Anna May Wong, Hollywood legend

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Anna May Wong: A Celestial Star in Piccadilly (12th January 2009)

Anna Chen writes and presents A Celestial Star In Piccadilly, a profile of Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star, for BBC Radio 4.

Broadcast 11:30am, Tuesday 13th January 2009.
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BBC Radio 4


While I was growing up in Hackney, there were few east asian women in the culture reflecting anything like my appearance. Those that did slip through were not necessarily an inspiration. Yoko Ono was unfairly reviled in the media as a hate figure, although – far from breaking up the Beatles –she was a respected Fluxus artist in her own right and famous among the avant-garde cognoscenti way before John Lennon was anything more than a pop star. The twin horrors of my childhood, Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy – happy hookers who migrated from popular literature onto the screen – were always there to define me in the eyes of a society without any other reference points. There were powerful women, too, but they came in the shape of Jiang Qing (Madam Mao), the kleptocratic Imelda Marcos and, in fiction, the evil daughter of Fu Manchu. Her I quite liked.

I wondered who the young Anna May Wong had to look up to. She grew up as third-generation Chinese born in a youthful America when Native Americans were safely out of the way on their reservations and former slaves were consigned to ghettos and plantations. Chinese-Americans were about as low as you could get; depicted as so much of a danger to working men and decent citizens that the US government introduced legislation specifically designed to curb the ambitions of the Yellow Peril within. Their ambitions may have been humble — earning an honest dollar for one’s labour, living in safety and security, bringing up families of their own — but the owners of capital tolerated them only as cheap labour, while much of the labour movement in both the Britain and the USA (Wobblies excluded) saw the Chinese as more of a threat than as fellow workers.

Various schools of thought say that Asiatic humans first walked over the Beriing Straits more than 17,000 years ago and populated the Americas down to their southernmost tip. Others contend that Imperial Chinese ships arrived in the 15th century, predating Columbus by decades; or that they initially landed in California on Portuguese ships carrying silver from mines in the Philippines.

What we do know is that in the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in 1848 drew first a trickle and then a flood of Chinese who joined in the Gold Rush, populating the west coast and working the mines in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The next wave of immigration was brought in as cheap coolie labour by Charles Crocker in the 1860s to build his Central Pacific railroad which would link Sacramento with the East and bring the West into the Union during the Civil War. Conditions were harsh and they were paid less than their white counterparts.

But not all Chinese would submit and conform to the role of coolie; there was one major strike with thousands laying down tools as they busted through granite mountains and worked in 20-foot snowdrifts. It was a strike that had the potential to unite all workers, and ever since I found out about it in the early 1990s while working with Sinophile author Martin Booth on his film script The Celestial Cowboys in 1993, it has inspired me, especially as there are those who insist that Chinese are genetically bourgeois and incapable of working-class consciousness. The strikers were eventually starved back to work with a few concessions but they had shown they they weren’t all pushovers.

Many miners and railworkers settled in the US and formed America’s first Chinese communities. These were Anna May Wong’s roots.

In a world bereft of role models, Anna May carved out an acting career in the early days of the Hollywood film industry. She started young, as an extra on the streets of Los Angeles, learning her craft and gaining proper roles in defiance of her traditionalist father, who wanted her at home in the family laundry.

By 17, she was starring in Hollywood’s first technicolour movie, The Toll of the Sea (1922), as the Madame Butterfly character, “marrying” an American who promptly dumps her when he returns to his homeland and a white wife. She dies tragically at the climax, beginning a pattern that would endure for most of her career.
Anna May Wong in The Toll of the Sea (1922). Note the most science-defying offspring since the Virgin Birth.

Trapped in Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom roles, she grew tired of being demeaned, insulted and limited. Anti-miscegenation laws meant she wasn’t allowed to kiss a romantic lead if he was white, even if he was a white actor playing a Chinese. Your sexuality got you killed, at least symbolically.

In the late 1920s she came to Britain, where she was already a huge star and made the black and white silent feature film Piccadilly for the German director E A Dupont. This was perhaps her greatest starring role, but she still had to die at the end. Death was the fate she had to endure for the crime of being attractive. I take a closer look at this movie in the programme as there’s a plethora of prejudice leaking at the edges, some of it hilarious, much of it still extant today.

Anna May was the toast of Europe: mates with Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and, strangely, Leni Riefenstahl. Such was the contrast in Europe with what she’d experienced back home that she once stated there was no racism in Germany. And that was in the Thirties, which gives you some idea how bad it must have been if you were a minority in the Land of the Free.

