The conflicted career of actress Anna May Wong

March 15, 2006

The conflicted career of actress Anna May Wong

Sunday, February 26, 2006

AMERICA was founded by explorers and built by pioneers and we continue to salute their spirit. Inventors, innovators, iconoclasts — these have always been our heroes, whether their adventures took place along a dusty wagon trail or in a New Jersey laboratory.

What isn’t often written about is how lonely being first can be.

Anna May Wong was born of two cultures, and made singular strides in both of them. As a young Chinese woman, she broke with timeless tradition to pursue an independent life and career. As a young American actress, she broke the Hollywood color line to establish herself as a sex symbol and star. She blazed trails.

Yet her successes were bittersweet. Her family viewed her fame with suspicion, at best. Her Hollywood bosses stereotyped her as a China Doll, or Dragon Lady. The Chinese press mocked her as a sell-out. And although her career spanned more than 40 years, when she died in 1961, at 56, she was largely forgotten.

Lately, she’s been remembered.

Two years ago, “Piccadilly,” a 1929 silent and one of her best films, was restored and re-released and “Anna May Wong,” a popular biography, was published. At least two documentaries about Wong’s life are in production and beginning March 4, the Museum of the Moving Image begins a seven-week retrospective of her films, including many rare and restored titles.

It is an overdue appreciation.

“I think what she says now to us is different from what she seemed to say in the ’70s, when she was seen as a dupe of Hollywood,” says Shirley Jennifer Lim, whose books include “A Feeling of Belonging: Asian-American Women’s Public Culture” and an upcoming study of Wong and Josephine Baker. “Today, people see her as being a much more complex figure … Even though there were gender and racial stereotypes, her characters still had power.”

Born in California in 1905, to a family that had come to America during the first Gold Rush, Wong grew up in Los Angeles, where her father owned a laundry. Prosperous enough to be able to live outside of Chinatown and send his children to good schools, Wong Sam Sing expected a family of dutiful daughters and ambitious sons.

Anna May turned out to be a surprise.

In love with the movies from an early age, she cut classes to sneak off for the latest chapter of “The Perils of Pauline.” By 12 — already demurely pretty, with a heart-shaped face and graceful hands — she was modeling for local department stores. She got her break two years later, when Metro Pictures — still years away from the mergers that would make it MGM — came to Chinatown to shoot location sequences for “The Red Lantern.” The teenage Wong begged her way into some extra work.

Her career had begun.

“She was a quick learner,” says biographer Graham Russell Gao Hodges, who writes of how that first movie crew dubbed her CCC — for Curious Chinese Child. “She had watched Alla Nazimova on ‘The Red Lantern,’ so she was aware of Method acting long before Strasberg. She knew how to put herself forth and she was strikingly beautiful. There was something uncanny about her.”

Wong soon moved on to bigger parts, and bigger movies. She was the star of “The Toll of the Sea,” a new version of “Madame Butterfly”; she was the duplicitous Mongol slave in Douglas Fairbanks’ epic “The Thief of Baghdad,” one of the silent era’s best-remembered hits.

Yet the two roles summed up the actress’ limited options. She could play the victim, and end tragically; she could play the villainess, and end badly. It was a pattern that Hollywood would later repeat with other minorities, as it grudgingly made room for African-American actors in the ’50s, or started featuring gay characters in the ’60s. It was as if some silent bargain had been made with the bigots; you let us put these people on screen, and we’ll be sure they suffer.

The bias was even more painful, and personal, offscreen.

“The young Chinese-Americans born in the U.S., who lived in L.A., they would report seeing her in her fur coats, looking every inch the movie star, our movie star,” says Lim, an associate professor of history at SUNY-Stony Brook. “But to the older generation, being an actress was not that many steps above being a prostitute. And although the money from her films supported Wong’s family, even put her brothers through college, they were somewhat ashamed of her.”

There was institutionalized prejudice as well, racist edicts that effectively kept this third-generation American a second-class citizen.

“At the time, the law prohibited her from marrying a white man,” says Hodges, a professor of history at Colgate University. “The law also essentially prohibited her from marrying a citizen of another country — if she did, she lost her own citizenship … And the chance of her marrying an Asian-American and still continuing her career as an actress was highly unlikely.”

Wong — who stayed single, but had affairs with several filmmakers, including “Dracula” director Tod Browning — could do little to change her family’s opinions, or the laws. But she did what she could to change the culture.

Even when the parts she was given were mere stereotypes, Wong insisted on culturally appropriate hairstyles, costumes and attitudes. Even faced with filmmakers who knew little of Asia, Wong showed them choreography from the Cantonese troupes she had seen as a child, or suggested bits of folklore for the scripts. Onscreen, she tried to make her characters as authentically Chinese as she could.

Offscreen, she lived her life as a modern American woman, enjoying Jazz Age music and fashion. If the fan magazines of the period liked to use her for an easy, condescending laugh — more than one marveled at an Asian-American who spoke in the slang of a flapper — Wong was clever enough to use them, too. She posed in stylish, Western clothes, and gave frank interviews about the censorship that prohibited her from kissing a white actor on screen.

Yet as hard as she worked, her career seemed stalled. There was a certain amount of fame, to be sure, and money, but the parts were often window-dressing, Chinatown characters inserted to give the film a bit of “atmosphere.” “Mr. Wu,” a new Lon Chaney film about an interracial romance, seemed promising, but Wong only got a supporting part; the lead went to a white actress in “Oriental” makeup. The next year, Wong left for Europe. She was 23.

