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, Howard Winant, Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, and David Wellman,” and makes much of Wong’s journey toward “empowerment” and “agency”: “By discovering her own empowerment,” it explains, “she created her own inner hipness. It was the ultimate existential coolness.”
Anna May Wong was third-generation American—that is, her grandparents on both sides had immigrated to California during the gold rush years, and her parents were born here. By the time she was born—the second of eight children—her father owned a successful laundry (the family lived behind it) in which the children helped out. The Wongs lived in a mixed neighborhood on the outskirts of Chinatown, and Anna and her older sister, Lulu, first attended a school in which they constituted half the Chinese student population. There they encountered overt racism; Anna May was to recall bitterly the afternoon when, walking home from school, she received
the knife stab which, even today, has left a scar on my heart. A group of little boys, our schoolmates, started following us. They came nearer and nearer, singing some sort of a chant….
“Chink, Chink, Chinaman,” they were shouting. “Chink, Chink, Chinaman.”
They surrounded us. Some of them pulled our hair, which we wore in long braids down our backs. They shoved us off the sidewalks, pushing us this way and that, and all the time keeping up their chant: “Chink, Chink, Chinaman. Chink, Chinaman.”
The girls were moved to a Presbyterian Chinese mission school, where they studied English as well as Cantonese (and where Anna May excelled at baseball and marbles). They were also sent to a Chinese-language school, and Anna May went on to two years of high school. But the real preparation for her future life was taking place elsewhere: in the run-down movie houses of Chinatown and in the streets, watching movies get made during the film industry’s earliest years in Los Angeles. And in her bedroom, where she practiced emoting in front of her mirror and dreamed of being a star. She was determined that “the everyday drudgery of laundry work” was not going to be her fate. Luckily, she was also becoming exceptionally beautiful.
In 1919, she was one of three hundred or so extras in The Red Lantern, an important feature film of the period starring the great Alla Nazimova in a double role: she’s both blonde Blanche Sackville and her illegitimate Eurasian half-sister, Mahlee, who falls in love with a white man and therefore must die, swallowing poison while sitting on a peacock throne and proclaiming “East is East and West is West.” When the movie opened, Anna May couldn’t even spot herself on the screen, but her striking looks and her eagerness were soon noticed by an important director, the hard-drinking ladies’ man Marshall (Mickey) Neilan, who in 1921 not only gave Anna May her first billing—as Toy Sing, wife to Lon Chaney’s Chin Gow, in Bits of Life—but seduced her, becoming, as Hodges puts it, “the prototype of Anna May’s male lovers: white, older, and hierarchically more powerful in the business.” (Her eventual female lovers, about whom neither Hodges nor Chan has much to say, may have included both Dietrich and Dolores del Rio.)
In her ninth film appearance, in 1922, she finally had the leading role, and gave an affecting performance as Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea. Again, East fails to meet West on any permanent basis—hardly surprising in this direct rip-off of Madame Butterfly. The famous screenwriter Frances Marion perpetrated the script (in which Lotus Flower flings herself into the sea after nobly handing over her baby to her ex-lover and his new wife to raise in America) and it was through Marion that Anna May came to the attention of Douglas Fairbanks, the movies’ biggest male star, who cast her in the small but telling role of the erotic Mongol slave girl in his spectacular Thief of Baghdad. In the same year, 1924, she appeared in another important film, Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan, sixth-cast as Tiger Lily. In all, between 1924 and 1929 she appeared in about twenty movies of no consequence, in many of which her character doesn’t even have a name: she’s a “Harem Girl,” a “Chinese Girl,” a “Nautch Dancer.” In the 1928 Across to Singapore, starring Ramon Novarro and Joan Crawford, she’s a barroom prostitute.
Her career was going nowhere: there just weren’t many good roles for a pretty Chinese girl at a time when interracial romance was taboo and/or doomed. Asians could be fiends, but they couldn’t be lovers. Even so, Anna May was achieving some kind of visibility. Fan magazines found her story fascinating, partly because of the discrepancy between her screen image—mysterious, wicked, erotic—and her off-screen presence as a normal American girl—in fact, a flapper. In 1922 a journalist named Myrtle Gebhart interviewed Anna May for Screenland, having dropped in on her at the family laundry. As Hodges tells us,
Anna emerged from the store dressed in a sport suit, her facial complexion resembling mellowed ivory flushed with rose. Her lips, gushed Gebhart, seemed to be a “Yuan Chen poem stepping from the embossed covers of a book of old lyrics.” When Anna opened her mouth, however, her modernity spilled out: “My, that’s a nifty car. It’s the kitty’s eyebrows, what?” Now that each understood the other to be a modern flapper, the two set out “to worry traffic cops.”