She starred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, acted with a greenhorn Laurence Olivier on the London stage. Philosopher Walter Benjamin had a major crush on her. She dined with royalty and was adored by her fans. Eric Maschwitz wrote the classic song “These Foolish Things” about her.

Yet Hollywood still refused to lower the drawbridge and give her the starring roles she deserved. Those still went to white actresses in Yellowface. Myrna Loy as evil Daughter of Fu Manchu? Loy, Katherine Hepburn, Luise Rainer and Tilli Losch were all considered better at being Chinese than Anna May Wong.

These things take their toll and she died in 1961, at the unnervingly early age of 56.

But isn’t everything different today? Nope, it’s still with us. The form has mutated but the content lives on. A Celestial Star in Piccadilly is one case study in how minorities are rendered invisible in the culture and as producers of culture, while the fruits of their labour are appropriated by those who sit at High Table.

And the danger of that is it’s the sleep of reason where monsters are born.

Hmmm, sounds familiar and rather too close to home …

Interviewees include:
Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong’s biographer, Laundryman’s Daughter
Diana Yeh, historian
Alice Lee, writer and actress who performed her one woman show about Anna May Wong, Daughter of the Dragon
Elaine Mae Woo, director of Frosted Yellow Willows about Anna May
Ed Manwell, film producer, Frosted Yellow Willows
Neil Brand, composer of the new score for the BFI Southbank rerelease of Piccadilly on DVD
Jasper Sharp, east Asian film expert
Kevin Brownlow, legendary film historian and filmmaker
Margie Tai and Connie Ho, who remember Anna May Wong visiting their Limehouse neighbourhood when they were kids

Produced by Chris Eldon Lee for Culture Wise Productions
Many thanks to Mukti Jain Campion of Culture Wise.

Postscript: When my producer, Mukti Jain Campion first pitched our programme to the BBC in time for Anna May Wong's centenary in 2005, we were turned down on the grounds that "no-one's heard of her". Which, if true, would have been an even more powerful reason to introduce her to a whole new British audience. We persevered and Mukti cracked it in 2008 when we were finally commissioned to make A Celestial Star in Piccadilly for BBC Radio 4 for broadcast in January 2009.

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Anna Chen's musical multi-media extravaganza about the Chinese Diaspora's "mitochondrial Eve", Anna May Wong Must Die!

Anna May Wong Must Die! by Anna Chen (previewed in St Ives 10th May 2009)

A 60-minute multimedia-illustrated journey through the life and crimes of Hollywood legend Anna May Wong written and performed by Anna Chen.

Anna Chen presents Anna May Wong Must Die! at the Roxy Bar and Screen (2009)


Anna May Wong Must Die! is Anna Chen’s one-woman show about Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star.

As well as this personal journey through the life and crimes of Anna May Wong, Anna also wrote and presented A Celestial Star In Piccadilly, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 2009 .

“I discovered her at an early age when, growing up in the far East of London, I was the only Chinese kid in my school. I often wondered where everyone else was who looked like me.

“In the streets, men of a certain vintage would yell, ‘Oy, you! Anna May Wong!’ I thought, ‘Blimey! How do they know my name’s Anna?’ And then I saw her. She was in an old black and white film on the telly. The tall Chinese screen goddess in Shanghai Express, blowing the blonde Teutonic Marlene Dietrich off the screen and blasting her way into my respect.

“Up until then, my only role models had been Madam Mao and Imelda Marcos. I didn’t know whether to start a revolution or steal a handbag. Now I could add stabbing villains to my options.”

Part comedy, part social critique, this funny, fascinating look at the movie icon dismantles Chinese stereotypes and reveals the human side of the dragon lady of dragon ladies.

Anna May Wong Must Die! at the New Diorama Theatre in London.
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Anna May Wong and Chinese in Hollywood. The Good Earth review (30th December 2008)

Luise Rainer won the Academy Award for her role in The Good Earth

Every so often I get together with friends for a day of culture. This generally entails snuggling up in my flat over a movie, a bottle (or more) of cava and munchies. Chocolate will invariably make an appearance, as sometimes does proper Jewish cheesecake from the bagel bakery, far superior to the ersatz frozen slabs of synthetic goo which should only be eaten as emergency therapy after the tragic break-up of a love affair, and straight from the freezer.

Last night we dug in for a night of cinematic frolix. Several bottles of cava may have been involved. Still, what better way to settle down to all 143 minutes of a Hollywood classic, the “last great achievement” of renowned film producer, Irving Thalberg, before he passed on to the Great Cinema in the sky?

