Anna May Wong's Family
with Tony Chan
Daughter Amy, Mrs. Wong, Prof. Tony Chan, Richard Wong at the UCLA Anna May Wong Retrospective, January 10, 2004.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
NEW IN PAPERBACK
The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961)
Series: The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series #103
Anthony B. Chan
The One, The Only and The Perpetually Cool Anna May Wong
By Shirley Hsu
Author/professor Anthony Chan poignantly explains why there'll never be another Anna May Wong and what he means by 'European Americans.'
"Lucy Liu is not Anna May Wong. No one is Anna May Wong."
Interview by Shirley Hsu
Anthony B. Chan, author of "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong" is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of "Li Ka-shing: Hong Kong Elusive Billionaire" (1996), "Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World" (1983) and "Arming the Chinese: The Western Armaments Trade in Warlord China, 1920-1928" (1982).
Chan has also worked as a journalist in Hong Kong and Canada, and an independent filmmaker. He has produced The Panama (1996), Another Day in America (1989) and Chinese Cafes in Rural Saskatchewan (1985). He is currently completing a four-part series on Asian Americans in Vietnam.
Shirley: What motivated you to write a book about Anna May Wong?
Anthony Chan: I wanted to write this book for Asian Americans. It wasn't for European America. I wanted to write it for Asian Americans; I wanted to tell them what I thought as a Chinese American, what I thought about Anna May Wong as a Chinese American woman. And the things she went through, I went through. When I was young, growing up, people would call me 'chink,' and she was called 'chink.' And I wanted to go to China to find out what the hell's going on, and I went to China, and I found out I'm not Canadian - but I'm not Chinese either - so am I suspended between two worlds, as she says? Then I realized, after writing the chapter on Daoism, that you can go on two paths. Or three paths, because that's the Chinese way.
Shirley: Are there any contemporary Asian (or Asian American) actresses or actors that are currently "following in the footsteps" of Anna May Wong?
Anthony Chan: No one. I can't think of anyone.
Shirley: In terms of name recognition, what about stars such as Lucy Liu?
Anthony Chan: Did you read Scarlet Cheng's article in the LA Times? She talks about Anna May Wong being "the right person at the right time." Somehow, the situation in the 1920s, '30s and '40s allowed Anna May Wong to star in the first Technicolor film. It's quite amazing; why her? There were other people like Eda Lee, Winter Blossom, and there were some Japanese American actresses - why Anna May Wong? Why Eichberg saying, "I'm going to give you a five-picture contract?"
This would never happen today to Lucy Liu. Why? Because the situation is so different today - television has a huge impact. At that time, British films and German films were really independent industries. American films were certainly pervasive, but they weren't as pervasive as they are today where they really control maybe 95 % of the market. So somebody like Richard Eichberg from Germany, with Germans having their own cinema, could say to Anna May Wong, "Hey, why don't you come do this." I can't think of any German filmmaker that could do this to Lucy Liu.
Lucy Liu is not Anna May Wong. No one is Anna May Wong. The quality of the acting…and first of all, she's five feet seven. Anna May Wong was stunning. She wasn't beautiful - she was stunning. She had great legs - and you never see that! I mean, Chinese women with great legs, because they're usually short. Here's a tall, statuesque woman of empowerment, who knew who she was, and this confidence was shown right away in all the films she did.
Look at how she stole all the scenes in Shanghai Express. When she's there standing with the bag and she has a dagger, and Marlene Dietrich comes behind her and pulls her up, and [Wong] flips the dagger, and see how she flips the dagger - you're looking at Anna May Wong, you're not looking at Marlene Dietrich. And in the end, she's the heroine. She goes out with 20,000 bucks. Where's Marlene Dietrich? She becomes a housewife. She marries this guy, and he takes her away. It's the old European American idea of saving a woman by marrying her. So how does Hui Fei save herself? She becomes a heroine. I love that [scene in which Wong says], "I don't know what your standard of respectability is." I just love it. It was a great line, and the way she delivered it! The writers just aren't there any more. They're not there for Lucy Liu, or whatever Asian American actress is around.
Shirley: In Daughter of Shanghai, AMW costars with Philip Ahn as the two heroes of the movie, and at the end, they actually become romantically involved. How is it possible for a film like this to be made in the 1930s, with two Asian American leads who are the heroes and who become romantically involved?
Anthony Chan: It's amazing, isn't it? I mean, I think about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but that's not really a Hollywood movie, that's like an Asian movie. There's no movie like that today. When I saw that movie, I mean, Philip Ahn, he's this skinny little guy, right? He's jumping around, he's doing this Captain Kato stuff, and he's beating up the big European American guys. At the end, [Ahn and Wong are] sitting in the car next to each other, and he says to her, I'm being transferred to Washington D.C. She says-and this is so Asian, so Chinese - "Does that mean you're proposing to me?" He says, "yes," and she says, "I'll go." That's it! No kissing, no nothing, but here you have two Asian Americans actually being romantically involved, which was remarkable stuff.