As the Twenties progressed, Wong became more and more of a presence in Hollywood, no doubt helped by her second affair with an older, alcoholic director—Tod Browning (best known today for Freaks). She was on hand early in 1926 to help turn the first spadeful of earth (with a gold shovel) for Grauman’s Chinese Theater. She was photographed by Clarence Sinclair Bull, by E.O. Hoppe; for Theatre Magazine, for Vanity Fair. She caught the attention of Carl van Vechten (they were to become lifelong friends), of Edward Steichen, of Cecil Beaton, who took a portrait of her “in a grotto of gypsophilia and cellophane suspended from billiard cues.” At parties, Hodges tells us, she would sing a ballad written for her: “I’m Anna May Wong/I come from Old Hong Kong/ But now I’m a Hollywood Star…. I look oriental/I am kind to other players/I make them smile….” One witness reports that when she sang this she broke people’s hearts.
She was making valuable contacts with such prominent figures as the famous German actors Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt, while her looks, both on screen and in still photographs, were winning her admirers internationally. Her friends recommended her to a leading director in Berlin, Richard Eichberg, and with her career stalled in America, she decided to go abroad to improve her chances. In 1928, at the age of twenty-three, she set out for Europe with her sister Lulu. “I think I left America because I died so often,” she explained. At least, she reasoned, given the more relaxed racial attitudes in Europe, she might be allowed to live in some of her films.
Anna May Wong was, of course, not the only American performer who went to Europe in search of bigger opportunities or for reasons of color. Louise Brooks had walked out on Hollywood for the chance to make Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, although, unlike Wong, she didn’t think much of Hollywood to begin with. And countless black jazz performers, most notably Josephine Baker, had established themselves in more or less colorblind France. For Wong, Europe was a career opportunity and an opportunity to improve herself—to learn languages, attract publicity, move in elevated circles. In America, for instance, she was not likely to spend an evening with Walter Benjamin, who reported in the pages of Literarische Welt that her name “was like specks in a bowl of tea that unfold into blossoms replete with moonlight and devoid of scent.”
With Eichberg Wong made three films, in the first of which, Song, she yet again dies, having inevitably fallen for a European man. (She’s working with a knife-thrower in a cabaret act and, as Chan puts it, “falls spectacularly on one of her own upright knives during a lapse of concentration while performing her Orientalist sabre dance.”) Her final Eichberg film and her first in sound, The Flames of Love, was a tour de force. It was made in three different languages—English, French, and German—with three different leading men and three different scripts, and she quickly learned enough French and German to get by.
The only movie she made at this time that has any staying power is Piccadilly, in which as the go-getting Shosho she dances and vamps her way into a successful nightclub career and actually goes to bed with the leading (white) man before being murdered. (Miscegenation never pays.) This was a “quality” production: gorgeous costumes; Gilda Gray, “the shimmy queen,” in the lead; script by Arnold Bennett(!). Wong is convincing, especially in the big dramatic moments—as a dancer she’s heavy and dull—but finally Piccadilly is just a somewhat better movie than those she was used to.
It did lead, though, to a major London stage role, in a piece of chinoiserie called The Circle of Chalk, with Laurence Olivier not a success as the young male lead. Wong apparently did a creditable job, although she was criticized for the “squeaky American voice [that] shattered any attempt at illusion.” And she was a social success in London—named “one of the best-dressed women in Mayfair,” meeting the Prince of Wales, receiving “a standing ovation” when she ventured into the visitors’ gallery at Parliament. She was a hit in Paris, too, and in Vienna, where an interviewer described her eyebrows as O-mei (tender moth caterpillars) and her eyes as Hsing-Yen (kernels of an apricot). But by October 1930 she was back in Hollywood, hoping that her new European prestige would advance her career there.
She had a modest success in Daughter of the Dragon—she’s Princess Ling Moy, seeking vengeance for the death of her father, Fu Manchu. At least she was playing the lead, and for a major studio, Paramount. Then came Shanghai Express and a strong performance as the dignified reformed prostitute Hui Fei, who kills the brutal warlord who has dishonored her. She made a powerful impression (but then she had Josef von Sternberg to direct her). After that, her career was essentially over. From 1932 on she appeared in about fifteen unimportant films, including some undistinguished B-melodramas for Paramount and a couple of wartime propaganda dramas (Bombs Over Burma, Lady from Chungking) for cheapie studios. In 1960 she’s Tawny, the housekeeper, in the Ross Hunter– Lana Turner movie Portrait in Black. She was going to play the aunt in Hunter’s Flower Drum Song—a comeback of sorts—when in early 1961 she died of a liver disease. She had been a heavy drinker for years.
