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date: 22 September 2017

Anna May Wong and Asian American Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905–February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Wong broke the codes of yellowface in both American and European cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. She made close to sixty films that circulated around the world and in 1951 starred in her own television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the defunct Dumont Network. Examining Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because of race’s centrality to the motion pictures’ construction of the modern American nation-state, as well as its significance within the global circulation of moving images.

Born near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong began acting in films at an early age. During the silent era, she starred in films such as The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first two-tone Technicolor films, and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Frustrated by Hollywood roles, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several films and plays, including Piccadilly (1929) and A Circle of Chalk (1929) opposite Laurence Olivier. Wong traveled between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In 1935 she protested Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the Academy Award–winning film The Good Earth (1937). Wong then paid her one and only visit to China. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B films such as King of Chinatown (1939), graced the cover of the mass-circulating American magazine Look, and traveled to Australia. In 1961, Wong died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically stemming from alcoholism. Yet, as her legacy shows, for a brief moment a glamorous Chinese American woman occupied a position of transnational importance.

Keywords: race, film, Chinese Americans in entertainment, Anna May Wong, Asian Americans, popular culture, glamour, Europe, global cinema, Chinese Exclusion Act

Throughout her international career, Anna May Wong grappled with how to present racial difference. She struggled for roles as Chinese women against European American actresses in yellowface such as Myrna Loy, Katherine Hepburn, and Luise Rainer. As an Asian American, there was nothing authentically “oriental” about the very American Wong. Yet, decades before the civil rights category of “Asian American” existed, Wong had to figure out how to be an Asian American actress.

She was born at 351 Flower Street in Los Angeles, the second daughter of two American-born working-class people (her father was a laundryman) of Chinese descent. Cutting classes at Los Angeles High School in order to frequent the back lots of Hollywood movie studios, she began her career as an extra in Alla Nazimova’s classic film The Red Lantern (1919). She landed her first starring role in the two-tone Technicolor film Toll of the Sea, two-tone Technicolor being an early technology in color film. Noted female screenwriter Frances Marion wrote the script. Wong’s well-received role in Toll of the Sea led to one of national prominence—she played the Mongol slave in actor Douglas Fairbanks’s film The Thief of Baghdad. At an early age, Wong established herself as an important ingénue in Hollywood.

Historical Background

Examining Anna May Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because motion pictures placed race at the center of the modern American nation-state. Cinema emerged at a key moment of racialized anxiety. Early 20th-century U.S. orientalisms created a tremendous demand for films with Asian themes and locales. Made famous by literary scholar Edward Said, the term orientalism refers to Europe’s long-standing fascination with the Middle East, which it used it as a mirror for its own desires and ambitions. Building upon that European orientalism, U.S. orientalism geographically shifted its focus from the Middle East to the eastern Pacific. U.S. orientalism was the product of European-derived orientalism joined to the myth of the American frontier. According to the frontier myth, American national formation was unique because class-based conflict could be solved by the promise of economic opportunity in the “empty” lands in the West. As the U.S. nation-state borders reached the Pacific Ocean, historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously lamented that the United States had lost its frontier and thus its basis for class harmony. Colonizing the Pacific (the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam) through American imperialism imaginatively extended the function of the American West as a safety valve for class conflict into the Pacific. In addition, it compelled the migration of workers from Asia to the United States and its territories. All of these political and cultural issues meant that American orientalism propelled Wong’s cinematic career, which can be seen as a process of contesting and accommodating various forms of orientalism. In cinema as well as in journalism and the arts, American orientalism took the form of the yellow peril, namely the fear of Asian migration and the concomitant hordes of Asians taking over the United States.

Wong’s work was particularly important because of the role of Chinese Americans in American society. The Chinese served as the primary undesired American immigrant group. The exclusion of all other immigrant groups, Asian and otherwise, resulted from that precedent. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first American immigration act to bar a group by name. Moreover, American immigration acts and laws demonized Chinese American women in particular. The 1875 Page Law, which supposedly restricted the immigration of Chinese male and female workers and felons, in reality curtailed the immigration only of Chinese women. Although the 1922 Cable Act stripped all American women of their citizenship if they married Asian-immigrant men (aliens ineligible for citizenship), because of skewed sex-ratio demographics that resulted in chiefly male Chinese migration, the act applied primarily to Chinese American women.

