The One, The Only and The Perpetually Cool Anna May Wong
Author/professor Anthony Chan poignantly explains why there'll never be another Anna May Wong and what he means by 'European Americans.'
Published: Friday, January 23, 2004
"Lucy Liu is not Anna May Wong. No one is Anna May Wong."
Interview by Shirley Hsu
Anthony B. Chan, author of "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong" is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of "Li Ka-shing: Hong Kong Elusive Billionaire" (1996), "Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World" (1983) and "Arming the Chinese: The Western Armaments Trade in Warlord China, 1920-1928" (1982).
Chan has also worked as a journalist in Hong Kong and Canada, and an independent filmmaker. He has produced The Panama (1996), Another Day in America (1989) and Chinese Cafes in Rural Saskatchewan (1985). He is currently completing a four-part series on Asian Americans in Vietnam.
Shirley: What motivated you to write a book about Anna May Wong?
Anthony Chan: I wanted to write this book for Asian Americans. It wasn't for European America. I wanted to write it for Asian Americans; I wanted to tell them what I thought as a Chinese American, what I thought about Anna May Wong as a Chinese American woman. And the things she went through, I went through. When I was young, growing up, people would call me 'chink,' and she was called 'chink.' And I wanted to go to China to find out what the hell's going on, and I went to China, and I found out I'm not Canadian - but I'm not Chinese either - so am I suspended between two worlds, as she says? Then I realized, after writing the chapter on Daoism, that you can go on two paths. Or three paths, because that's the Chinese way.
Shirley: Are there any contemporary Asian (or Asian American) actresses or actors that are currently "following in the footsteps" of Anna May Wong?
Anthony Chan: No one. I can't think of anyone.
Shirley: In terms of name recognition, what about stars such as Lucy Liu?
Anthony Chan: Did you read Scarlet Cheng's article in the LA Times? She talks about Anna May Wong being "the right person at the right time." Somehow, the situation in the 1920s, '30s and '40s allowed Anna May Wong to star in the first Technicolor film. It's quite amazing; why her? There were other people like Eda Lee, Winter Blossom, and there were some Japanese American actresses - why Anna May Wong? Why Eichberg saying, "I'm going to give you a five-picture contract?"
This would never happen today to Lucy Liu. Why? Because the situation is so different today - television has a huge impact. At that time, British films and German films were really independent industries. American films were certainly pervasive, but they weren't as pervasive as they are today where they really control maybe 95 % of the market. So somebody like Richard Eichberg from Germany, with Germans having their own cinema, could say to Anna May Wong, "Hey, why don't you come do this." I can't think of any German filmmaker that could do this to Lucy Liu.
Lucy Liu is not Anna May Wong. No one is Anna May Wong. The quality of the acting…and first of all, she's five feet seven. Anna May Wong was stunning. She wasn't beautiful - she was stunning. She had great legs - and you never see that! I mean, Chinese women with great legs, because they're usually short. Here's a tall, statuesque woman of empowerment, who knew who she was, and this confidence was shown right away in all the films she did.
Look at how she stole all the scenes in Shanghai Express. When she's there standing with the bag and she has a dagger, and Marlene Dietrich comes behind her and pulls her up, and [Wong] flips the dagger, and see how she flips the dagger - you're looking at Anna May Wong, you're not looking at Marlene Dietrich. And in the end, she's the heroine. She goes out with 20,000 bucks. Where's Marlene Dietrich? She becomes a housewife. She marries this guy, and he takes her away. It's the old European American idea of saving a woman by marrying her. So how does Hui Fei save herself? She becomes a heroine. I love that [scene in which Wong says], "I don't know what your standard of respectability is." I just love it. It was a great line, and the way she delivered it! The writers just aren't there any more. They're not there for Lucy Liu, or whatever Asian American actress is around.
Shirley: In Daughter of Shanghai, AMW costars with Philip Ahn as the two heroes of the movie, and at the end, they actually become romantically involved. How is it possible for a film like this to be made in the 1930s, with two Asian American leads who are the heroes and who become romantically involved?
