Tinsel Town Trailblazer: Anna May Wong

SEPT / OCT 2017: BY SCARLETT GRANT

Representation in film is, and will always be, a topic of debate. There has been improvements, for example with last year’s Hidden Figures (2016), but also setbacks, like the controversial casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell (2017). Long before in the Golden Era of Hollywood, one woman decided to create positive representation—Anna May Wong.

Anna was born on 3rd January 1905 in Los Angeles. A third generation Chinese-American, her birth name was Wong Liu Tsong. Anna was born during an interesting time—throughout her childhood the film industry centralized in Hollywood.

With movies being filmed in or near her neighborhood, Anna soon became obsessed with cinema. She often missed school and used her lunch money to see films at a local theatre. At nine, she visited filming locations, begging the directors to give her roles. This led to her being nicknamed C.C.C. (Curious Chinese Child). Two years later she chose her future stage name: Anna May Wong, combining her Chinese heritage and American birthplace.

Although her father wanted her to concentrate on school, Anna determined to make it in the film industry. At fourteen, she got her first (albeit uncredited) role carrying a lantern in The Red Lantern (1919). For the next few years, Anna took on small parts and extra work in her free time. In 1921, she dropped out of school to progress to a full time actress. Anna based her decision on that; “I was so young when I began that I knew I still had youth if I failed, so I determined to give myself 10 years to succeed as an actress.”

Later that year, Anna received her first credited part in Bits Of Life (1921), then her first lead role in The Toll Of The Sea (1922), where she received praise from major publications such as Variety and The New York Times. She impressed The Times: “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy … She should be seen again and often on the screen.”

anna2In spite of glowing reviews, Anna was now in a difficult position. Hollywood would not create leading roles for her due to her ethnicity. Censorship prohibited actors of different racial backgrounds from sharing an on-screen kiss, so Anna found it hard to become a leading lady. As a result, she spent the next few years in supporting roles with films in an “exotic” setting, such as The Thief Of Bagdad (1924).

Anna knew many of the picture-going public regarded her as “foreign” in spite of her American birth. She wanted to display she was American born and raised so she adopted the popular “flapper” look. Regardless, she found herself in typecast supporting roles. Anna would either be the “Butterfly” (a naïve and delicate girl) or the “Dragon Lady” (an aggressive antagonist). Tired of seeing Asian parts going to non-Asian actresses in Hollywood, she travelled to Europe.

First was Germany where Anna starred in films like Schmutziges Geld (1928) and Pavement Butterfly (1929). In Germany, she became good friends with Leni Riefenstahl (the same Riefenstahl that directed the notorious Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will) and began her long-term friendship with Marlene Dietrich. Next was Austria where Anna acted on the stage in Tschun Tschi. Critics lavished praise on Anna for her ability to play the German-speaking part so well.

Afterwards, Anna arrived in Britain where she appeared in the play A Circle Of Chalk. When a critic called her Californian accent a “Yankee squeak,” she undertook vocal training at the historic Cambridge University to develop a British accent. While in Britain, she made her last silent picture, Piccadilly (1929), and her first “talkie,” The Flame Of Love (1930). Piccadilly remains important in Anna’s career. Not only is this film considered by many to be her best performance, there was also a planned kiss with her Caucasian love interest. But controversy over this scene led to it being cut before release.

In the 30s, American studios searched Europe for new stars. Paramount studios scouted Anna. With the promise of leading roles and top billing, she signed their contract in 1930. Daughter Of The Dragon (1931) gave Anna top billing and a leading role… but it was another stereotyped character and she was unpaid. Anna received $6,000, whereas the white actor Warner Oland (who was only in the film for 23 minutes) received $12,000.

This was the last stereotyped character Anna played, and she later voiced her disgust: “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”

anna4In her next film, she starred alongside her good friend Marlene Dietrich in the box-office hit, Shanghai Express (1932). Even though her performance was acclaimed, and the film was successful with Anna in a non-stereotypical role, she had still not convinced the studios. She lost the lead role in The Son-Daughter (1932), as Metro Goldwyn-Mayer declared that Anna was “too Chinese to play a Chinese.”

After this disappointment, she made her next film in Britain. While Java Head (1934) was only a minor success, it was the only film where she kissed her white husband on screen. Meanwhile in America, there were talks to develop a feature film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s best-selling award-winning novel The Good Earth. The story chronicles the struggles of a farming family in pre-WWII China. Anna returned to America to campaign for the role of O-lan, the female lead. Instead, they offered her the role of Lotus, an antagonist. Anna refused the role and told the filmmakers, “If you let me play O-lan, I will be 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.”

Even the Chinese government intervened in this casting controversy, but not in Anna’s support. They commented to the filmmakers that “whenever she appears in a movie, the newspapers print her picture with the caption ‘Anna May again loses face for China.’” The Nationalist Government and Chinese press had long been critical of Anna’s career; one newspaper even ran the headline “Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China.” They believed Anna’s sexualized roles spread negative stereotypes of Chinese women—in particular, Anna’s scenes with Marlene Dietrich (who was bisexual) in Shanghai Express led to accusations of lesbianism.

Stung again by losing an Asian role to a white actress, she embarked on a year-long tour of China to understand more about her cultural heritage, doomed from the start. The Chinese government continued berate Anna, and she had troubles communicating as she had learned a Taishan dialect instead of standard Mandarin. Stress resulting from international celebrity took its toll on Anna, and she experienced depressive episodes. She coped by drinking and smoking. Upon her return she remarked on her situation, “I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese Theatre. I have no feeling for it. It’s a 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.”

anna3To complete her contract with Paramount, Anna played in a series of B-movies. Although they had a small budget, they were bolder than mainstream movies and Anna used them to create positive portrayals of Chinese-Americans. Even the Chinese consul was happy with these films. At last Anna seemed happy with her career, on her lead role in Daughter of Shanghai (1937) she proclaimed, “I like my part in this picture better than any I’ve had before … because this picture gives Chinese a break—we have sympathetic parts for a change! To me that means a great deal.”

As WWII crept closer, Anna put her film career on hold to dedicate herself to the Chinese resistance against Japan. The only films she made during WWII were anti-Japanese propaganda and she donated her salary to the United China Relief. After the war, her career declined, and she left cinema to work in television. The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951) was created for Anna. She starred as an Asian art dealer who often became entangled in international intrigue. After completion of her TV show, her health deteriorated, and she took on less work. While planning a comeback in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1961), she dropped out due to health problems and died later that year at the young age of fifty-six.

Like any great artist, Anna only in the years after her death did the world recognize Anna. Her only film to maintain longevity was Shanghai Express; Hollywood forgot most of her other works for decades. In the 2000’s and leading up to the centenary of her birth, literary works and film retrospectives revisited her life and career. The British Film Institute’s restoration of Piccadilly and subsequent rediscovery of it led to further recognition of Anna.

Now, the world recognizes Anna May Wong as the first Chinese American film star and the first Asian American actress to gain international stardom. Anna persisted in her life despite those in far more privileged positions seeking to crush her. For her trailblazing career, I will always consider Anna May Wong a powerful woman.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

 

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