Orientalism manifested itself in films of the 1920s such as Old San Francisco (1927) and Fu Manchu films. Marked by a strong Americanization movement, World War I set the tone for the xenophobia of the ensuing decades. Thus Old San Francisco, in which Anna May Wong played a nameless Chinese girl, showed the sinister aspects of racial difference. Genre movies such as the Fu Manchu series that highlighted “orientals” as decadent, savage, and nonmodern worked in tandem with legal cases such as Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) that situated Asians as nonwhites within the American racial landscape. Both U.S. Supreme Court decisions invoked the “common” understanding of race as ruling that Asians were nonwhites; that common understanding of race had derived in part from movies like the Fu Manchu series. Within this 1920s racial framework, Wong’s options as an actress were limited. Yellowface, the playing of Asian roles by white actors made up to look Asian, was prevalent throughout the 20th century. Hollywood orientalism and yellowface in particular could simultaneously conjure up and ameliorate racial anxieties if and only if actual Asian American bodies were banned. Thus it was almost impossible for Hollywood to actually embody Asian characters on screen using an Asian American body; instead Hollywood relied on yellowface.

Europe

Like other racial minority performing artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Sessue Hayakawa, and Josephine Baker, Wong traveled to Europe because limited Hollywood roles discouraged her. As her American national citizenship was frequently lost within non-nationally specific categories of the “oriental,” she functioned as an ambiguous representative of European empires. Working in London, Berlin, and Paris during the height of imperialism, she represented the desired female colonial body as well as the forbidden dark sexual “other.” Wong went to Europe in 1928 because director Richard Eichberg cast her in films such as Song (also titled Show Life and Schmutziges Geld [1928]) and Hai-Tang (also called Flame of Love and The Road to Dishonour [1930]) that were co-produced in Germany, France, and England and subtitled or shot in multiple languages so that they could be screened throughout Europe and, most crucially, the colonial world (for instance, Australia, Mozambique, and South Africa); hence the multiple titles for the same film. Thus Wong became a transnational symbol of racialized femininity, and through her star persona, a new pan-European cinema construed more broadly as global cinema could be created. She was an ideal product for pan-European cinema because she could combine exoticism with modern American cultural traits, thereby avoiding the limitations of being identified with any particular European nation-state.

While in Europe, Wong acquired key cultural credentials. She gained upper-class social skills and acting polish that, upon her return to the United States, would win her a broader repertoire of starring theater and film roles. After European theater critics decried her American twang, she invested in elocution lessons in order to master an upper-class British accent. Later, to lend distinction to her work, she invoked traces of that accent in her movie parts. In addition, she learned French and German, utilizing her German to act in films such as Pavement Butterfly and to sing in the Viennese opera Springtime. Working in theater, Wong earned star billing over her costar, famed British actor Laurence Olivier, in A Circle of Chalk. For private acting lessons, she sought out theater legends like Kate Rork and Mabel Terry Lewis. Living the life of an upper-class socialite, she met the Prince of Wales, and her elegance stopped Parliament when she sauntered into the visitor’s gallery. Numerous periodicals featured Wong while she was in London, resulting in cover photographs on the society magazines Tatler and Sketch.

In the 1930s, Wong starred in vaudeville variety shows throughout Europe in which she depicted not only Chinese roles but mixed-race ones as well. She performed not just in the capital cities but also in regional ones ranging from Goteburg, Sweden, to Blackpool, England. In her routine, Wong would combine dramatic sketches with song and dance. For example, in Goteburg she performed eight numbers: “Jasmine Flower (Old Chinese Folk Song),” “Parlez-Moi D’Amour,” “A Swedish Girl,” “Ingenue,” “Dragon Dance,” “Half-Caste Woman,” “Street Girl (a monologue from the film Shanghai Express),” and an encore number. As Wong herself stated, one of the appeals of doing vaudeville was that she could change the numbers depending on their popularity and on the intended audience. Nonetheless, no matter how the show was changed up, it is evident that she played a variety of roles and races, an exercise that could move her from Chinese to French to “half-caste” with only a change of costume.

United States

Wong’s 1931 return to the United States marked a turning point in her status in the American entertainment industry. The newfound power conferred by her European training allowed her to headline a Broadway theater production (On the Spot) and to reenter Hollywood with more options, especially since “talkie” movies meant that her voice would be central to her work. Not only did her training win her Hollywood roles, but for the next few years she would travel between Europe and Hollywood, since she remained in great demand in English movies. Her British-inflected upper-class tones gave her vocal authority while playing characters such as that of a surgeon in King of Chinatown. Her stylish mode of dress set fashion trends around the world and ensured that while she was on the screen or the stage, all eyes would be focused on her. And that newfound power aided her efforts to control her image.