Shirley: So, I guess the obvious question is, at this time, when there was so much racism against AA with the Exclusion laws, how was it possible for a movie like this to be made?
Anthony Chan: I think the times were right. She was such a big star in 1937. She had been playing since 1922, so you're looking at 15 years, and they tried to link Philip Ahn with Anna May Wong romantically outside of Hollywood, too. She was such a big star after Shanghai Express. It was just... different; there was no television, there was no real theater, so films were really one of the major vehicles of entertainment. So, why was it possible then, even when you have the Exclusion Act until 1943 and there was a lot of racism…I think the answer is, she was such a star. And remember, Hollywood was still there to make money. And she was such a star, that she was bankable. They used her. And after 1936, she wanted more positive roles.
The Daughter of Shanghai is really a wonderful movie; it's really kind of a campy movie, but there are two Asians, hitting it off! And this is a major [studio], it's Paramount - today, if you have an Asian male and Asian female hitting it off, romantically involved, what happens? It's an independent. It's not a Paramount or any other kind of film.
Shirley: Do you think that the paranoia of the time period was actually helpful in promoting Anna May Wong's fame, as it sparked interest and curiosity in Asia?
Anthony Chan: It's kind of ironic isn't it? That there's this paranoia, and yet in a lot of films this paranoia is illustrated. I can't really give you a reason why it happened, except that it happened. Why did it happen? Well, Hollywood figured it could make some money. And she was a star. I mean, look at the turnout today! [At the retrospective.]
Can [actresses] learn anything from Anna May Wong? Sure. I mean, look at the way she stands, the way she enunciates. She took political stands against a lot of things; she wrote an article called "Manchuria," which I mentioned in the book, in which she really castigates the Japanese for invading Manchuria. She was a very complex person, very rich in her personality. Lucy Liu is not rich. I mean, who is Lucy Liu? She wants to be a debutante, she wants to be a starlet. If she would say things…but she's probably got an agent who controls her. Anna May Wong had an agent but she basically controlled her own career.
There's only one Anna May Wong, and there will always be only one Anna May Wong, because she was complex, she was always learning, always willing to take risks, and after a while, she didn't really care about her career, she gave away the money - she did Bombs Over Burma, and the Lady from Chungking - she gave the money away! To the China Aid foundation. You think Lucy Liu would do that? I don't know, I have no idea, I don't even know Lucy Liu.
Shirley: In your book, you call the US "European America." Are you referring to the America of the 1920s, or of today?
Anthony Chan: It still is [European America]. The media is European American. I mean, its not Asian American, its not African American, its not Hispanic American, its European American. It's white. And, in the introduction, I talk about the using the word "white," and I decided not to use the word white, because when you think about it, the whites will call themselves whites, but they call everyone else blacks, black Americans, or Asian Americans - we're not called yellows. So I decided that since you're giving us a label, I'm gonna give you a label. And the label is this - it's not based on race or color, it's based on culture. And geography.
Therefore, instead of calling people Caucasians or whites, I call them European Americans. And in Asian American studies, there is a huge emphasis on "Chinese America." So I started thinking, Chinese America? There's got to be a European America. And if you classify European America as regions based on culture, what happens is you destroy the whole idea of superiority of whites over everyone else. You destroy the idea of dominance, you destroy the idea of hegemony. So, I don't call people Caucasian anymore, or whites. I call them European Americans. And they get pissed off.
I ask, where you from? 'Well, I'm Jewish.' Well, where you from? 'Well, I'm from Germany.' Well, is that in Europe? What about Chinese people who are born in the Netherlands, are they called Chinese? Yes! So, it's not specifically where you are born, but the regions that you come from that illustrates some cultural thing. So, those people that have ancestors in Europe, they are European Americans. Those people that have ancestors in Asia are Asian Americans. Simple as that. Geography and culture instead of race. That way, you eliminate the whole concept of dominance
So what I wanted to do was to level the playing field. So when you look at the media it's European American media - to illustrate that there's Asian American media. There's African American media.
That's where it starts, the terminology. And unless we start to do it, nobody's going to do it. We want our own media. We want our own film. We got to start referring to others as we would like to refer ourselves. So, we're called Asian Americans. Where's the Asian American media? Well, we know where the European American media is. But where do we stand? Maybe we have to do it ourselves
Shirley: What are people's reactions to your calling them "European Americans?"
Anthony Chan: They hate it. The first reviewer, Phil Hall said he really hated that term, "European American." "I'm white, I'm not European American." Well, that's what you say as a white person. I'm saying that you're European American, from my perspective, from an Asian American perspective. In other words, I'm telling you what you've always told me for many years. I'm telling you now, that you shouldn't think this way, that we're going to call you that, whether you like it or not.