She hadn’t been without occupa-tion through the lean times, though. Or without romance. There was yet another older married man—the BBC producer and songwriter Eric Maschwitz (“These Foolish Things”)—whom she was to call the love of her life. She toured Europe with a stage show in which she sang things like “Parlez-moi d’amour” and her specialty, Noël Coward’s “Half-Caste Woman.” (“Half-caste woman,/what are your eyes waiting and hoping to see?”) She played summer stock in America. But the most important event of this period in her life was an extended trip to China in the mid-Thirties—a combination celebrity tour and serious attempt to confront her roots; to learn how she could be both American and Chinese at the same time. She was, she said, traveling to “a strange country and yet, in a way, I am going home.”
Wong was by no means universally welcomed in China—during the nationalistic Twenties and Thirties there had been considerable criticism of the exotic/erotic image of Chinese womanhood which she conveyed. (Or as Hodges puts it, “Even as the S.S. President Hoover sailed across the Pacific Ocean, waves of controversy about Anna May crashed hard along China’s coast.”) To a certain extent the trip was a round of fashionable dinners and parties, shopping, visits to movie studios. A pilgrimage to her family’s remote village, according to Chan, evoked “an exhibition of exaltation fit for an Empress Dowager and awe reserved only for celestial beings.” But even as she was swanning around being lionized, she was trying to grasp the nature of this bewildering world that in some way was also her world. She made an effort to master Mandarin, but found herself having problems even with the Chinese of her childhood. At a party in Shanghai, she met
one of the ladies (who) spoke my dialect and so I began to chatter away merrily in Cantonese. After a few minutes, she said, “Miss Wong, do you mind going back to English? You speak Chinese charmingly, but you have such a marked American accent.”
For Professor Chan, Wong’s China trip is an opportunity for extended forays into Chinese history, politics, culture—Confucius, Mencius, the Long March, Shanghai’s entertainment industry—which have very little relevance to her story. But his main point is that the trip was a kind of turning point in her life—“a spiritual reawakening.” She herself told a journalist on her return to America that at last she was “in harmony with heaven and earth.”
As her career rapidly petered out, she threw herself into working for the China War Relief Fund. After the war, she appeared sporadically on television—there was even a short-lived series, The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong. She had made some modest real estate investments and was secure financially. In 1953, she suffered a serious emotional and physical breakdown—cirrhosis had set in—but she recovered, partly, Hodges tells us, with the help of “Dale Carnegie’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking.” Actually, that’s Norman Vincent Peale; Dale Carnegie’s contribution to our well-being was How to Win Friends and Influence People. But neither Peale nor Carnegie could prevent cirrhosis from killing her eight years later, at the age of fifty-six.
It had taken determination, intelligence, and luck for Wong to reach the level of success she had achieved. The luck lay in her beauty and her ethnicity—and there is the issue on which both Hodges and Chan get it wrong. They believe that her skin color held her back, whereas it was clearly her skin color that made her unique in the Hollywood of her early years and gave her the place she occupied there.
Their greatest grievance lies in MGM’s failure to give Wong the female lead in the 1937 epic film of The Good Earth, a novel that had topped best-seller lists for two years, won a Pulitzer Prize, and led to Pearl Buck’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, a major embarrassment. The loss of this role had embittered Wong. But the heroine of The Good Earth is a young peasant woman, leading a simple, arduous life: “Do not come into the room until I call,” she says, as she prepares to give birth. “Only bring me a newly peeled reed and slit it, that I may cut the child’s life from mine.” What has this O-Lan to do with the exotic Daughter of the Dragon? In Hollywood, type is type, and stars are stars. For a major role in a major production, no studio would have cast a fading B-film actress, whatever her ethnicity; better to go with an admired European artiste, Luise Rainer, who had just won an Oscar (for The Great Ziegfeld). Although she won a second one for The Good Earth, Rainer is ludicrous as O-Lan. Indeed, the whole movie is ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean that Anna May Wong, through some kind if premature affirmative action, had a right to the role.
Whatever the ugliness of bigotry in America in her time—pre–Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi—and however her skin color may have limited her chances to become a real leading lady, Anna May Wong’s far from negligible career came about because she was an Asian-American woman. That’s what made her interesting to Hollywood, and to canonize her as an underrated artist and a victim of racism is to do her a disservice. Today, ironically, Anna May memorabilia is commanding higher prices on eBay than that of her old colleague Dietrich. But then, no one has ever claimed that Dietrich was underrated, or a victim.