Contrasting Anna May Wong with the Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa shows how she was construed as modern and Western. Often compared to silent movie legend Rudolph Valentino, Hayakawa had expressive facial gestures and a smoldering sexuality that ensured the success of silent movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1919). The fan magazine Motion Picture Magazine showed how Wong’s and Hayakawa’s cultural differences were popularly understood:

Sessue Hayakawa smokes Japanese cigarettes, has Japanese people around him, talks with a completely bewildering Japanese accent, looks oriental, and above all thinks with the oriental attitude. “Never make plan,” say Sessue with his difficult accent. “Never plan ahead.” Anna May, with Western verbosity, is more explicit in expressing her philosophy.

As the passage shows, the Asian American stars had divergent cultural careers in the 1930s, even though both worked in Europe. The quoted comparison shows the popular belief that Wong was far more modern and Westernized than Hayakawa. The article emphasized her mastery of European languages, including the English accent, as well as her films in Europe. The article further racially differentiated the two:

She is glad to be back.

She went away a Chinese flapper—and now many tell her that she no longer even looks Oriental.

He [Sessue Hayakawa] has remained completely Oriental.1

Hayakawa’s foreign appeal served him well in the late 1910s and early 1920s, but not in the 1930s. In a political climate hostile to immigrants, exemplified by the 1924 Immigration Act, it is not surprising that the article showed American-born Wong in a far more positive light than immigrant Hayakawa. This passage shows how the inscrutable and unintelligible male “Oriental” was not as palatable as the hybrid, cosmopolitan, and Westernized female.

Demonstrating the importance of accent to demarcating modern culture, the contrast in their speaking voices was starkly apparent in a 1931 movie that starred both Wong and Hayakawa: Daughter of the Dragon. In Daughter, Wong’s clear diction made all of her lines intelligible, whereas Hayakawa’s thick accent made him difficult to comprehend. As was the case with many other movie actors, in the talking era Hayakawa’s unacceptable voice overshadowed the memorable facial gestures that served him so well in the silent era.

Although critics praised Wong’s lovely voice, she castigated Daughter for its negative depictions of the Chinese. In an interview by Doris Mackie for Film Weekly entitled “I Protest,” Wong asked:

Why is the screen Chinese always the villain of the piece? And so crude a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than that of the West? . . . I get so weary of it all—of the scenarist’s conception of Chinese character, that I told myself I was done with films for ever. You remember Fu Manchu? Daughter of the Dragon? So wicked.2

Although Wong quickly reentered the movie industry, Daughter of the Dragon marked her last “wicked” film role. Throughout her career, she not only protested what she considered to be inappropriate representations of Chinese ethnicity but also did everything within her power to create her own counterinterpretations.

Even though Wong had worked to create herself as culturally Western through her voice and dress, such traits did not ensure free migration through the exercise of her legal American citizenship. Despite her travels to Europe, she was still denied the right to cross borders at will. In an era that banned Chinese immigration, Wong had to file travel papers upon leaving the United States so that she could prove her citizenship. On one occasion, journeying from California to New York, she disembarked at the Detroit train station to chat with friends. When she attempted to reembark on the train, Canadian immigration officials refused to let her back on, for the train passed through Canada on its way to New York. She was forced to spend the night in Detroit in order to take a train routed through the United States. Like U.S. immigration laws, Canadian ones discriminated against people of Chinese descent. Thus Wong’s cultural and legal citizenship did not always convince those who enforced the laws.

The 1930s gains in “positive” portrayals in racialized cinema were paradoxically assisted by the 1934 Hays Code, which not only prohibited interracial sexual relations, but also forbade ethnic typecasting. Section 5 cautioned against the use of ethnic slurs: “The Production Code Administration may take cognizance of the fact that the following words and phrases are obviously offensive to patrons of the motion pictures in the United States and more particularly to the patrons of motion pictures in foreign countries.” The code then listed common derogatory racial and ethnic slurs that were not to be used in films. Thus the code encouraged movies more palatable to ethnic Americans and international audiences. Chinese American actors and actresses noticed the difference that the Hays Code made in their movie parts. According to oral history interviews, Chinese American actors of the era remembered their roles improving in the mid-1930s. When Keye Luke, who played Charlie Chan’s number one son, reminisced about his movie career, he noted that his roles changed in the mid-1930s to those of good guys.

