Anna May Wong: The First Real Dragon Lady Of The Screen

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April Magazine presents a new bi-weekly series that highlights the badass Asian women of history. If you have a heroine in mind, tell us in the comments.

You don’t need the Game of Thrones to see how cool a “dragon lady” can be. Dragons are awesome. In Chinese culture, they symbolize sacred power, an emperor. A dragon’s power in a lady’s grasp? More awesome. But the title loses its charm when you slap it on any Asian woman, erase her name, and associate it only with the negative image of the dragon as an inhumane monster. That’s the strength and tragedy of Anna May Wong, the first Asian American actress who earned her fame as a dragon lady.

Anna May Wong was born in 1905 California as Wong Liu Tsong. When she was a little girl the moving pictures came to the west coast and Hollywood was born. Like many American kids, Wong fell in love with the movies. She pestered filmmakers for a role from age nine, earning the nickname “Curious Chinese Child.” At fourteen she got her first role, an extra in The Red Lantern (1919), under the stage name she invented for herself at age eleven: Anna May Wong. In an era when the movie industry viewed Chinese Americans with nothing but condescension, her sheer will to make a name for herself was her most brilliant trait.

Her career blossomed in the silent film era, starting with her first major role in The Toll of the Sea (1922). It was one of the first color movies and the story was loosely based on Madame Butterfly. The New York Times commented, “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. … Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy … She should be seen again and often on the screen.” Wong continued to garner critical acclaim as a Mongolian slave in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Wong became a fashion icon and rising star in Hollywood, the first and only Asian American no less. Her optimistic rise hit the ceiling when she couldn’t get a lead role. Hollywood “didn’t know what to do with her”, other than churning out stereotypical supporting roles. Wong played a self-sacrificing “Butterfly”, a ruthless “Dragon Lady”, or just an indigenous woman, whether Eskimo or Tiger Lily. Her flapper haircut didn’t make white Americans treat her as one of them. The ‘anti-miscegenation laws’ of America prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race. With no leading Asian actor in Hollywood, except only for Sessue Hayakawa, to be her love interest, Wong couldn’t be a leading lady.

Out of frustration, Wong moved to Europe in 1928. Josephine Baker, one of the most celebrated entertainers of the Jazz Age, who also moved from America to France, once said, “A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore. … I felt liberated in Paris.” Wong shared a similar sentiment. Interviewed by Doris Mackie for Film Weekly in 1933, Wong commented, “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”

Like Baker, Wong was met with glittering reception. She starred in the German film Schmutziges Geld (1928), and The New York Times reported that Wong was “acclaimed not only as an actress of transcendent talent but as a great beauty” by German critics. The article noted that Germans passed over Wong’s American background: “Berlin critics, who were unanimous in praise of both the star and the production, neglect to mention that Anna May is of American birth. They mention only her Chinese origins.”

In America and in Europe alike, Wong was considered Chinese, not American, but somehow it was more acceptable in Europe. In Vienna, she played the title role in the operetta Tschun Tschi in fluent German. London producer Basil Dean bought the play A Circle of Chalk for Wong to appear in her first stage performance in the UK with young Laurence Olivier. Her last silent film, Piccadilly (1929), is still deemed her best work. Gilda Gray was the top-billed actress in the film, but Variety commented that Wong “outshines the star” and that “from the moment Miss Wong dances in the kitchen’s rear, she steals ‘Piccadilly’ from Miss Gray.”

In her height of fame in Europe, Paramount Studios offered a contract, promising lead roles, and top billing. She returned to the United States in 1930, believing in herself and the promise. She got a starring role on Broadway in On the Spot, a drama that ran for 167 performances and which she would later film as Dangerous to Know. The director demanded Wong to act a Japanese stereotype, something like Madame Butterfly, but Wong refused. She used Chinese-style gestures to create a Chinese character with more authenticity.

It was early days for sound and Pearl Buck’s novels, especially The Good Earth, were widely popular in America. American sympathy for China, intertwined with its fight against Japanese Imperialism, was growing. There was every reason for Wong to play more positive, more important roles in U.S. films. Wong appeared alongside Marlene Dietrich as a strong-willed Chinese courtesan in Shanghai Express (1932). In 1934 the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her “The World’s best-dressed woman”.

Then, in 1935, M.G.M. got ready to make a film version of The Good Earth. Since its publication in 1931, Wong had made known her desire to play the leading Chinese character O-lan in a film version. It could be the role of her life. It was perfect for her: the character, the setting, the story, everything in the book was asking for a real Chinese actress, and she was the only Chinese American actress who could carry a whole film.

M.G.M refused to consider Wong for the leading role and gave the role to the white actress Luise Rainer to play a Chinese woman in yellow-face. Rainer won the Academy Award for the role. Imagine the blow. Whenever you hear about another whitewashing scandal, the pain that Wong felt is still there.

Wong spent the next year in China, visiting her ancestral village and studying Chinese culture. In China, whose newspapers and politicians often called her act a “disgrace” to China, she didn’t fit in. Wong didn’t even speak Mandarin. As a Chinese American, Wong was too American to be Chinese and too Chinese to play a Chinese role. It’s a situation that could break a person, but not Anna May Wong.

Coming back to America, Wong settled with b-movies for Paramount Pictures in the late 1930s. With more flexibility allowed to the smaller budget films, Wong created more positive Chinese characters. The Chinese consul in Los Angeles gave his approval for the final scripts of two of these films, Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and King of Chinatown (1939). In Daughter of Shanghai, Wong played the Asian-American female lead in a role that was rewritten for her as the heroine of the story. In King of Chinatown, Wong played a surgeon who sacrificed a high-paying promotion in order to devote her energies to helping the Chinese fight the Japanese invasion.

During World War II Wong stepped aside from her film career and devoted herself to helping the Chinese people. After the war, she returned to moving pictures and in 1951 The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first-ever U.S. television show starring an Asian American series lead, aired. The series was written for her, using her birth name for the title role, and Wong played an art dealer involved in detective work and international intrigue. The show got canceled after one year and no copies of the show are known to exist. It was probably the last great role Anna May Wong played before she passed away in 1961.

Take a moment and imagine how awesome her character must have been. The picture in our mind probably does more justice than the real one. Then look at her photo again. Anna May Wong is no Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe, but she could have been Betty Davis or Marilyn Dietrich, given a role as good as theirs. It’s just no such role was made for her in her lifetime.

Youjin Lee
Youjin Lee is editor-in-chief of April Magazine and South Korean private attorney. She divides her time between Asia and Europe, dreaming of writing a cozy murder mystery someday. ✿ 에이프릴 매거진 편집장입니다.

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