Orientally Yours

Ah, the mysterious East. Oh, the lure of the Orient. Uh-oh, the Yellow Peril. Early Hollywood, in its pre–politically correct days—which is most of its days—loved to drop in on the festering humanity of China (where life is cheap) and the inscrutability of Japan. But not many of the actors involved were even remotely Asian. Certainly not Myrna Loy, as the fiendishly sadistic daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu (or Fu himself, in this case played by Boris Karloff). Not Nils Asther, as the tragic Chinese warlord fascinated by (and fascinating) Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Not Sidney Toler as clever detective Charlie Chan. Not Peter Lorre as clever detective Mr. Moto. Not Sylvia Sidney, that nice Jewish girl, as Madame Butterfly. Not—try to imagine it—Helen Hayes as “Star Blossom” in The Son-Daughter, surrounded by such fellow Asians as Ramon Novarro, Lewis Stone, and the brutish (and Swedish) Warner Oland, whom she strangles with her pigtail. Certainly not Katharine Hepburn, at her most risible as the heroine of Pearl Buck’s Dragon Seed, or Luise Rainer as the heroine of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. In the hundred years or so of pre–Jackie Chan Hollywood, there were only two genuine Asian stars: Sessue Hayakawa, who thrilled Western ladies in the silent period in much the same way Valentino did, and Anna May Wong, born to Chinese-American parents in Los Angeles in 1905 and recently the subject of two biographies and a full filmography.

The two biographies are different in tone and approach, but they carry the same message: Anna May Wong was a major film artist whose career was fatally diminished by the fact of her being “Oriental.” (That’s a politically incorrect appellation these days, but Wong didn’t know it back then; she liked to sign her publicity photos “Orientally yours.”) Of the two books, Graham Russell Gao Hodges’s Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend is the more hagiographic. It’s persuasive on Anna May’s background, but the introduction spells out the message: she was “a star of the first rank.” Pickford? Chaplin? Fairbanks? Garbo? “Anna May was of their stature.” When it comes to her most important role, in the Dietrich– von Sternberg Shanghai Express, Dietrich “could not afford to let Anna May distinguish herself in her extraordinary Asian outfits.”

The rival biography, Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, by Anthony B. Chan, is more an attempt to place Wong historically. It’s most interesting when instructing us on how early Chinese-American immigrants made their way and on the legal and social restraints under which they lived. (The Page Law of 1875, for example, assumed that Chinese women entering the United States were prostitutes; the Scott Act of 1888 denied Chinese-American residents the right of reentry if they left the country.) But Chan’s book, alas, is “informed by the theories of Edward Said, Michael Omi …

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