Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Anna May Wong: Actor and Activist

Anna May Wong (3 January 1905 - 3 February 1961)

The Arts & Leisure section of today's New York Times features a cover story on Asian-American actors by Amanda Hess titled "We Will Not Be Ignored." (Interestingly, the online version, which I've linked to here, changes the pronoun case from "we" to "they," suggesting the statement about refusal belongs to Hess rather than to the actors photographed for the piece,  Aziz Ansari, Daniel Dae Kim, BD Wong, and Constance Wu--the piece online is titled "Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored.")

Anna May Wong,
photographed by George Hurrell in 1938
The actors not only decry Hollywood's persistent stereotypes of Asian Americans, but also a more recent and troubling trend, "whitewashing": "taking Asian roles and stories and filling them with white actors." 

The term itself is new, and represents a practice different from "yellowface," which refers to white performers using makeup and prosthetics to "play" Asian roles. 

Not that yellowface has gone away, unfortunately (for an NPR story, "Why We've Been Seeing More 'Yellowface' in Recent Months," click here), but for now attention has turned from transforming white actors into Asian characters to the practice of simply erasing Asian characters from source material and then casting white actors to play these racially scrubbed roles.

While acknowledging that it has "never been easy for an Asian-American actor to get work in Hollywood," the Times piece seems to suggest that a combination of hashtag activism, public awareness, and "raw, unapologetic anger" might actually change things, but, then again, Hess concludes, "Whether that translates into change on-screen is an open question." 

An open question indeed. Hollywood has been here before.

Hess's excellent piece unfortunately goes no farther back in Hollywood history than George Takei's Hikaru Sulu in the TV Star Wars series (1966-69) and Margaret Cho's All American-American Girl, which ran on ABC for one season in 1994.

And so today seemed a great day to post about Anna May Wong. Born in Los Angeles, Wong began her film career as an extra in 1919, but by the time she was seventeen, she had been cast in a leading role in the 1922 The Toll of the Sea, a reworking of the Madame Butterfly story.

And that part, unfortunately, signaled the difficulties for Wong--racial stereotyping limited the roles she was offered either to subservient, submissive "China doll" (or "lotus blossom") characters or to predatory, dangerous "dragon lady" parts. She also appeared in a range of roles that called for an exoticized "other"--from a Mongol slave girl (in 1924's The Thief of Baghdad) to the indigenous Keok (in 1924's The Alaskan) and a Native American (to the extent that Peter Pan's Princess Tiger Lily is any kind of representation of a native woman).

But mostly her roles were variations on the Butterfly and Dragon Lady stereotypes. Like other actors of color, Wong was limited by racism, but she was also limited by state censorship boards that refused to screen films that contained depictions of inter-racial relationships. Industry restrictions from 1927 known as "The Don'ts and Be Carefuls" included "miscegenation" as a "shall not"--one of eleven "things" that would not "appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated." The eleven "do nots" and the twenty-five "be carefuls" were formalized in the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPA) Production Code of 1930, frequently referred to as the Hayes Code.

According to the Production Code, "miscegenation  (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden." This act, while not explicitly including Chinese Americans or Japanese Americans, for example, effectively barred Wong from leading-lady roles and condemned her to caricatures of doomed, submissive women or demonic, sexually predatory women. (For "The Production Code and 'Miscegenation," from the Film Reference encyclopedia, click here.)

Wong and Dietrich,
in Shanghai Express
Wong moved to Europe, where she had a spectacular career, culminating in her last silent film, Piccadilly, from 1929. She returned to Hollywood and took one more dragon-lady role, playing Fu Manchu's daughter Ling Moy in the 1931 Daughter of the Dragon (Fu Manchu was, of course, played by the Swedish-American Warner Oland in yellowface).

But in 1932 Wong co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in the unforgettable Shanghai Express. (Wong had met and become friends with Dietrich during her time in Europe.) Wong plays a prostitute, Hui Fei, but in this she is matched by Dietrich's Shanghai Lily, also a sexual adventuress. They are both "coasters"--women who live "by their wits," traveling on the China coast. Dietrich's character avoids rape by the evil Henry Chang (described as a "Eurasian," but the character is played by Warner Oland, again in yellowface), but Wong's Hui Fei is not so lucky. Later the stoic Lui Fei quietly assassinates the warlord. Even better, she survives after she commits this heroic act! (In most of her roles, whether a China doll or a Dragon Lady, she winds up dead.)

After Shanghai Express, Wong again found only stereotypical roles offered to her, and she again sought work in Europe, returning to the U.S. in 1935, hoping to play the role of O-lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. Who could be better cast in this role than Wong? Unfortunately, the role went to the Austrian actress Luise Rainer, who played the role in yellowface--and won an Academy Award.

Wong continued to work on stage, on television, and in film throughout her life. But as with today's Asian-American actors, she found too many of the roles to be caricatures, too few giving full scope to her talent. 

Like the actors quoted in today's Times, Wong spoke out against the stereotyping of Asian Americans. As Zihao Wang writes, "Her activism and sacrifices to push Asian American identity in entertainment tried to paint a human picture of Asian Americans in a time when stereotypes and prejudice prevailed. Both American and Chinese communities relentlessly critiqued her work. Upon returning from her pilgrimage to China; Anna May Wong commented 'It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I’m "too American" and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.'" 

As filmmaker Yunah Hong, whose documentary Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words premiered on PBS in 2013, notes, "When her film roles were limited, she traveled around Europe performing in cabarets, polishing her talents as a singer, dancer and monologuist. When MGM didn't cast her in The Good Earth, a film set in China, she went to China anyway and filmed her trip. Long before anyone was called a 'community activist,' she devoted herself to the Chinese American community's war effort during World War II."

In 2008, Turner Classic Movies broadcast an incredible series, "Asian Images in Film." Luckily, you can still read the introductory essay (click here), see the entire schedule (you can reproduce the TCM film series for yourself!), and read about Jeff Adachi's documentary The Slanted Screen.* You will also find an extended essay on each of the 35 films in the series, as well as find information about another documentary, Elaine Mae Woo's Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times, and Legend (2008).

There are many spectacular images of Wong online--depicting her in the stereotypical roles of China doll or Dragon Lady. They are gorgeous, and you can seek them out if you want. But I chose not to include any of them here.

*Update, January 2020: The wealth of information about the "Asian Images in Film" series is no longer available at the TCM website--if you follow the link above, you get a "bad gateway" notice, and if you search the TCM site itself, "No Results" is what you will find. I thought it worth noting--in a post about erasure, here is yet another example. 

For the time being, you can still see an archived schedule for the month of June 2008, showing the films included in the series (click here).

Update, 6 January 2023: And now, unfortunately, even the archived schedule has disappeared . . . 

Update, 10 March 2023: With Everything Everywhere All at Once nominated for an Oscar Best Picture and its Michelle Yeoh nominated for Best Actress, Katie Gee Salisbury's New York Times essay reflecting on the career of Anna May Wong and the larger experience of Asian Americans in film, is a welcome read! (Click here.)

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