I hope it really takes hold, because words really mean stuff.
APA: You've been criticized for the chapter in which you say that Anna May Wong was a Daoist. What's your reaction?
Anthony Chan: Somebody wrote a review of my book on Amazon, and one of the things he said was that Anna May Wong was a member of the Christian Scientist church - so how could she be a Daoist? See, European Americans don't understand that as a Chinese, there's no separation. You can be a Daoist, because it's a philosophy, right? And you can be a Buddhist, which could be a religion and could be a philosophy, and then you could be a Christian. It's not either/or. See, this is the problem. You're either American or you're Chinese - no, no no. Anna May Wong proves it to me. You can follow two paths. You can be Chinese American. You can be a US citizen or neither. And I surmise that she was neither.
After she left China, and she became more Daoist, and all the things she said were very Daoist. She really became Anna May Wong. There was no race, no ethnicity, no color, no nothing - there was no citizenship attached to her. And once you do that, you know what happens? You adopt your own persona. I know a lot of people are going to criticize me for the Daoist chapter, because they don't get it.
Shirley: Do you think the timing is right today for another Anna May Wong?
Anthony Chan: No. In the '20s and '30s, the world was more…forgiving. Although it was racist, and it still is racist now, but [now] its more mild; it's there, but it's more subtle. The racism was not so subtle in the '20s and '30s. European Americans are afraid of Asians. They're afraid of China.
China's a real threat to the United States, so maybe that's the reason they're kind of pushing down Asian Americans. Margaret Cho, why was her show canceled? It was canceled because the ethos of the show was white - they tried to put European American values on this Asian American sitcom. You can't do that. You see, it's easy to have shows with European American values. The values that Asian Americans have are different.
Shirley: So you actually think that the situation now is worse?
Anthony Chan: Yes. In the '20s, China was weak. I mean, there were warlords and all this business, and the Chinese Communist party was developing, and the Japanese were coming in, so they were weak. So, we can have some stars, and there's no threat to us. So, if your gonna depict the Chinese in movies, its got to be bad images. The Soviet Union used to be the bad guys; now the Chinese are the bad guys. Would there ever be a Chinese American Bill Cosby? I don't think its very promising.
You know what I think it is? You've got to have really good writers. Before this takes off, before there's an Asian American presence in cinema, there has to be really good writers, writers that don't ape after European Americans stories. It's a big question of storytelling. These guys have got to not do the stuff that people do in Hollywood; they have to do something different, varied, complex enough that people say wow, what's this? When Anna May Wong went to Europe, all these people went, "Wow, what is this?" Like an apparition, right? They were just enamored; they fell in love with her.
So, if there's gonna be an Asian American film industry, it's got to be written by Asian American writers.
What are the lessons of AMW? She's such a star. Why aren't there any [Asian American] stars today? In those days, Hollywood and Europe were willing to give her a chance.
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Date Posted: 1/23/2004
Full Text :COPYRIGHT 2004 Heldref Publications
Chan, Anthony B. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961) Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield 320 pp., $45.00 ISBN: 0-8108-4789-2 Publication Date: November 2003
In Anthony B. Chan's timely book, Hollywood screen icon Anna May Wong is resurrected and reinterpreted for a new generation that may be unfamiliar with American's first genuine Chinese American movie star. Wong was a household name around the world in the 1920s and 1930s, first as a silent film star in such classics as Toll of the Sea (1922) and the British production Picadilly (1929). In 1932, she would win rave reviews as Marlene Dietrich's co-star in Shanghai Express, directed by the great Josef von Stemberg. An icon of glamour and "exotic" beauty, her image was used to sell everything from cigarettes to fashion, yet Hollywood never quite knew what to do with Wong and her later career in film never matched the quality or promise of Shanghai Express. In China and America, Wong was denounced for portraying stereotypical "exotic" images of Chinese women, from a sexy seductress in Douglas Fairbanks's The Thief of Baghdad (1924) to "dragon lady" types--for example, in the Fu Manchu film Daughter of the Dragon (1930). Such negative and simplistic readings of Wong's career unfortunately have persisted into the present.
Chan's excellent book rescues Wong from both of these stereotypes and shows what a resourceful and talented actress she really was and how she fought the stereotypes imposed on her by a racist society. He notes that when Wong tired of playing secondary roles to white women who were done up in "yellow face," makeup meant to make them look Chinese but which actually succeeded in making them look inhuman, Wong went to Europe and filmed a number of successful films for British and German studios, who were anxious to compete with Hollywood. She learned to speak a multitude of European languages so that she could perform in plays and cabaret routines in which she sang, danced, and recited Chinese poetry and folksongs in her parents' native Taishanese dialect. Toward the end of her career, after returning to the United States, she turned down demeaning secondary roles and went to China where she filmed a documentary to show America what China was really like. She was also very active in providing funds for the Chinese victims of the Japanese invasion throughout World War II, donating the proceeds of two of her films to this effort. She also briefly starred in a television series and was set to make a Hollywood comeback in Flower Drum Song when she died in 1961 at the age of fifty-six.