Anthony Chan: It's amazing, isn't it? I mean, I think about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but that's not really a Hollywood movie, that's like an Asian movie. There's no movie like that today. When I saw that movie, I mean, Philip Ahn, he's this skinny little guy, right? He's jumping around, he's doing this Captain Kato stuff, and he's beating up the big European American guys. At the end, [Ahn and Wong are] sitting in the car next to each other, and he says to her, I'm being transferred to Washington D.C. She says-and this is so Asian, so Chinese - "Does that mean you're proposing to me?" He says, "yes," and she says, "I'll go." That's it! No kissing, no nothing, but here you have two Asian Americans actually being romantically involved, which was remarkable stuff.
Shirley: So, I guess the obvious question is, at this time, when there was so much racism against AA with the Exclusion laws, how was it possible for a movie like this to be made?
Anthony Chan: I think the times were right. She was such a big star in 1937. She had been playing since 1922, so you're looking at 15 years, and they tried to link Philip Ahn with Anna May Wong romantically outside of Hollywood, too. She was such a big star after Shanghai Express. It was just... different; there was no television, there was no real theater, so films were really one of the major vehicles of entertainment. So, why was it possible then, even when you have the Exclusion Act until 1943 and there was a lot of racism…I think the answer is, she was such a star. And remember, Hollywood was still there to make money. And she was such a star, that she was bankable. They used her. And after 1936, she wanted more positive roles.
The Daughter of Shanghai is really a wonderful movie; it's really kind of a campy movie, but there are two Asians, hitting it off! And this is a major [studio], it's Paramount - today, if you have an Asian male and Asian female hitting it off, romantically involved, what happens? It's an independent. It's not a Paramount or any other kind of film.
Shirley: Do you think that the paranoia of the time period was actually helpful in promoting Anna May Wong's fame, as it sparked interest and curiosity in Asia?
Anthony Chan: It's kind of ironic isn't it? That there's this paranoia, and yet in a lot of films this paranoia is illustrated. I can't really give you a reason why it happened, except that it happened. Why did it happen? Well, Hollywood figured it could make some money. And she was a star. I mean, look at the turnout today! [At the retrospective.]
Can [actresses] learn anything from Anna May Wong? Sure. I mean, look at the way she stands, the way she enunciates. She took political stands against a lot of things; she wrote an article called "Manchuria," which I mentioned in the book, in which she really castigates the Japanese for invading Manchuria. She was a very complex person, very rich in her personality. Lucy Liu is not rich. I mean, who is Lucy Liu? She wants to be a debutante, she wants to be a starlet. If she would say things…but she's probably got an agent who controls her. Anna May Wong had an agent but she basically controlled her own career.
There's only one Anna May Wong, and there will always be only one Anna May Wong, because she was complex, she was always learning, always willing to take risks, and after a while, she didn't really care about her career, she gave away the money - she did Bombs Over Burma, and the Lady from Chungking - she gave the money away! To the China Aid foundation. You think Lucy Liu would do that? I don't know, I have no idea, I don't even know Lucy Liu.
Shirley: In your book, you call the US "European America." Are you referring to the America of the 1920s, or of today?
Anthony Chan: It still is [European America]. The media is European American. I mean, its not Asian American, its not African American, its not Hispanic American, its European American. It's white. And, in the introduction, I talk about the using the word "white," and I decided not to use the word white, because when you think about it, the whites will call themselves whites, but they call everyone else blacks, black Americans, or Asian Americans - we're not called yellows. So I decided that since you're giving us a label, I'm gonna give you a label. And the label is this - it's not based on race or color, it's based on culture. And geography.
Therefore, instead of calling people Caucasians or whites, I call them European Americans. And in Asian American studies, there is a huge emphasis on "Chinese America." So I started thinking, Chinese America? There's got to be a European America. And if you classify European America as regions based on culture, what happens is you destroy the whole idea of superiority of whites over everyone else. You destroy the idea of dominance, you destroy the idea of hegemony. So, I don't call people Caucasian anymore, or whites. I call them European Americans. And they get pissed off.
