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A look back at the life and times of the first Hollywood Asian Film Star.
A victim of the times she lived in, Anna May Wong’s life was filled with irony and bittersweet tragedy. As the only female Asian-American star to grace the Hollywood screen during the silent (and later sound) period of the 1920s and '30s, Wong bitterly experienced the era’s discriminatory glass ceiling. The majority of Asian characters in Hollywood films were played by Caucasian actors who taped their eyes to look the part of the "Oriental" villain or exotic vixen. At 5'7" and blessed with delicate features and a graceful sinewy body, Wong smoldered seductive sensuality yet she was rarely given a role that equaled her abilities or beauty.
She was born Wong Liu Tsong (Wong Liu-tsong) in 1905 in Los Angeles’ old Chinatown District. Her family of six brothers and sisters lived above their parents’ squalid laundry. She often escaped to the nickelodeon to imagine a life far away from the stench of strangers’ dirty clothing. At 11, she decided she wanted to become a screen starlet.
Wong paved her path towards fame and fortune by beginning in steady but thankless work as a background player. Her big break occurred a few years later at the age of 17 when she broke through as the female protagonist in a blockbuster called "Toll of the Sea" (1922) - an adaptation of Puccini’s "Madame Butterfly." With such a precocious debut, the media clamored around her begging for interviews. Sadly in a cruel twist of fate, her first major role as a distraught widow disavowed by her American husband's family would prove to be one of the few romantic leads she would have the opportunity to play in her entire career.
As Hollywood came knocking with offers in such films as Douglas Fairbanks’ production of "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924) (in which she was cast as a Mongol slave girl) it became apparent to Wong that her dreams of stardom weren’t materializing as she had hoped. She was continuously offered demoralizing, stereotypical roles in poorly written B-movies. In 1929, frustrated over losing an Asian supporting role to Myrna Loy in "The Crimson City" (1928), she ventured to Europe to discover the depth of material that had for so long eluded her in America. Upon leaving, she explained " I was tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that on the screen the Chinese are always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass…[w]e have a rigid code of behavior, or honor. Why do they never show that on screen?"
Unlike her homeland, Wong found that Europeans were far warmer and receptive to her arrival. Over the course of her career, Europe would provide a sort of refuge for her battered and disheartened soul over the humiliating roles she was offered in America. In Europe, she was considered a top star who was able to mix with the social elite. She worked for and alongside some of the most notable names in international cinema who finally gave her the opportunity to play multi-dimensional characters that could tap into her well of talent so long hidden before American cameras.
One film which garnered some of the most positive reviews in her career was playing the scullery maid who is unexpectedly caught in a tragic love triangle in EA Dupont’s British silent film classic "Piccadilly" (1929). On the London stage she played opposite a young Laurence Olivier in a "Circle of Chalk" that was expressly produced for her. Wong would journey back across the Atlantic several more times as she felt that her race and culture were less of an issue and her talents better appreciated. She would eventually grace the stage and screen in England, France, Germany, and Austria.
In 1936, after being asked by MGM executives to screen test for the only villainous role in the adaptation to Pearl Buck’s novel about Chinese peasant life in "The Good Earth," Wong decried "you’re asking me - with my Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters." Distraught and disillusioned, she once again set out abroad - but this time to a place she had never been before, east of China. When she arrived, she was mobbed, feted and received as a major celebrity; she was even given an honorary state dinner in Nanjing. But she received quite a shock when her hosts unexpectedly denounced her choice in film roles. They publicly condemned Wong for her degrading and insulting portrayals of the Chinese race; many of her films were even banned for what was perceived to be anti-Chinese sentiments. Nonetheless, Wong would eventually stay for ten months in China traveling and learning about the culture that was as foreign to her as to any Westerner.
She returned to America in 1937 and completed only a handful of noteworthy films such as "Daughter of Shanghai"(1937) and "The Lady from Chungking" (1942) before announcing her semi-retirement in 1942. Though she lived a relatively quiet life, interspersed with periodic work in film and television, she desired more in her private life. Through much of her career, the media romantically linked her to other Asian screen stars of the day such as Philip Ahn and Sessue Hayakawa though in secret she had relationships with Caucasian men but because of miscegenation laws, she was never able to marry.
She died peacefully in her sleep in 1961 at the age of 54 and though the face that had represented Oriental beauty for so many decades was lost into the vortex of late night TV obscurity, a new generation of fans have rediscovered her work. Despite the tragedy that she was at the right place at the wrong time in history, Anna May Wong’s legacy will be the road of dreams she paved for future generations of aspiring Asian-Americans.
UCLA Film and Television Archive is featuring an Anna May Wong film retrospective called "Rediscovering Anna May Wong" on Friday, January 9 – Sunday, January 25. All films screen at the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall, located on the northeast corner of the UCLA Westwood campus, near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue.
For more information, please visit: www.cinema.ucla.edu or http://www.international.ucla.edu/asia/showevent.asp?eventid=1305.
Date Posted: 1/9/2004