Some academic essays have portrayed Wong as a perpetual victim. Certainly she did face her share of racism--she was notably denied the starring role in the film version of Pearl Buck's bestseller The Good Earth (1937), which European actress Luise Rainer played instead. But as Chan points out in his excellent research into her multifaceted career, Wong created a career for herself that was unattainable to most other Asian Americans at that time. She was tireless in thinking of ways to work as an actress, whether Hollywood recognized the depth of her talent or not. She managed to earn enough money to support her many siblings and to send them to college--even though she herself dropped out of high school in order to pursue an acting career. She was also brilliant in promoting her ventures--no small feat!--and creating a sophisticated image for herself (and Chinese women as well) at a time when most images in America portrayed Chinese as buck-toothed, slit-eyed, and decidedly unglamorous.
Unlike other current books on Anna May Wong, Chan quotes Wong extensively, allowing her to speak for herself in describing her motivations and desires. Wong, known for her wit, comes across as intelligent and sophisticated, certainly not as anybody's victim.
Chan's book Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong would be a welcome edition to any library's Asian American and film collections and would be appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate students.
Chan is an associate professor of communications at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Nobody's Lotus Flower: "Rediscovering Anna May Wong" Film Retrospective
By Shirley Hsu
Even during a period of intense anti-Chinese racism, Anna May Wong commanded the screen. Today, no other Asian American actress matches her success. Where are the Anna May Wongs of today?
Legendary Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961) once said she left cinema because she died too often. The first Asian American woman to become a Hollywood star, Wong seemed doomed to die tragically in nearly every role she played, whether shot by a jealous lover, accidentally impaled on a sword, or drowned in the ocean by her own hand. It seemed harmony could not be restored unless she, the foreign interloper, was killed - a potent message about the place of Chinese Americans in America during the 1920s and '30s.
And yet, onscreen, the stunning Wong commanded the camera. At 5'7", she stood several inches taller than Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932), and her charismatic manner and large, arresting eyes stole every scene from Gilda Gray in Piccadilly (1929). Again and again, she was typecast as the exotic and dangerous "dragon lady" or the innocent "lotus flower," but she brought subtlety and grace to her stereotypical roles, and attracted adoring fans from Hollywood and London to Berlin, Paris, and even Shanghai.
Now, the woman who "died a thousand deaths," as she joked, is being reborn. UCLA's twelve-feature film retrospective, titled "Rediscovering Anna May Wong," opened January 9 with the newly restored silent gem Piccadilly, and is part of a spurt of recent interest in Wong's life and works. Piccadilly, restored by the British Film Institute, played to a sold out crowd at the New York Film Festival, and will be screened in New York this weekend along with an accompanying five-film retrospective put together by the Museum of Modern Art. Three new books have been written about her life, and several documentaries on her life are in the works.
UCLA is an ideal location for the retrospective because of its extensive collection of Anna May Wong films (the largest in the country) and its large collection of films from Paramount, says Mimi Brody, UCLA film archivist who coordinated the event. "So many of Anna May Wong's films are so difficult to find on video, except for maybe Shanghai Express and Thief of Baghdad," says Brody. "Her films are very hard to see. You would have had to travel to Europe to see some of them."
The packed audience on opening night, which included a sprinkling of young people amidst the expected older crowd, shows that Wong's allure remains strong forty years after her death. "I was delighted to see so many young people [in the audience]," says Brody. "UCLA has a huge Asian population, and so I hope that students were able to rediscover her and appreciate her, and obviously they took an interest." The retrospective will end this Sunday with screenings of Java Head and Tiger Bay.
No other Asian American actress has come close to matching Anna May Wong's success. Over the span of her forty-year career, she appeared in over 60 films and starred in at least a dozen. She became the darling of Europe during her travels there in 1928; rumor had it that she was even invited to be presented to the British court (at the time, no Chinese woman had ever been introduced there). Writes Anthony Chan, author of "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong" and a lecturer at the retrospective, "She was one of the few shining stars in a European America that subordinated or dismissed the lives, labor, talents, and thoughts of Asian Americans as simply irrelevant."
Most importantly, she was able to surmount the stereotypical roles often handed to her to some degree, especially in the later years of her career. In 1937, she costarred with Philip Ann in Daughter of Shanghai, a groundbreaking film for Asian American cinema. In an unusual break from the exotic and dangerous Chinese villain, Wong and Ahn co-starred as the heroes of the day who defeat the criminals, and even end up being romantically involved - a remarkable breakthrough, considering the social taboos of the time.