I ask, where you from? 'Well, I'm Jewish.' Well, where you from? 'Well, I'm from Germany.' Well, is that in Europe? What about Chinese people who are born in the Netherlands, are they called Chinese? Yes! So, it's not specifically where you are born, but the regions that you come from that illustrates some cultural thing. So, those people that have ancestors in Europe, they are European Americans. Those people that have ancestors in Asia are Asian Americans. Simple as that. Geography and culture instead of race. That way, you eliminate the whole concept of dominance
So what I wanted to do was to level the playing field. So when you look at the media it's European American media - to illustrate that there's Asian American media. There's African American media.
That's where it starts, the terminology. And unless we start to do it, nobody's going to do it. We want our own media. We want our own film. We got to start referring to others as we would like to refer ourselves. So, we're called Asian Americans. Where's the Asian American media? Well, we know where the European American media is. But where do we stand? Maybe we have to do it ourselves
Shirley: What are people's reactions to your calling them "European Americans?"
Anthony Chan: They hate it. The first reviewer, Phil Hall said he really hated that term, "European American." "I'm white, I'm not European American." Well, that's what you say as a white person. I'm saying that you're European American, from my perspective, from an Asian American perspective. In other words, I'm telling you what you've always told me for many years. I'm telling you now, that you shouldn't think this way, that we're going to call you that, whether you like it or not.
I hope it really takes hold, because words really mean stuff.
APA: You've been criticized for the chapter in which you say that Anna May Wong was a Daoist. What's your reaction?
Anthony Chan: Somebody wrote a review of my book on Amazon, and one of the things he said was that Anna May Wong was a member of the Christian Scientist church - so how could she be a Daoist? See, European Americans don't understand that as a Chinese, there's no separation. You can be a Daoist, because it's a philosophy, right? And you can be a Buddhist, which could be a religion and could be a philosophy, and then you could be a Christian. It's not either/or. See, this is the problem. You're either American or you're Chinese - no, no no. Anna May Wong proves it to me. You can follow two paths. You can be Chinese American. You can be a US citizen or neither. And I surmise that she was neither.
After she left China, and she became more Daoist, and all the things she said were very Daoist. She really became Anna May Wong. There was no race, no ethnicity, no color, no nothing - there was no citizenship attached to her. And once you do that, you know what happens? You adopt your own persona. I know a lot of people are going to criticize me for the Daoist chapter, because they don't get it.
Shirley: Do you think the timing is right today for another Anna May Wong?
Anthony Chan: No. In the '20s and '30s, the world was more…forgiving. Although it was racist, and it still is racist now, but [now] its more mild; it's there, but it's more subtle. The racism was not so subtle in the '20s and '30s. European Americans are afraid of Asians. They're afraid of China.
China's a real threat to the United States, so maybe that's the reason they're kind of pushing down Asian Americans. Margaret Cho, why was her show canceled? It was canceled because the ethos of the show was white - they tried to put European American values on this Asian American sitcom. You can't do that. You see, it's easy to have shows with European American values. The values that Asian Americans have are different.
Shirley: So you actually think that the situation now is worse?
Anthony Chan: Yes. In the '20s, China was weak. I mean, there were warlords and all this business, and the Chinese Communist party was developing, and the Japanese were coming in, so they were weak. So, we can have some stars, and there's no threat to us. So, if your gonna depict the Chinese in movies, its got to be bad images. The Soviet Union used to be the bad guys; now the Chinese are the bad guys. Would there ever be a Chinese American Bill Cosby? I don't think its very promising.
You know what I think it is? You've got to have really good writers. Before this takes off, before there's an Asian American presence in cinema, there has to be really good writers, writers that don't ape after European Americans stories. It's a big question of storytelling. These guys have got to not do the stuff that people do in Hollywood; they have to do something different, varied, complex enough that people say wow, what's this? When Anna May Wong went to Europe, all these people went, "Wow, what is this?" Like an apparition, right? They were just enamored; they fell in love with her.
So, if there's gonna be an Asian American film industry, it's got to be written by Asian American writers.
What are the lessons of AMW? She's such a star. Why aren't there any [Asian American] stars today? In those days, Hollywood and Europe were willing to give her a chance.
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