The Sino-Japanese War, triggered in 1931 by Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, resulted in greater sympathy for China and Chinese Americans. The United States sided with China, which also signaled a turn in race portrayals. Thus in the 1930s, as the United States developed the image of China as a good ally, “orientals” became ethnically specific. In films, Chinese and Chinese Americans gained an identity distinct from that of the Japanese. The changing status of China boosted the value of Wong’s portrayals of Chinese patriotism.

In the late 1930s, Wong starred in three Paramount Studio films, King of Chinatown, Daughter of Shanghai (1937), and Island of Lost Men (1939), that cast her in breakthrough roles as American professional women. In King of Chinatown, the audience first glimpses Wong putting down her surgical implements and taking off her cap and mask after a successful emergency room operation. King of Chinatown underscores the professional competence of Wong’s character, Dr. Mary Ling, for immediately after the surgery, the San Francisco Bay Area hospital director offers her the position of resident surgeon. In tones tinged with her upper-class British accent, Wong politely declines the prestigious appointment because she wishes to raise money to bring medical supplies to China to combat the Japanese invasion. Flashing her trademark smile, she gracefully strides across the room, the skirt and blouse concocted by Paramount Studio’s designer-to-the-stars Edith Head highlighting her all-American modern professionalism.

Adding to her national fame during these Paramount Studio years as the “World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl,” Wong graced the cover of the March 1938 issue of Look magazine. This cover crowned her status as an American icon. Founded in 1937, Look at the time boasted a circulation of two million and a price of ten cents an issue. The pages devoted to Wong highlighted her glamour, clothing, and, not surprisingly, given the title’s reference to her beauty, her physical charms. The captions and photographs displayed both her Chinese ethnicity and her American citizenship. The photo spread included the famous photograph of Wong flanked by German actresses Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. Although the sensationalized cover depicted Wong with a dagger and a sinister expression on her face, the inside of the magazine showed a more complex range of her work and life. Such fame was the result of her decades-long struggles to gain leverage in her movie career. Not until 1958 would another Asian American motion picture actress, France Nuyen, adorn the cover of a nationally circulating popular American magazine. With the cover of Look magazine as well as numerous articles and features on her that appeared throughout her career, Wong secured the attention not only of her Chinese American community but also of the general American public.

Wong’s European-inflected glamour conferred elite status upon her star iconography, which translated into class elevation in her movie roles. In the 1930s, in her public life as well as in her screen persona, Wong cultivated sophisticated Europeanized femininity. Her fashion savvy was recognized in 1934 when the Mayfair Mannequin Society voted her the best-dressed woman in the world. Because of her introduction of the coolie and mandarin hats in London and Paris, fashion experts in London, New York, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and Stockholm ranked her the most sophisticated woman on both sides of the Atlantic. Wong did not merely reflect current fashion trends; she determined them.

Asian American Popular Culture

Although charisma, determination, and favorable historical circumstances allowed Wong to become a star, she did not do so in a vacuum. From the 1920s through World War II, Los Angeles’s Chinatown had a special relationship to Hollywood and thus to the nation. Since movies were not filmed on location in Asia but in Southern California, Hollywood tapped into the Chinese American community as the source for actors and actresses. Within a modern nation-state predicated upon wholeness, Chinatowns function as supposedly “authentic” other nations within the nation. As a representative of that alternative nation, Wong embodied “authentic” Chineseness. However, given that the 1882 Chinese immigration exclusion act stymied free migration for people of Chinese descent, Wong and the Chinese Americans who inhabited Los Angeles’s Chinatown did not have personal knowledge of China but gained it through their work on Hollywood movie sets. Beautifully demonstrating the paradoxes within the construction of race, the knowledge the Chinese American extras gained from their film work was presented to audiences as “authentically” Chinese. Just as it did for mainstream Americans, the movies allowed Chinese Americans to “understand” Chinese culture. In her article “Night Call in Chinatown,” Chinese American journalist Louise Leung Larson reported that thousands of Chinese Americans learned how to braid their hair into queues and to wear Chinese peasant costumes while on the set of The Good Earth. Such an understanding gained from the movie sets highlighted how culturally American those extras really were. Yet, like Wong, courtesy of their race they performed Chineseness for American audiences.