Her achievement in the Paramount produced Daughter of Shanghai is even more staggering when you consider that even today, a movie starring two Asian American actors in positive roles who become romantically involved is conspicuously absent from mainstream Hollywood. Says Chan, "Today, if you have an Asian male and an Asian female hitting it off, romantically involved, what happens? It's an independent. It's not a Paramount."
The renewed interest in Wong comes at a time when Asian American cinema is jostling for its identity - sandwiched between Asian imports and mainstream Hollywood studios not quite ready to sign on APA stars. Asian American cinema remains largely in the realm of independent film. A star like Anna May Wong could be just what is needed to put APA cinema on the map.
But where are the Anna May Wongs of today?
Stars such as Nancy Kwan, Maggie Cheung, and Lucy Liu have seen some measure of her success, but no single Asian American woman has achieved Wong's prolific success and name recognition.
Most amazingly, Wong's stardom fell under one of the worst periods in history for Chinese Americans. In a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, Congress passed the Immigration Exclusion Act of 1924, effectively barring all classes of Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Chinese Americans faced special taxes levied especially for them, and they were prohibited from testifying in court against whites. The ethos of the time seemed decidedly anti-Chinese, and yet audiences couldn't get enough of Wong.
Perhaps this very paranoia and fear of the "yellow peril" helped propel Wong to stardom. Americans, both threatened and intrigued by the Chinese could satiate their curiosity in the safety of a theater seat. Brody surmises, "At this time, there was definitely a preponderance in Hollywood of this sort of naïve, exotic depictions of 'the Orient,' and these Orientalist fantasy films were in vogue in the 1920s and '30s. Certainly, there were more roles available for someone like Anna May Wong."
The screen seemed to provide a way to explore and release the anxieties of the day. Fear of miscegenation was a common theme in Wong's films, and stories that involved Wong's character becoming sexually involved with Caucasian men always ended in Wong's murder or suicide. In real life, Wong could never marry - she explained that a Chinese man would not support her film career, while law forbade marriage to a Caucasian man.
Other films more blatantly explored the fear that the "yellow peril" could be right at your doorstep, literally. In Daughter of the Dragon, Wong plays the daughter of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, who plots to fulfill her father's vendetta against the Petrie family by killing John Petrie, who happens to live conveniently next door to her.
Discrimination against Chinese Americans comes more discreetly today, and one of its subtle forms is the lack of diverse, thoughtful roles for Asian American actors and actresses. Even today, the "dragon lady" and "lotus blossom" molds are hard to break, and yet, in the 1930s, Wong did break out of these molds. In Shanghai Express, Wong plays the cool, detached Hui Fei who kills the communist rebel Henry Chang to become the heroine and makes off with twenty-thousand dollars in reward money. Wong's biographers insist that she tried to bring authenticity to her acting by studying Chinese culture. Offscreen, she used her influence to denounce the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and to raise funds for the China Aid Foundation.
Perhaps this, then, is the lesson that Wong holds for us today: that if she could succeed in the 1930s, than certainly Asian American actors and actresses can accomplish the same today. Next year marks Wong's centennial, underscoring the disturbing reality that nearly a century after the star's birth, no Asian American actress has taken her place.
In 1936, Wong was passed over for the prized role of O-lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, a role which she coveted. When the role went to German-born Luise Rainer, who performed with a cast of other Caucasian actors in "yellowface" makeup, a disillusioned Wong left Hollywood again, this time bound for China. Her journey was recorded on film and years later, narrated by Wong on the television program "Bold Journey: Native Land" (1957). During her visit, Wong was berated by the Chinese government for portraying the Chinese in a negative light, but also treated to a hero's welcome in many locales. Wong later recalled the elaborate, forty-course meals she was treated to, and the gazes of wonderment from many locals who had previously believed she wasn't real - that she existed only on film.
The cameras follow as Wong tours her ancestral lands. She is radiant, smiling at the camera as she explores the open-air markets and climbs the steps to a Buddhist temple. She rides in a rickshaw and is dressed in a traditional chi pao she ordered upon arrival, tailor-made with fabric she chose. Finally, it is time for the long awaited reunion with her father, who had moved back to China many years ago. As she joyfully reunites with him, she is, for a moment, neither Chinese, nor American; she is no longer the exotic temptress, the submissive lotus flower, the femme fatale or the freewheeling flapper. She is only Anna May Wong - and that was the secret to her success.
Date Posted: 1/23/2004
February 14, 2004 [Photo] During her career, Anna May Wong was criticized by Chinese for her scanty outfits and for perpetuating stereotypes. But she was also revered for demanding parity with white.