“I think I left America for Europe because I was tired of dying so often,” she said later. “Pathetic dying seemed to be the best thing I did.”

She was talking, ostensibly, about the melodramas that invariably required her to exit the movie in time for the white actress to get the man. But she was also dying a little emotionally, still living behind her family’s laundry, under her father’s eye. She was also dying a little spiritually, forever stuck in the role of exotic curiosity.

Europe, however, offered a second life. In Germany, in 1928, she made “Song,” a tragic romantic-triangle drama which gave her several dancing numbers and a white co-star. In England, the next year, she starred in “Piccadilly,” a backstage melodrama. Even as the plots retained much of the same defeatist East-is-East nonsense that Wong had faced in Hollywood, they were huge leaps forward for her as an actress.

Wong was making her own leaps forward as a person too, living her own life in sophisticated Europe. She developed a taste for cocktails, and late-night parties. Chummy pictures of her with Marlene Dietrich in Berlin suggest she may have developed a fondness for pretty women, too.

“The ’20s produced the modern woman,” says Hodges, who says he could neither prove nor disprove the rumors of bisexuality. “Anna May lived up to that and pushed the boundaries even further.”

After two years, however, Wong returned home, eager to capitalize on her European successes. She had a Broadway hit on “On the Spot,” an Edgar Wallace thriller; she teamed with Dietrich in 1932 for the ultra-stylish “Shanghai Express,” making an impression as the determined Hui Fei. It was, notably, the first time since she had played Tiger Lily in the 1925 “Peter Pan” that her character survived the picture. Wong was poised for the next opportunity.

It never came.

There was a good part waiting for her in “The Son-Daughter,” based on a David Belasco play. It went to Helen Hayes. There was a new version being planned of “Madame Butterfly.” The studio wanted Sylvia Sidney. Even less prestigious films were considered too important for Wong; the leading female role in “The Hatchet Man,” a Tong thriller, went to Loretta Young. (Edward G. Robinson, of all people, was cast as the Chinatown assassin.)

The ugly fact remained that, although Hollywood had been shamed into nearly abandoning blackface, “yellowface” was still considered appropriate. (It almost still is — as recently as the early ’80s, Peter Ustinov was starring in a Charlie Chan movie and Peter Sellers was ending his career playing Fu Manchu.) “It went on for years,” says Lim. “You see Mickey Rooney in ‘Breakfast at Tiffanys,’ or pictures of Shirley MacLaine in geisha makeup, and you think it can’t be … It has a lot to do with the way Asian-Americans are racialized, seen as foreigners.”

For Wong, the final insult came in 1936 with “The Good Earth,” MGM’s epic adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck novel about Chinese peasant life. The role of O-Lan, the persevering heroine, was one Wong longed to play; the studio preferred the German actress Luise Rainer. Perhaps if Wong was interested, the studio said, she might be right for Lotus, the little flirt who leads poor O-Lan’s husband astray.

Wong turned them down, and not quietly either.

“If you let me play O-Lan I will be very glad,” she reportedly told production chief Irving Thalberg. “But you are asking me, with my Chinese blood, to play the only unsympathetic role in the picture.” It was bad enough, she said, to have Caucasians playing Asian heroes. But to cast an Asian as the sole villain was simply too much. MGM, unmoved, simply cast all the principal roles with Caucasians. (The Chinese actors they tested, a white executive later explained, didn’t look Chinese enough.)

Wong would never be offered another part in an MGM movie, or even another big film; she finished out the ’30s in smaller movies at Warners and Paramount and then slid further to Poverty Row studios like PRC. To add insult to injury, her sacrifices went unappreciated; the Chinese press harped incessantly on the “dishonor” she had brought on her people by playing disreputable characters.

If the criticism had any effect, it only spurred Wong to redouble her efforts. If her new films were often crudely made, at least her characters were brave and capable (she plays a doctor in “King of Chinatown,” a guerilla in “Lady from Chunking”). Offscreen, she became a tireless wartime fundraiser, even auctioning off her gowns to raise money for Chinese refugees.

Without a studio contract, though, she had no regular source of roles, and once the war ended, there was no need for movies trumpeting the heroic Chinese people. By 1949, China was Communist, and once again the enemy, and Anna Mae Wong was middle-aged. There were a few TV spots, and one final movie, “Portrait in Black,” in 1960. Wong played the maid. She died the next year. Her family did not mark the grave.

“It had been two decades since her last major appearance,” says Hodges. “But she had made good investments, she owned a home in Santa Monica, and when she died, she left an estate of $100,000. I think she did drink a lot, especially toward the end. There was always a depressive quality about her. But she didn’t fall apart, like some of the silent stars. The contrast with someone like Louise Brooks, who truly lived a tragic life, is striking.”

It is true that, by many standards, the story of Anna May Wong is a happy one. The daughter of a laundryman, she grew up to travel, meet important people and find some fame as a performer. A proud Chinese-American, she helped both countries during World War II, and when she left the screen, it was with a nice home, money in the bank and her self-respect. Even her most critical Chinese relatives — or dismissive American employers — would have to acknowledge that she had been a genuine success, and a true pioneer.

But like the most daring of pioneers, she lived and died alone. And if there is a true tragedy, it is that so many of the people who followed don’t even realize they’re walking a trail she blazed.

You can contact film critic Stephen Whitty at (212) 286-4298 or at

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