping the Chinese cause against the Japan. Post-war, Anna returned to acting, but on television rather than film. In 1951, she had her own series entitled The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was the first U.S. television show featuring an Asian-American lead.
Her personal life was just as tumultuous as her screen career. At 17, she had an affair with the director Tod Browning who was not only older but married as well. Most of her relationships were with white men, which Anna May kept out of the public eye. An interracial relationship would have ended her career. She was openly admitted in interviews that she would most likely never marry, claiming that Chinese and Chinese-American men found her too independent. Her sister, Mary Wong, who had also pursued a career in film, committed suicide. Suffering on and off from depression, Anna began to drink and smoke heavily, which over the years began to take its toll on her health. Still she forged on with her career, receiving a start on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. She was just about to start shooting Flower Drum Song in 1961, when she died suddenly of a heart attack during her sleep. She was only 56.
Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend, Hong Kong University Press; 1 edition (June 1, 2012)
Anne Helen Petersen, Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema, Plume (September 30, 2014)
Mark Bailey, Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling through Hollywood History, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.