Beijing Culture: Anna May Wong
Sex, Style & Stereotypes: The Anna May Wong Story
Gong Li, Lucy Liu, Bai Ling..the sexy female stars of Hollywood each have their particular talents, attributes and huge armies of fans.
If you walk down Hollywood's Walk of Fame, however, you won't find any of them among the 2000-plus five-pointed stars. In fact, there is only one female Asian-American with her name engraved on the sidewalk - the Chinese queen of early twentieth century cinema, Anna May Wong.
Glamour, sex, talent and beauty - Hollywood legend Anna May Wong had it all, and she was undoubtedly the most famous Chinese woman in the world during the 1920s and 30s.
Known alternately as "Lotus Girl", "Dragon Lady" and "China Doll", and endowed with skin described as "a rose blushing through old ivory", she fought for every success and triumph she had, and her story is truly a fascinating chapter in film history.
Born in Los Angeles in 1905, during the height of the Yellow Peril fears about the Chinese, she overcame prejudice and racism enshrined in US law to become Hollywood's first Chinese screen legend, making more than 60 movies.
Artists painted and sculpted her, photographers immortalized her, composers and songwriters were inspired by her, philosophers wrote of her.
Anna was born Wong Liu Tsong - which translates into "Frosted Yellow Willows" - on January 3, 1905 in Los Angeles. Her parents, immigrants, operated a laundry shop and her early years were modest.
Living in Los Angeles, however, Anna was exposed to quite a bit of location shooting while still very young, and she quickly became enraptured with the movies. She was such a frequent visitor to film sets - soon acquiring the nickname of "CCC" (curious Chinese child) - that she actually became quite a familiar to face to cast and crew alike, but her entry into the world of fame came first through modeling, which she did throughout high school.
David Tse Ka-Shing , creative director of the Chinatown Arts Space in London, has recently written and directed Piccadilly Revisited, a film, dance, music and drama performance inspired by the life and loves of Anna May Wong, and the classic British silent movie Piccadilly (1929) in which she played a starring role. Tse Ka-Shing recalls the time when he first stumbled upon Anna May Wong.
"Most of us think actresses such as Joan Chen or Lucy Liu were the first Asian-Americans to break onto the Hollywood screens," he says. "Not many people realize that over 85 years ago, Anna May Wong had achieved international stardom by the tender age of 19."
Wong's first starring role was in the film The Toll of the Sea (1922) which Variety magazine described her performance as "extraordinary fine acting". Two years later, she played the role of a Mongol slave in Douglas Fairbank's The Thief of Bagdad (1924) in which her brief appearance caught the attention of both the audience and critics alike.
Although Anna's early successes helped introduce her to the wider public, they eventually led to frustration. Hollywood continued to cast her in stereotypical supporting roles - such as the villainous "Dragon Lady" or demure China doll - whilst she constantly lost out on the lead roles due to "yellowface" casting (Caucasian actors playing Asian roles).
Anna's stereotypical casting is epitomized by the silent movie Piccadilly, directed by E.A. Dupont, and described by Martin Scorsese as "bold, beautifully crafted... one of the truly great works of the silent era". The film, a sexually driven melodrama, shows a Chinese woman using her sexual power to control her white lover. Anna's kiss with the character Valentine - her first screen kiss - was actually censored, and her death in the movie aptly demonstrates the necessity at that time to punish the non-white female on film.
Piccadilly caused a sensation in the UK. Although Gilda Gray was the top-billed actress, Variety magazine commented that Wong "outshines the star", and that "from the moment Miss Wong dances in the kitchen's rear, she steals Piccadilly from Miss Gray".
In her 40 year career, Wong went on to work with Marlene Dietrich and Lawrence Olivier, made more than 50 films, had a song "These Foolish Things" written for her, and was recognized as a style icon having graced the pages of Vogue, Tatler and Vanity Fair.
Sadly, in the decades after her death in 1961, Wong was remembered mostly for her stereotypical roles. It was only around the centennial of her birth in 2005 that Wong's life and her work were re-evaluated. Fuelled mostly by the Asian-American film community and in the groundswell of support and rediscovery, three books were published on her, a retrospective of her films were shown as well as the Anna May Wong Award of Excellence, now given out yearly at the Asian-American Arts Awards.
Today, Wong's image and career have left a lasting legacy. Her body of work has helped to humanize Asian-Americans to white audiences, leading directly to the recent proliferation of Chinese female (and male) stars in Hollywood. Paving the way for the likes of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, the sexy, sultry star of the silent stage remains as alluring today as she was in Piccadilly.
More on Piccadilly: www.danwei.org