The Dragon Lady

Ah, Wikipedia. It always seems to be the night I’m scrambling to finish some other writing that I come across a subject that grips me, sending me down a rabbit hole of Googling and complete focus derailment.

Which is how I came to learn about Anna May Wong, a second-generation Chinese-American actress with Taishan roots. She started in silents but transitioned into talkies, but was forgotten for many a year as many a Hollywood star ends up. She was friends with Marlene Dietrich, her co-star in Shanghai Express (still below), and Leni Riefenstahl (isn’t that some terrible irony?) and for a while seemed to be headed for superstardom.

But Wong’s career hit an intersection of bad politics and yellow peril. It forced her into insulting stereotypical roles as evil dragon ladies, temptresses, or China dolls, which Wong was critical of. California’s anti-miscegenation laws (repealed in 1948) prevented fraternization, on or offscreen, between Asians and whites. It prevented her from landing lead roles, where she would have had to star opposite white men. In a famous case of yellowface, she was passed over for the heroine role in Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” which is about Chinese peasants, in favour of Luise Rainer.

Oh, and then because she chose the dishonourable career of acting, the Chinese people hated her for being a lascivious embarrassment to her people. Even so, she left for China, hoping to to discover a troupe of fellow Chinese actors that would enable them all to create their own opportunities. She also sent diary newsreels back to Hollywood, allowing theatergoers to explore China in a non-racist way. (I joke a lot about how Taishan people speak in the “hick” Chinese dialect, but in all seriousness, Wong sounds like a very smart, resourceful woman.)

The anti-miscegenation laws probably had some part in her never marrying, too. The above clip of jazz staple “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” here performed by Ella Fitzgerald in 1957, was co-written by Eric Maschwitz, a Brit with whom Wong had a lasting but obviously impossible romantic connection. A true torch song.

I always get obsessed with these injustices done toward women (and the Chinese, for obvious reasons… Rape of Nanjing, anyone?) — but this one runs a little deeper, since Wong seemed to be boxed in despite her best efforts. This one gets my feminist gas face.

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3 Comments

  1. Chantal
    Posted December 27, 2009 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    How’s this for an inappropriate reaction: that dress on Leni is just gorge.

    Seriously though, was great to read. And for some (likely problematic) reason, made me think of Lucy Liu’s Kitty Baxter treatment in the film version of Chicago.

  2. Posted December 28, 2009 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    oh, yellow typecasting is still alive and well — even wholly asian-made films such as better luck tomorrow (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280477/) tend to fall on terrible stereotypes (street racing, organized crime, straight-laced super smart asian nerds who write cheat sheets for cash, etc). the list of non-asian produced movies that do the same are even longer… harold and kumar, jackie chan, long duk dong, rob schneider always playing asians/hawaiians, that dude that gets run over in crash…

    also, don’t feel bad — i think nazis had a really great aesthetic (not aryan aesthetic, but in the uniforms, branding). but they’re still bastards.

  3. Tia
    Posted December 28, 2009 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. I saw Ms. Wong in a silent film on TCM last month and was fascinated by her and the movie plot since it paired her as a love interest for a Caucasian character. As a person of color I know how unusual it is/was for anything inter-racial to appear in film prior the ’60’s. Sadly but predicably (sp) her character was murdered. The movie was shown late on a Sunday night so I didn’t research my questions but I’m glad you did.

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