Thus Wong emerged out of a specific racialized performance community. Growing up in Los Angeles just outside Chinatown and Hollywood, she and many other Chinese Americans capitalized on early cinema’s fascination with race and otherness. What is unique about the Los Angeles Chinese American community is the degree to which almost the entire population was involved in the motion picture industry. Hollywood studios recruited extras—often thousands—from Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Numerous members of the community were part of Chinese American Hollywood, forming a branch of the Chinese Screen Actors Extras Guild and developing community networks for finding jobs in Hollywood. Chinese Americans in Los Angeles could supplement their Depression-era incomes by working as extras in these movies about China. With the improved Sino-American relations in the 1930s, movies like The Good Earth and The General Died at Dawn (1936) marked an upsurge in the recruitment of Asian American actors and actresses. In fact, so many movies were made about China that every person in Los Angeles’s Chinatown who wanted a role could take one, and movie producers were forced to cast in Northern California.

The Chinese American community of Los Angeles knew Wong as the most famous Asian American actress of her day. The community admired her for her filial piety, local ties, and China War Relief efforts. Despite her father’s disapproval of her career, Wong put her brothers through college and stressed the importance of education.

As someone who gained her livelihood through the performing arts, Wong was by no means unusual among Chinese American women. For example, cabaret performer Rose Yuen Ow’s life story exhibits striking parallels to Wong’s. Defying San Francisco Chinatown’s behavioral norms, teenaged Ow first sold tickets at a movie theater, then passed out refreshments at San Francisco’s largest cabaret, the Tait Cafe. Acting upon her boss’s jest, Ow mastered the foxtrot, waltz, and cakewalk. Maneuvering her boss into making good on his jest, she eventually ballroom danced at the cabaret for two hundred dollars a week. Raymond Hitchcock brought the “Chung and Rosie Moy” novelty show to New York; then the Chinese American dancers continued to work the vaudeville circuit around the United States. The success of other contemporary performers, such as Dorothy Siu in the circus and the dancers in the Forbidden City USA nightclub, show audiences’ interest in Chinese American performance. The foreign image of the Chinese Americans drew European American audiences to the paradox of “orientals” imitating American song and dance. In other words, it is because Chinese Americans had been racially constructed as foreign and non-American that their performance of modern American culture proved so striking.

Pacific Travels

China

In the 1930s, Asia, especially China, loomed large in the American imagination, and Hollywood made films to work through those fantasies and anxieties. Although that did result in Wong’s gaining leading roles, she fought continually against the yellowface typecasting that placed European Americans in starring roles. Indeed, her failure to land a major part in The Good Earth was the main reason why she decided to travel to China and to make her own film of that trip. From the outset, in 1935, it was widely known that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) intended The Good Earth to be an important film, for it had been allocated one of the largest budgets in cinematic history, two million dollars. As a film about resilient Chinese peasants, The Good Earth was created in order to resonate with Depression-era American audiences. It has been argued that the book was a major impetus for shifting American opinions from demonizing the Chinese to allying with them during the Sino-Japanese war (1931–1945), especially after its author, Pearl S. Buck, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938. To many, Wong was the logical choice for the leading role of O-lan. However, MGM thwarted Wong’s hopes of starring in an A film feature by casting Luise Rainer, the European actress who would land back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Actress, including one for O-lan. MGM invited Wong to screen test as Lotus, the second wife who ruins the family. Wong reportedly repudiated the role because she did not want to be the only Chinese American in a leading role enacting the film’s only negative character. As she stated in the Los Angeles Times:

I'll be glad to take a test, but I won't play the part. If you let me play O-lan, I'll be very glad. But you're asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.3

Wong took a number of screen tests for the “unsympathetic” part of Lotus. However, Austrian actress Tilly Loesch won the role.

Reports surfaced that MGM did not offer Wong the part because she looked too old. Wong’s inability to gain a role in such a high-profile movie is significant, for it would have increased her visibility in Hollywood. Her articulation of the negative meaning that would attach to her playing the role of Lotus demonstrates her conscious decision-making about the way she wished to shape her image as a professional actress. Given the limited number of cinematic acting parts for actresses of any race, it could be considered a bold move to denounce a major Hollywood studio in the press. Her Los Angeles Times condemnation of playing the role of Lotus echoed the 1931 interview titled “I Protest,” in which she denounced evil portrayals of the Chinese in Daughter of the Dragon. Between five hundred and two thousand Chinese American actors from Los Angeles worked as extras on The Good Earth, including Wong’s sister, Mary, but not Los Angeles’s most famous Chinese American actress.