During her career, Anna May Wong was criticized by Chinese for her scanty outfits and for perpetuating stereotypes. But she was also revered for demanding parity with white.
[Photo] ‘Perpetually Cool" Late actress Anna May Wong defied expectations By Yayoi Lena Winfrey
For the Northwest Asian Weekly
Growing up in Victoria, B.C., Anthony B. Chan often heard his parents rave about a favorite film. Released in 1932, the same year that Chan’s parents were married, “Shanghai Express” (about lovers reunited onboard a train during the Chinese civil war) unbelievably featured a Chinese American actress alongside Marlene Dietrich.
“(My parents) would talk about how great and lovely Anna May Wong was on screen,” says Chan of the film’s co-star.
Later, while visiting Shanghai, Chan met his wife’s uncle and learned that “Shanghai Express” had moved him, too, even though he was all the way across the sea. Chan vowed then to write about Wong someday.
After publishing four books on other subjects, he finally penned a manuscript about the legendary thespian, “mostly to satisfy my curiosity about this movie star that kept cropping up at my parents’ dinner table,” he explains.
Now an associate professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Washington, Chan recently published Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961).
Winsome and willowy, Wong made an unforgettable impact on Hollywood with her portrayals of dragon ladies and lotus blossoms during a time when racism raged and Asians were rarely seen in American movies. Criticized by Chinese for her scanty outfits and for perpetuating stereotypes, Wong was also revered for daring to demand parity with her white counterparts. During her illustrious career, she appeared in more than 60 features, making the transition from silent films to talkies to, later, television. She also performed in stage plays and vaudeville, and acted in three languages. No other Asian American actor before or since has matched her accomplishments.
Wong was born in Los Angeles in 1905. Despite being given the birth name Wong Liu Tsong, meaning Frosted Yellow Willow, she was a typical Californian kid. She loved hanging around movie sets whenever productions shot on-location in Chinatown. At 14, she began working as a film extra, but soon garnered supporting roles. She landed her first leading role at age 17 in the breakthrough Technicolor feature “The Toll of the Sea.”
Forced to play tragic women, the witty Wong bemoaned “dying a thousand deaths.” She lamented about leaving Hollywood for Europe in 1928 because her characters were always killed off or else committed suicide. Yet Wong always managed to perform with dignity, insisting on authentic costumes and customs in every film.
Citing Wong’s humor, intelligence and talent, Chan says he wrote the biography “from an Asian American sensibility (telling) the Asian American story.”
He chose the title Perpetually Cool because scenes in both “Shanghai Express” and “Piccadilly” feature Wong as “coolness personified” and “the consummate detached hipster.”
“Here was this Chinese American woman who was able to banter confidently with white ladies,” Chan marvels of Wong’s composed characters.
That such conduct was tolerated at a time when both Canada (1923-1947) and the United States (1882-1943) enforced Chinese Exclusionary laws is shocking.
“(Wong’s) most quoted line — life is too serious to take serious — exuded ultimate coolness,” adds Chan.
Because of her smoldering sexuality barely concealed behind Wong’s icy stare and perfect poise, Chan likens the 5-foot-7-inch beauty to Marlon Brando’s onscreen character in “The Wild Ones.”
Rejected for the role of O-lan in “The Good Earth” (Austrian Luise Rainer was chosen because miscegenation laws forbade Wong to be kissed onscreen by Caucasian star Paul Muni), Wong traveled to China in 1936. Returning to Hollywood with a reaffirmation of her Daoist beliefs, she was offered more positive roles as a physician, a diplomat, a general’s daughter, a detective and, in “Daughter of Shanghai,” a heroic figure opposite Korean American actor Philip Ahn.
A feminist before it was considered chic, Wong never married, explaining that a Chinese husband would not likely support her career, and that marriage to a Caucasian was illegal.
“Her credibility was accomplished without some male defining her,” says Chan. “She succeeded in spite of the rampant racism, sexism and the patriarchal arena in which she lived.”
Turning to alcohol for solace, Wong eventually drank herself to death. She succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver in 1961.
A former television journalist, producer and anchor, Chan is now an independent filmmaker with several projects that have aired on television and screened at film festivals. He’ll give a pre-screening talk at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 13 at The Grand Illusion, where “Piccadilly” runs through Feb. 19. Chan will sign copies of Perpetually Cool at the University Bookstore at 7 p.m. on March 1.