I finally got to see The Good Earth, of which I’d been vaguely aware all my life but which surfaced again during my research into my BBC Radio 4 profile of the Hollywood screen-legend, Anna May Wong (to be broadcast 13th January 2009). This was the black and white MGM spectacular made in 1937, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller by Pearl S Buck about the turbulent fortunes of farmer Wang Lung’s family — a sort of Chinese Grapes of Wrath meets Gone With The Wind.

You’d think the biggest ever film role for a Chinese should be played by the biggest ever Chinese star. Ever since publication of the book in 1931, Anna May Wong had lobbied hard for the starring role of O-Lan, Wang Lung’s long-suffering wife. Fed up with being cast as either dragon ladies or prostitutes, this character meant a proper starring role at last for Anna and entry to the A-list.

Anna May Wong: The wrong sort of Chinese

But vicious race laws meant that you couldn’t have mixed race romance on the screen. Once a white actor, Paul Muni, was cast in the lead his wife would have to be played by a white actress in yellowface.

And what better choice for a strugglng Chinese peasant than the German actress, Luise Rainer? Luise did achieve an other-worldlyness and won an Oscar for her portrayal of O-Lan which has been described as “luminous” and “magical”. But, as film historian Kevin Brownlow says in the programme [A Celestial Star in Piccadilly], “she wasn’t Chinese”.

Acting styles have changed over the years but key roles were played with a distinct absence of gorm. Poor Luise had hardly any lines but a lot of screen-time to fill. Mostly she filled it with an open mouthed passivity reminiscent of Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls. The dialogue she did speak was delivered with a thick Germanic accent but who cares? It was foreign, wasn’t it?

Would Anna May Wong have made a better O-Lan than Rainer? Ever since Garbo stared into the cosmic distance on the prow of her ship in Queen Christina and achieved demi-god status, actresses have been trying for the same effect with differing results. No inner life but a beautiful, blank canvas onto which the audience projects the best of itself. It’s a seductive image. Who wouldn’t want to look like they have a hotline straight to god? Even I’ve tried it but failed to keep the requisite immobile face, not being particularly inscrutable, see? Rainer does this to perfection. For 143 straight minutes.

So this is how good Chinese women were portrayed during the heyday of Hollywood, when its movies described the world, laying out its cultural templates, and woe betide anyone who strayed from the Grand Design. I must have been asleep when they gave those lessons coz look at me now.

Anna May Wong was beautiful and authentically Chinese but she had far too much going on inside. Unless she blanded herself utterly, her natural charisma and thought-processes would have upset the symmetry and harmony of white folk’s art.

That‘s not to say the film isn’t worth seeing. If you can suspend disbelief at the racial origins of the actors, you can marvel at the sheer gorgeousness of Hollywood cinematography at its height. Something else Kevin Brownlow told me but we didn't have time to include in the final cut: how did the director achieve the amazing effect of vast clouds of locusts swarming across the Chinese landscape at the climax of the film? They turned the film upside down and placed a tank of water in front of it. Then, as the film was running, they poured coffee grounds into the tank so they swirled in dark clouds. Then they turned the film the right way and it looks as if tonnes of locust biomass is rising above puny humanity. Fantastic!

Madam Miaow says ...The Good Earth. Gorgeous looking but another set of invisible chains I can do without, thank you very much.

The Good Earth — directed by Sidney Franklin, Victor Fleming (uncredited) and Gustav Machaty. Review

Anna Chen writes and presents Anna May Wong: A Celestial Star in Piccadilly, broadcast 11:30am Tuesday 13th January 2009. Listen again online for seven days after transmission plus repeats.

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Glamour, sex, beauty, fame – Hollywood legend Anna May Wong had it all. She was the most famous Chinese woman in the world during the 1920s and 30s, and yet she struggled to get decent parts while white actors played the juiciest Chinese roles in “yellowface”.

Born in Los Angeles in 1905, during the height of the Yellow Peril fears about the Chinese, she overcame prejudice and racism enshrined in US law to become Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend, making more than 60 movies.

Artists painted and sculpted her, photographers immortalised her, composers and songwriters were inspired by her, philosophers wrote of her. And yet she all but disappeared for nearly half a century since her death in 1961 at the early age of 56.

She’s now recognised as the mitochondrial Eve of the Chinese diaspora and is influencing a whole new generation. Who was she? And why do we need her now?

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The Life and Crimes of Anna May Wong March 2014


John Viarengo said...

Thanks Madam Miao, I met u on Carl Zhas' podcast. Very intrresting!

Madam Miaow said...

Hi John, thanks for checking out the blog. Anna May Wong has been held up as a hero who came through some of America's worst sinophobia. I wonder what she'd make of this return to dark times.