After the major disappointment of losing the role she coveted in The Good Earth, Wong announced plans for a year-long tour of China to visit her father and his family in Taishan. Wong’s father had returned to his hometown in China with her younger brothers and sister in 1934. In addition, Wong wanted to learn more about the Chinese theater. She told the San Francisco Chronicle upon her departure, “For a year, I shall study the land of my fathers. Perhaps upon my arrival, I shall feel like an outsider. Perhaps instead, I shall find my past life assuming a dreamlike quality of unreality.” Wong departed for China in January 1936 and chronicled her experiences in a series of articles printed in such U.S. newspapers as the New York Herald Tribune.

During her travels in China, Wong continued to be strongly criticized by the Chinese Nationalist government and the local film community. She had difficulty communicating in many areas of the country because she was raised speaking the Taishan dialect rather than Mandarin. With her father and her siblings, Wong visited his family and his first wife at the family’s ancestral home near Taishan. Conflicting reports claim that she was either warmly welcomed or met with hostility by the villagers. She spent over ten days in the family’s village, and some time in neighboring villages, before continuing her tour of China. After returning to Hollywood, Wong reflected on her year in China and her career in Hollywood: “I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese Theatre. I have no feeling for it. It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I'm ‘too American’ and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.”

Australia

Wong’s final major international journey brought her back across the Pacific, this time to Australia in 1939. Fascination with Wong there was so great that Fox Movietones Australia, mainstream newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald, and Australian magazines covered her visit. Chinese Australians in particular showed great devotion, with fans meeting her when she arrived, writing her letters, and demanding her autograph throughout her stay. This visit is particularly interesting because, with its significant Chinese laboring population, Australia offered a settler-colonial racial dynamic analogous to that of the West Coast of the United States.

Wong was brought to Australia to perform on the Tivoli Theatre circuit in Sydney and Melbourne in a vaudeville act she had perfected in Europe, in which she depicted not only Chinese roles but mixed-race ones as well. When she arrived in Australia, she was in the twilight of her career. She had completed the majority of the films she was to make and had been a vaudeville star throughout Europe and a theatrical actress in the United States and England. Her glamour had been well established worldwide. Examination of the regional Australian press makes it clear that her films had wide circulation there. As reviews and publicity notices published in newspapers around the country show, almost all of her major films, including recent hits such as When Were You Born (1939) and King of Chinatown, played throughout Australia.

With the advent of U.S. involvement in World War II, Wong’s starring-role film work ended, and like her movie character Dr. Mary Ling in King of Chinatown, she retired from the motion picture industry to dedicate herself to the China War Relief effort. Reflecting greater American war participation, Paramount Studios chiefly financed war-genre movies that employed male leading characters. Paramount publicized an auction of Wong’s movie and personal wardrobe that benefited the China Relief fund. As befits a hometown legend, in Los Angeles’s Chinatown Wong raised money for Chinese War Bonds by signing autographs in exchange for donations to China Relief.

Wong’s and the Chinese American community’s efforts to publicize their patriotic enthusiasm both for China and for the United States were successful. In 1943 favoring China at the expense of Japan resulted in the United States’ rescinding the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act by granting China an immigration quota of 105. The cinematic valorization of China alongside China’s alliance with the Allied Powers during World War II solidified the relations between China and the United States.

Though Wong retired from the film industry, she continued her work in theater and vaudeville. In 1943 she starred in Cambridge Summer Theater’s play The Willow Tree. Though she professed her willingness to continue working as a film actress, studios employed her as a consultant instead. Like many other motion picture actresses and actors, she entertained the troops during World War II, performing up and down the coast of Alaska.

Wong was not the only major movie actress to retire during World War II. Other foreign and “ethnic” actresses including Greta Garbo, Dolores del Rio, and Lupe Velez ended their careers in Hollywood at the same time. For Asian American actresses who played roles as supporting actresses and extras, the war years marked a long hiatus in Asian American cinematic opportunities. Focused on masculinity in crisis, the war genre chiefly employed Chinese American men, not women. This was a marked departure from Hollywood of the thirties, where Wong starred in movies and other Chinese American women, such as Soo Yung, Iris Wong, and Lotus Long, found employment as well.

