By Shirley Hsu
Legendary Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961) once said she left cinema because she died too often. The first Asian American woman to become a Hollywood star, Wong seemed doomed to die tragically in nearly every role she played, whether shot by a jealous lover, accidentally impaled on a sword, or drowned in the ocean by her own hand. It seemed harmony could not be restored unless she, the foreign interloper, was killed - a potent message about the place of Chinese Americans in America during the 1920s and '30s.
And yet, onscreen, the stunning Wong commanded the camera. At 5'7", she stood several inches taller than Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932), and her charismatic manner and large, arresting eyes stole every scene from Gilda Gray in Piccadilly (1929). Again and again, she was typecast as the exotic and dangerous "dragon lady" or the innocent "lotus flower," but she brought subtlety and grace to her stereotypical roles, and attracted adoring fans from Hollywood and London to Berlin, Paris, and even Shanghai.
Now, the woman who "died a thousand deaths," as she joked, is being reborn. UCLA's twelve-feature film retrospective, titled "Rediscovering Anna May Wong," opened January 9 with the newly restored silent gem Piccadilly, and is part of a spurt of recent interest in Wong's life and works. Piccadilly, restored by the British Film Institute, played to a sold out crowd at the New York Film Festival, and will be screened in New York this weekend along with an accompanying five-film retrospective put together by the Museum of Modern Art. Three new books have been written about her life, and several documentaries on her life are in the works.
UCLA is an ideal location for the retrospective because of its extensive collection of Anna May Wong films (the largest in the country) and its large collection of films from Paramount, says Mimi Brody, UCLA film archivist who coordinated the event. "So many of Anna May Wong's films are so difficult to find on video, except for maybe Shanghai Express and Thief of Baghdad," says Brody. "Her films are very hard to see. You would have had to travel to Europe to see some of them."
The packed audience on opening night, which included a sprinkling of young people amidst the expected older crowd, shows that Wong's allure remains strong forty years after her death. "I was delighted to see so many young people [in the audience]," says Brody. "UCLA has a huge Asian population, and so I hope that students were able to rediscover her and appreciate her, and obviously they took an interest." The retrospective will end this Sunday with screenings of Java Head and Tiger Bay.
No other Asian American actress has come close to matching Anna May Wong's success. Over the span of her forty-year career, she appeared in over 60 films and starred in at least a dozen. She became the darling of Europe during her travels there in 1928; rumor had it that she was even invited to be presented to the British court (at the time, no Chinese woman had ever been introduced there). Writes Anthony Chan, author of "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong" and a lecturer at the retrospective, "She was one of the few shining stars in a European America that subordinated or dismissed the lives, labor, talents, and thoughts of Asian Americans as simply irrelevant."
Most importantly, she was able to surmount the stereotypical roles often handed to her to some degree, especially in the later years of her career. In 1937, she costarred with Philip Ann in Daughter of Shanghai, a groundbreaking film for Asian American cinema. In an unusual break from the exotic and dangerous Chinese villain, Wong and Ahn co-starred as the heroes of the day who defeat the criminals, and even end up being romantically involved - a remarkable breakthrough, considering the social taboos of the time.
Her achievement in the Paramount produced Daughter of Shanghai is even more staggering when you consider that even today, a movie starring two Asian American actors in positive roles who become romantically involved is conspicuously absent from mainstream Hollywood. Says Chan, "Today, if you have an Asian male and an Asian female hitting it off, romantically involved, what happens? It's an independent. It's not a Paramount."
The renewed interest in Wong comes at a time when Asian American cinema is jostling for its identity - sandwiched between Asian imports and mainstream Hollywood studios not quite ready to sign on APA stars. Asian American cinema remains largely in the realm of independent film. A star like Anna May Wong could be just what is needed to put APA cinema on the map.
But where are the Anna May Wongs of today?
Stars such as Nancy Kwan, Maggie Cheung, and Lucy Liu have seen some measure of her success, but no single Asian American woman has achieved Wong's prolific success and name recognition.
Most amazingly, Wong's stardom fell under one of the worst periods in history for Chinese Americans. In a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, Congress passed the Immigration Exclusion Act of 1924, effectively barring all classes of Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Chinese Americans faced special taxes levied especially for them, and they were prohibited from testifying in court against whites. The ethos of the time seemed decidedly anti-Chinese, and yet audiences couldn't get enough of Wong.
Perhaps this very paranoia and fear of the "yellow peril" helped propel Wong to stardom. Americans, both threatened and intrigued by the Chinese could satiate their curiosity in the safety of a theater seat. Brody surmises, "At this time, there was definitely a preponderance in Hollywood of this sort of naïve, exotic depictions of 'the Orient,' and these Orientalist fantasy films were in vogue in the 1920s and '30s. Certainly, there were more roles available for someone like Anna May Wong."
The screen seemed to provide a way to explore and release the anxieties of the day. Fear of miscegenation was a common theme in Wong's films, and stories that involved Wong's character becoming sexually involved with Caucasian men always ended in Wong's murder or suicide. In real life, Wong could never marry - she explained that a Chinese man would not support her film career, while law forbade marriage to a Caucasian man.
Other films more blatantly explored the fear that the "yellow peril" could be right at your doorstep, literally. In Daughter of the Dragon, Wong plays the daughter of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, who plots to fulfill her father's vendetta against the Petrie family by killing John Petrie, who happens to live conveniently next door to her.
Discrimination against Chinese Americans comes more discreetly today, and one of its subtle forms is the lack of diverse, thoughtful roles for Asian American actors and actresses. Even today, the "dragon lady" and "lotus blossom" molds are hard to break, and yet, in the 1930s, Wong did break out of these molds. In Shanghai Express, Wong plays the cool, detached Hui Fei who kills the communist rebel Henry Chang to become the heroine and makes off with twenty-thousand dollars in reward money. Wong's biographers insist that she tried to bring authenticity to her acting by studying Chinese culture. Offscreen, she used her influence to denounce the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and to raise funds for the China Aid Foundation.
Perhaps this, then, is the lesson that Wong holds for us today: that if she could succeed in the 1930s, than certainly Asian American actors and actresses can accomplish the same today. Next year marks Wong's centennial, underscoring the disturbing reality that nearly a century after the star's birth, no Asian American actress has taken her place.
In 1936, Wong was passed over for the prized role of O-lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, a role which she coveted. When the role went to German-born Luise Rainer, who performed with a cast of other Caucasian actors in "yellowface" makeup, a disillusioned Wong left Hollywood again, this time bound for China. Her journey was recorded on film and years later, narrated by Wong on the television program "Bold Journey: Native Land" (1957). During her visit, Wong was berated by the Chinese government for portraying the Chinese in a negative light, but also treated to a hero's welcome in many locales. Wong later recalled the elaborate, forty-course meals she was treated to, and the gazes of wonderment from many locals who had previously believed she wasn't real - that she existed only on film.
The cameras follow as Wong tours her ancestral lands. She is radiant, smiling at the camera as she explores the open-air markets and climbs the steps to a Buddhist temple. She rides in a rickshaw and is dressed in a traditional chi pao she ordered upon arrival, tailor-made with fabric she chose. Finally, it is time for the long awaited reunion with her father, who had moved back to China many years ago. As she joyfully reunites with him, she is, for a moment, neither Chinese, nor American; she is no longer the exotic temptress, the submissive lotus flower, the femme fatale or the freewheeling flapper. She is only Anna May Wong - and that was the secret to her success.