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Family Trio, L-R Liu Ying Wong (Lulu), mother Gin Tony Lee, Liu Tsong Wong (Anna May Wong, 1908. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"Anthony B. Chan...[divides] his book into three sections. One is a bio spanning childhood in L.A.'s Chinese community to her stardom in silent and sound films in Hollywood and Europe. Another addresses everything from Wong's attitudes toward Asian cultures to her Taoist religious beliefs. The third dissects Wong's work in her most celebrated roles, including Toll of the Sea and Shanghai Express."—VARIETY
"Winsome and willowy, Wong made an unforgettable impact on Hollywood with her portrayals of dragon ladies and lotus blossoms during a time when racism raged and Asians were rarely seen in American movies. Criticized by Chinese for her scanty outfits and for perpetuating stereotypes, Wong was also revered for daring to demand parity with her white counterparts. During her illustrious career, she appeared in more than 60 features, making the transition from silent films to talkies to, later, television. She also performed in stage plays and vaudeville, and acted in three languages. No other Asian American actor before or since has matched her accomplishments."—NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
"...suitable in collections extending to the culture of film."—CHOICE
"...passionately explores...themes from a distinctively Asian American perspective...sets [Wong's] story in the context of the history of Chinese-Americans."—Richard James Havis, CINEASTE
"It [is] 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."—Robert Gottlieb, THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
"A welcome edition to any library's Asian American and film collections and would be appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate students."—ASIAN AFFAIRS
"[A] detailed analyses of some of Wong's most famous films. Each chapter could stand alone as a scholarly discussion of film and cultural theory as well as a biographical account of the actress's life....sheds new light on this remarkable woman."—FOREWORD MAGAZINE
"...tantalizingly intriguing..."—SEATTLE WEEKLY
"Perpetually Cool is more analytical and more concerned with placing Wong in the context of Chinese and Chinese American history. As the title suggests (Chan) sees her as an innate hipster and compares her performance in Piccadilly to Marlon Brando's turn in The Wild One."—J. Hoberman, VILLAGE VOICE
"Chan's take on Anna May Wong is a breath of fresh air! Perpetually Cool shines the spotlight on the woman behind the myth. Chan's portrayal of Anna May Wong as an ancestral forerunner of overseas Chinese feminism is a real tour de force. This book is spicy, intoxicating and journalistically sound, a welcome addition to our growing canon of East-West stories."—Christina M. Wong, regular contributor to CBC Radio
"Chan's book details the life and career of an important Chinese-American actress whose work has been neglected. Like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, Anna May Wong was a talented, beautiful woman of color limited by the restrictions of the Hollywood film industry. Her personal and professional story is an engrossing read for anyone interested in our social and cultural history"—Al Sampson, SIMA Institute of Media Arts
"Anthony B. Chan helps a new generation discover the phenomenon of Anna May Wong. With a historian's flair for social context, Professor Chan not only conveys the complexity of this singular Asian American actress, but he also shows how she was both constrained and emboldened by the times into which she was born. This book is a fitting tribute to a woman whose perpetually cool style was at least matched, if not exceeded, by her shrewd ability to beat the odds."—Kevin Kawamoto, Media Scholar
"Perpetually Cool celebrates the determination and style of Anna May Wong, whose strength of character has inspired me in my passion as a designer. Through Ms. Wong's universally understood story, this book provides an astounding portrayal of the Chinese American experience. With clarity, passion, and integrity, Professor Chan helps us to understand the enigma that is Ms. Wong"—Maggie Norris, Designer
"Born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles in 1905, Anna May Wong became Hollywood's first Chinese-American movie star. In this biography, independent filmmaker Chan (communication, U. of Washington) tells the story of Wong's life and examines the effects of racist ideologies on her career. The volume concludes with textual analyses of Wong's signature films, including The Thief of Bagdad(1924) and Shanghai Express(1932). This is the first paperback edition of a volume first published in 2003."—May 2007, REFERENCE & RESEARCH BOOK NEWS
An uneasy success
Anna May Wong hit the screen when Asian American stars didn't exist. Her mystique, and the stereotypes, endure.
By Scarlet Cheng, Special to The Times
She was the first Asian movie star in the West, and her career spanned four decades, bridging the silent films to talkies, and even venturing onto stage and into early television. Anna May Wong was a woman in the right place at the right time.
Born in Los Angeles to traditional Chinese parents in 1905, her star-struck ambition and her svelte good looks coincided with a taste for Oriental exotica on stage and screen in the U.S. and in Europe in the '20s and the '30s. Her career rose meteorically, yet she would find it hard to escape the crater of stereotyping into which she too easily tripped. "Rediscovering Anna May Wong," presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archive from Friday through Jan. 25, includes 12 features from the apex of her stardom. They range from the silent film "Toll of the Sea" (1922), her first starring role, to "Shanghai Express" (1932), her most famous, to rarely seen B pictures like "Daughter of the Dragon" (1931) and "Daughter of Shanghai" (1937) that were her staple.
In the last decade several of these have been beautifully restored — most recently "Piccadilly" (1929), which was Wong's last silent film and one in which she plays a cheeky scullery maid who becomes the glittering headliner at a swank London nightclub. In this and countless other films, she does her obligatory Oriental-style shimmy, here a concoction with Thai and Balinese flavors, in a scanty Oriental-style costume while desire-filled white men look on.