After World War II

The Pacific War, the “fall” of China to communism in 1949, and the changing imperatives of a Cold War world remasculinized political culture so that Wong’s female roles were no longer valued; it also reinvoked old racial divisions. Wong did not resume her international career in Europe, she never returned to Australia, and she never revisited China. Instead she remained in the United States and sporadically played minor roles like that of Lana Turner’s maid in Portrait in Black (1960). She never married or had children; in 1961 she died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically connected to alcoholism.

Anna May Wong’s struggles as the first Asian American actress to play roles of women of Asian descent exemplify politicized power struggles over race, gender, and performance. Her negotiations between her Chinese and Western identities showed the limitations of and opportunities for racial minority women working in Hollywood. Her life story shows us the appeal as well as the pitfalls of portraying Chinese ethnicity. Over her career, Wong continually negotiated her roles, which ranged from a Mongol slave to a Chinese American surgeon. Though her attempts to shape the cultural production of race and gender were not always successful, for a brief moment her work grappled with the possibilities for an American-born, modern, educated Asian American woman. No American-born motion picture actress of Asian descent has yet equaled the range and number of Wong’s roles. The paucity of Asian American actresses and actors in contemporary major films points to the ongoing gender and racial inequities in Hollywood.

Discussion of the Literature

Anna May Wong’s life, career, and legacy reflect complex issues of race, gender, and representation, many of which persist decades after her death. As the first Asian American female star, she has a vital place in American and global cinematic history. Given her importance to Asian American, American, and global cultures of race and gender, surprisingly few works deal with her, in comparison to other well-researched topics in Asian American history like studies of laboring male Chinese coolies or histories of the Japanese American internment during World War II. This can be attributed to the field’s emphasis on working-class males and the scattered primary source materials on Wong, as well as the difficulty of interpreting her work. The growing importance of Asian American studies has meant an increased interest in scholarship that corrects the historical neglect of nonwhite performers in the European American entertainment industry. Judy Chu’s “Anna May Wong,” published in the Asian American anthology Counterpoint, pioneered the Asian American studies reexamination of Wong’s career by means of a look at popular magazines. Film scholar Tim Bergfelder’s “Negotiating Exoticism: Hollywood, Film Europe and the Cultural Reception of Anna May Wong” opened up scholarly inquiry into Wong’s transnational career as the exemplar of the Film Europe movement in the 1920s and discussed the hopes of forming pan-European cinema through stars such as Wong. In addition, a number of cinema studies works focus on films that star Wong, particularly on the film Piccadilly.

Around the centennial of Wong’s birth (2005), a reexamination of her life and career took shape; three major works appeared and comprehensive retrospectives of her films were held at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Anthony Chan’s 2003 biography, Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961), was written, Chan says, “from a uniquely Asian-American perspective and sensibility.”4 In 2004, Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane’s examination of Wong’s career, Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work, was published, as well as a second full-length biography, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Hodges. In addition there have been two major documentary film biographies of Anna May Wong’s life: Elaine May Woo’s Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows (2008) and Yunah Hong’s Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words (2011).5

Of the existing recent scholarship, the writings of film scholar Yiman Wang and historian Karen Leong go beyond recounting the biographical details of Anna May Wong’s life and do excellent analytical work in showing the significance of her career. Leong’s China Mystique elucidates the “China Mystique” that is the gendered embodiment of orientalism.6 Her chapter on Wong is complemented by chapters on Pearl S. Buck and Mayling Soon that, taken together, demonstrate the centrality of American culture’s fascination with China. Leong’s painstaking historical research model shows the importance of Wong as a cultural figure who was transnationally significant. Wang’s cinema studies disrupt the Bildungsroman and American Dream narratives of the biographical treatments of Wong to show the more complicated strategies that Wong employed in negotiating her film roles. Most importantly, Wang insists that Wong was not a performer who naturally played Asian American roles but rather one who employed tactics such as screen passing or ironic ethnic masquerade in ways that can be understood as subversive of dominant racial stereotypes.

Primary Sources

Dispersed around the globe, written primary historical sources on Anna May Wong congregate near major film production locales. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles is a major site for these archival materials, including the University of Southern California Film Archives and the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Both have production files on Wong herself as well as on some of her films. The New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theater Collection has primary source materials on Wong, as does the British Film Institute in London. Various U.S. government archives contain records on Wong. The FBI has a file on her, and other governmental sources, such as immigration and naturalization records and census records, are of use for demographic and immigration materials on Wong and her family.

