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Reel Sotries: A Tribute to Anna May Wong, an Asian Pacific American Screen Icon

By Phil Chung, Jul 02, 2004

Much has already been written about the pioneering Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong in these pages, so please indulge me as I add another voice to the already crowded chorus.

The current interest in Wong seems to be as strong as it was during the height of her reign as a Hollywood star, with the recent release of several books about her life and career, retrospectives of her work in San Francisco and Los Angeles earlier this year, and the 100th anniversary of her birth to be celebrated in January next year.

Add to this another event that will honor Wong's legacy: On July 7, the Los Angeles Conservancy will provide a screening of the classic Shanghai Express at the renovated Orpheum Theatre downtown as part of the 18th annual Last Remaining Seats series of classic films.

"I had been proposing showing an Anna May Wong film for the last four years to [our] Historic Theatre Committee and it was finally approved last December," explains Alan Barasorda of the Conservancy.

The centerpiece of the program will be the screening of a recently restored print of the 1932 Shanghai Express which is considered by many to be Wong's best. The film is one of the best-known of the seven collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich. In what is arguably her most famous role as Shanghai Lily, Dietrich spouts the unforgettable line: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."

Wong played the mysterious Hui Fei who seeks revenge against the evil Chinese warlord Chang (played by Warner Oland in "yellow face") in a performance that many critics have remarked equals or surpasses that of the legendary Dietrich.

In addition to the movie, the evening will also include a rare screening of newsreel footage of Wong's 1936 trip to Shanghai accompanied live by veteran organist Bob Mitchell and a performance by the Chinese American Dancing Group of two traditional Chinese dances, "ribbon dance" and "holiday festival dance."

The evening will be hosted by veteran actor James Hong of Blade Runner and Chinatown, and members of Wong's family are scheduled to attend.

The event is an effort to reintroduce her legacy to a generation that may not be aware of the pioneering efforts of Asian Pacific America's first movie star. Her career spanned five decades from her unbilled appearance in the 1919 silent film The Red Lantern to a role she was to play in the 1961 film version of the stage musical Flower Drum Song (she passed away before she could do the part). Wong is also best-known for her roles in the first Technicolor film The Toll of the Sea where she played a character based on Madame Butterfly and the 1925 Douglas Fairbanks classic The Thief of Baghdad, which cemented her stardom when she slinked onscreen as a sexy slave girl. All in all, she appeared in over 50 films.

"Anna May Wong personified the essence of Asian [Pacific] America," says Anthony B. Chan, author of the book Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong. "In spite of the rampant racism in Hollywood, she was able to persevere with her superior intelligence, cinematic and theatrical talents, high ambitions, ability to adapt, good looks, and her legendary sense of humor."

In addition to her artistry, Wong is also remembered for her humanitarian efforts. During World War II, she worked tirelessly to fundraise for various Chinese relief agencies that supported Chinese people suffering under the occupation of the Japanese Imperial Army. A number of her films from this era (such as Daughter of Shanghai) also directly embrace this pro-Chinese agenda.

The Wong tribute will take place on the 68th anniversary of China's declaration of war against Japan — July 7, 1936 — and the consul general of the People's Republic of China will be presenting a proclamation that night praising the cinematic and humanitarian achievements of the APA screen icon.

"There is only one Anna May Wong," Chan adds. "She understood the world and by using it for her own purposes, she was able to achieve agency and empowerment."

For more information or to purchase tickets to the Last Remaining Seats screening of Shanghai Express July 7 at 8 p.m., go to www.laconservancy.org or call 213-430-4219.

Philip W. Chung is a writer and co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble which will next present the world premiere of Claim to Fame in L.A. from July 24-Aug. 29. For more information go to www.lodestonetheatre.org.

Philip W. Chung is a writer and a co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles.

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