Yellow Frosted Willow

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The actress Anna May Wong achieved global stardom against a back drop of racism, bigotry and sexism. Her considerable self belief and will power would be the only things that maintained her at a time when the chances of any young working-class woman making a better life for herself were next to zero. The fact that Anna May Wong was Asian-American and the daughter of a laundry man make her struggle and ultimate success in Hollywood all the more intoxicating. The fact that she is still the most important Asian-American movie star to have graced the silver screen make her life story and movies impossible to ignore or dismiss.

Born in 1905, Anna May was the daughter of second generation Chinese Americans and grew up in relative poverty in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Her love for movies at a time when the very industry was in its youth, and her ability to be working within the industry by the time she was only 14, show a temperament and determination that could not be controlled by her own father, nor neither by the very dream makers and colossus that ran the studios and controlled all of Hollywood. This was a girl who would not be contained by notions of conformity or be bound by the restrictions of race.

Between 1919, and her untimely death in 1961, she had made 55 movies, starred in her own television show and been a star on stage and on radio in a career that, although mostly spent in supporting roles, has still not been eclipsed by today’s publicity hungry starlets. It is most telling of Anna May’s strength of character that over 100 years since her birth, her achievements, both on and off the screen, can still be measured against contemporary film stars. Anna May’s first “leading” role was in the 1922 movie The Toll of the Sea, loosely based on Madame Butterfly – it’s notable for being one of the first movies ever to be shot entirely in colour but mostly for Anna May’s performance. She received high praise from the New York Times who called for her to be “seen again and often on the screen“, her father however, had other ideas, and was not supportive of his daughter’s growing fame or success.

Anna May, to her credit, was rebellious and strong willed, she knew if she wanted to make her own mark she had to be, and she pushed life to the limits. “We were always thrilled when a motion picture company came down into Chinatown to film scenes for a picture,“ she recalled in 1926. “I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared. I’d stare and stare at these glamorous individuals, directors, cameramen, assistants, and actors in greasepaint and then I would rush home and do the scenes I had witnessed before a mirror. I would register contempt, shame, reproach, joy, and anger. I would be the pure girl repulsing the evil suitor, the young mother pleading for her baby, the vamp luring her victim.”

The 1920s were the age of the flapper and Anna May’s contemporaries were the glamorous and sexually free Clara Bow and Louise Brooks. These were women who were pushing boundaries and invoking a spirit of self expression and female empowerment and, for a young ambitious girl of Asian origin, they were not thought to be good role models. Anna May had to struggle against racism and sexism from the studio system but also a sense of shame and continuing isolation from her own community. She smoked, she drank, she danced. She also dated outside of her race which was not only frowned upon, it was considered immoral. This was a girl who was determined to drive her own path, even if she did crash a few cars on her way.

In 1924 Anna May won a role in the Douglas Fairbanks picture The Thief of Bagdad and although her role was only supporting and stereotypical, it ensured her ever-growing fame. By now she was known for her exotic beauty and innate sense of style and, while America looked upon her as some kind of ornamental bird and her own race looked upon her with disdain, she left the shackles of her home life and moved into her own apartment. It was also at this time that she set up her own company “Anna May Wong Productions” with a view to making films about Chinese myths and legends.

Her loyalty to her roots and affection for the Chinese community not withstanding, the company floundered because of dishonest management and dealings by her business partner. Her foresight and vision for having the courage to even consider such a venture in such a male dominated environment as Hollywood in the 1920s demonstrates just how courageous Anna May was. From 1924-28, Anna May Wong bore the full force of Hollywood’s racism and censorship. The law did not allow her to play a leading lady against any Caucasian male, even if the said “lead” played an Asian character and so she found herself relegated to supporting or decorative roles. Even with this limited material her star shone bright and she gained evermore glowing reviews. But for a woman of Anna’s character, this was demeaning and in 1928 she left for Europe. It was here, like Louise Brooks and Josephine Baker, that she would find a public who not only admired her for her great beauty and incredible style, but also for her talent, wit and intellect.

In Europe, Anna May no longer had the arms of Hollywood nor the hands of her father to hold her back, the embrace of the Europeans was a welcome one and one in which she flourished.  She was a smart and driven woman but also one with great humour and personality and she found herself courted and entertained by the highest of European society. The film roles that she found in Europe once again garnered rave reviews for her talent and beauty and the friendships that she cultivated included such iconic women as Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl.

Anna May Wong had a desire for knowledge and culture and she recorded her first “talkie” in English, French and German – her dedication to her craft evident in her perfect dialect for each. Her last silent movie Piccadilly was made in 1929, is considered one of her best and in which she steals the movie (once again) from the leading lady. It’s sad to note (once again) that Anna May also dies in this movie. Even in Europe, the film industry could only accept Anna May as a flawed or wicked character and in reference to her always being killed her humour is telling, “on my tombstone it will say, the girl who died a thousand deaths“.

By the 1930s, Anna May already had a wealth of experience  and culture to draw upon, this isn’t just necessary to be a well-rounded person but invaluable to an actress, yet once again she found herself relegated to offensive or stereotypical roles. The 1933 film Shanghai Express saw her on screen with her friend Dietrich and although once again she steals the film from under her, Anna May was still only cast as a courtesan. In 1933 she was brave enough to state however, “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans and American Indians for Chinese roles.”

Her confidence and love for her heritage also saw her refusing to use “expected“ Japanese mannerisms when she appeared on Broadway in a starring role in On the Spot. Her experience in Hollywood and maybe because of it had taught her that if she would be relegated to supporting roles on film then her voice in public could be used to fight against archaic and outdated practises. In 1935 the filming of  Pearl S Buck’s novel, The Good Earth, should have at last established Wong’s status as a leading lady. The story of Chinese farmers struggling to survive had long been feted as the perfect vehicle for Wong, and yet she was passed over for the lead role in favour of Luise Rainer, an actress of non-Asian descent.

One can only imagine the disappointment and anger Anna May must have felt at this, especially when she was offered the much lesser and exploitative role of Lotus, the only unsympathetic role in the movie. A weaker person may have at this point given up – but Anna May Wong decided she would put together her own troop of actors and she would be true to her heritage and travel to China to find them. Her family had since returned to their homeland and her announcement of her year long tour was met with great interest from the international press.

Her great tour began in January 1936 and was publicised weekly by the Hearst newsreel. Every week she would send a film back of her progress and the American public could watch this in cinemas across the country. She also was chronicled in The Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and The Los Angeles Examiner. Her reception in China was mixed because, although she had an enormous fan base, the Nationalist Press continued to be extremely critical of her, even arguing against her being allowed into the country on account of her being an embarrassment to the nation and “a stooge of Hollywood“.

However, the press could not disguise nor suppress Anna May’s personality and, little by little, she won over her detractors with her warmth, humour  and ambition. In hindsight, Anna May Wong was caught between two cultures and she was never truly embraced by either – the supposed “liberalism” of the movie industry and the confines of her Asian-American heritage.

Neither of which fully appreciated her talent or intellect. In a 1933 interview she is quoted as saying, “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilisation that is so many times older than the West?” The Nationalist and Communist Press continued to vilify her and left her to reflect “It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because “I’m too American”. In so many ways, even a force of nature like Anna May Wong was never going to win.

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