Some of Wong’s films, especially the ones that have received attention from cinema scholars, such as Piccadilly and Shanghai Express (1932), are available through Amazon and other mail order sources. However, in order to view most of her films, including such Paramount Studio films as Daughter of Shanghai and King of Chinatown or such Film Europe ones as Song/Show Life/Schmutziges Geld and Hai-Tang/Flame of Love/The Road to Dishonour, one must travel to film archives. The University of California’s Los Angeles Film and Television Archive holds her Paramount films as well as numerous others, and the British Film Institute in London is one of the only venues that holds her Film Europe films.

Scholars have found newspapers and magazines from around the world to be rich sources for examining Wong’s image and reception. U.S. periodicals like Hollywood Reporter, Photoplay, Film Weekly, and Modern Picture, among many others, have been useful. Researchers have used newspapers and magazines from Australia (Sydney Morning Herald), China (Liangyou Hubao and Da Gong Bao), Portugal (Cinefilo), France (Cinémonde and Ciné-Mirroir), and Britain (Film Weekly and Picturegoer), and many other periodicals from many locations, to examine Wong’s reception across the globe.

Further Reading

Bergfelder, Tim. “Negotiating Exoticism: Hollywood, Film Europe and the Cultural Reception of Anna May Wong.” In “Film Europe” and “Film America”: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939. Edited by Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby, 302–324. Exeter, U.K.: University of Exeter Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Chan, Anthony C.Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961). New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.Find this resource:

Chu, Judy. “Anna May Wong.” In Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America. Edited by Emma Gee, 284–289. Los Angeles: Asian American Student Center of the University of California, 1976.Find this resource:

Hodges, Graham. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. New York: Palgrave, 2004.Find this resource:

Kyle, Garland. “The Legend of Anna May Wong.” Gum Saam 2.2 (1988): 7–11.Find this resource:

Leibfried, Philip and Chei Mi Lane. Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to her Film, Stage, Radio, and Television Work. New York: McFarland, 2003.Find this resource:

Leong, Karen. The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Lim, Shirley Jennifer. A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women’s Public Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Lim, Shirley Jennifer. “Glamorising Racial Modernity.” In Australia’s Asia: From Yellow Peril to Asian Century. Edited by David Walker and Agnieszka Sobocinska, 145–169. Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Lim, Shirley Jennifer. “‘Speaking German Like Nobody’s Business’: Anna May Wong, Walter Benjamin, and the Possibilities of Asian American Cosmopolitanism.” Journal of Transnational American Studies 4.1 (Summer 2012): 1–18.Find this resource:

Lim, Shirley Jennifer. “‘The Most Beautiful Chinese Girl in the World’: Anna May Wong’s Global Cinematic Modernity.” In Body and Nation: The Global Realms of U.S. Body Politics in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Emily Rosenberg and Shanon Fitzpatrick, 145–169. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Liu, Cynthia. “When Dragon Ladies Die, Do They Come Back as Butterflies? Re-Imagining Anna May Wong.” In Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism. Edited by Darrell Hamamoto and Sandra Liu, 23–39. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Metzger, Sean. “Patterns of Resistance? Anna May Wong and the Fabrication of China in American Cinema of the Late 30s.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 23 (2006): 1–11.Find this resource:

Wang, Yiman. “The Art of Screen Passing: Anna May Wong’s Yellow Yellowface Performance in the Art Deco Era.” Camera Obscura 60 (2005): 159–191.Find this resource:

Wang, Yiman. “Anna May Wong: Toward Janus-Faced, Border-Crossing, ‘Minor’ Stardom.” In Idols of Modernity: Movie Stars of the 1920s. Edited by Patrice Petro, 159–181. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Motion Picture Magazine, October 1931, 45.

(2.) “I Protest,” Film Weekly, August 18, 1933, 11.

(3.) Los Angeles Times, 1935, Cited in Hodges, 152.

(4.) Anthony Chan, Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961) (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), xvii.

(5.) Elaine Mae Woo, Director, Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willow: Her Life, Times, and Legend, Woo Neiman Productions, Los Angeles, CA (2008); Yunah Hong, Director, Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, Women Make Movies, New York, NY, (2011).

(6.) Karen Leong, The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 1–6.