"For a good 10 years she received top billing, she was a huge international star," says Mimi Brody, who programmed the UCLA series. "For an Asian American actress there's no comparison for the scope of her career."
During World War ll, Wong announced her retirement and did fundraising for the United China Relief Fund. But she couldn't stay away from show business and in the 1950s she made several television and movie appearances. She was gearing up for a movie comeback and was slated for a key role in the movie version of "Flower Drum Song" when she died of a heart attack in 1961.
Lotus Flower key role
Anna MAY WONG started out in the business taking on bit parts while still a teenager and living at home helping out in the family laundry business. Then she landed the starring role in "Toll of the Sea." Set in some Hollywood-lot China and borrowing heavily from "Madame Butterfly," the film had the young actress playing willowy Lotus Flower, who falls in love with a white merchant.
After impregnating her, the merchant abandons her, then later returns with his white wife. Naturally, Lotus Flower has to fling herself into the sea in disgrace, the first of many films in which Wong was obliged to die — by her hand or at the hand of others — by the close of the film. (Poisoning and stabbing were particularly popular denouements for her characters.) Sometimes she takes this drastic measure because of thwarted love, especially when she realizes she is no match for the white female interest of the white male hero ("Toll of the Sea," "Java Head," "Dangerous to Know"). For even though she entices the man, she rarely gets him, consistent with the contemporary bias that while miscegenation was titillating, it wasn't really acceptable.
The actress' next big break came from silent superstar Douglas Fairbanks, who cast her as the slave girl/Mongol spy in "The Thief of Bagdad" (not in the UCLA series). But while the film made her famous, she was slotted into a series of small roles in Hollywood until she decided to jump-start her career in Europe.
German director Richard Eichberg had offered her a five-picture film contract, and in 1928 she moved to Europe, chaperoned by her sister. Two years later she had learned enough German and French to make three versions of Eichberg's "The Flame of Love" — in English, German and French, with three different leading men.
When she finally returned to Los Angeles, she was in demand, eventually tallying some 60 features, most of which have been lost. Nearly all played heavily on racial and cultural stereotypes. During the Depression there was a huge appetite for foreign accents, foreign people and foreign locations, preferably with scenes of high living and untold luxury thrown in, but in the end the morality of the time would have to reassert itself.
The fascination for Anna May Wong continues, perhaps in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of her birth.
There are three new books about Wong: Anthony Chan's "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961)" was published last October, and soon to come are another biography, Graham Hodges' "Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend," and a well-researched reference book, Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane's "Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work."
Chan, a former journalist who teaches at the University of Washington in Seattle, will give an illustrated talk about Wong at UCLA on Saturday. Speaking by phone, he acknowledges that Wong fell into highly stereotyped roles but admires what she achieved. "Through racism and patriarchy she was [still] able to succeed," he says.
In fact, she succeeded partly because she played into racism and patriarchy, Chan believes. Typically, she was made up to look like a China doll, with straight-cut bangs, pencil eyebrows and heavy eyeliner, often dressed in some exotic get-up, high-neck tunics and embroidered robes. She had two main roles, each delivered in a highly mannered way: the Dragon Lady whose evil machinations cause death and destruction and the Lotus Blossom who's all too eager to please her man.
Wong was aware of her uneasy position. As early as 1925 she said in a newspaper interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, "It is hard to get into the pictures, but it is harder to keep in them. Of course, it is nice enough if one gets a five-year contract as some of the actors do, but freelancing which I do is not easy. You see, there are not many Chinese parts."
Now and then we get glimpses of what Wong was capable of and could have become had she had better material and better directors. Take her role as Hui Fei, the Chinese woman sharing a train compartment with the notorious Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich), in "Shanghai Express." While Wong had her usual sullen demeanor and few speaking lines, director Josef von Sternberg brought out the spark of her inner life. In one brief scene an elderly passenger barges in on them, announcing that she is running a "respectable" boarding house in Shanghai.
Wong, who has been calmly and resolutely playing solitaire, hands back the woman's calling card with acid dripping in her voice: "I must confess I don't quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boarding house, Mrs. Haggerty." Toward the end of the film, she is playing solitaire again, this time after having exacted her revenge upon a rebel officer (Warner Oland, playing yellowface again) who has assaulted her. She throws down a card with emphasis. "Death has canceled his debt to me."
Apparently, Dietrich thought she'd been upstaged by Wong. There are those who see this luminous film who might very well agree with her.
'Rediscovering Anna May Wong'
When: Friday, Jan. 9, through Jan. 25
Where: James Bridges Theater, 1409 Melnitz Hall, UCLA, Westwood
Contact: (310) 206-FILM or www.cinema.ucla.edu
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