The legacy of Anna May Wong
By Don Stradley
She made more than 60 movie and television appearances, starting with The Red Lantern in 1919, and ending with The Barbara Stanwyck Show in 1961, but Anna May Wong is known less for her acting than for being a symbol of Hollywood’s past, a picture of repression, and, ultimately, a reminder of Hollywood’s often insensitive treatment of Asian performers.
Wong was Hollywood’s first Chinese American star. Distinguished by her elegant demeanor and colorful wardrobe, she finished her prime years the way many actors did in her time, aging out at a small Poverty Row studio. In Wong’s case, PRC Pictures put her in two quickies to exploit the war in China: Bombs Over Burma (1942), and Lady From Chungking (1942). Those films, and others, are available on The Film Detective as part of a celebration of her work.
Both PRC movies show Wong past her heyday, though she’s still wearing the familiar Wong hairstyle that at one time was as recognizable as Veronica Lake’s blond drape. She’s also perfected the persona that she’d built over the years, that of the vulnerable woman forced to harden herself under grim circumstances. In Lady From Chungking, which turned out to be her final turn as the star of a film, we see the mature character she might’ve played again had Hollywood found a place for her.
Wong plays Kwan Mei, an aristocrat who leads a resistance group in Japanese occupied China. Under the direction and cinematography of low budget veterans William Nigh and Marcel Lee Picard, Wong wields a pistol with confidence, goes undercover to match wits with a Japanese general, and comes to the usual tragic end. “One thing I have learned to do in movies,” she once said, “is die pitifully.” The subject matter was close to her heart - she’d spent much time and money getting family members out of China, and had been active in the China war relief effort –so her final monolog about national pride is haunting.
It would be seven years before Wong appeared in another movie. There seemed to be no more use for her supple, solemn talent. In the credits for a 1956 TV show, she was billed simply as “Chinese woman.”
It was remarkable that she’d had a career at all. Not only did Wong arrive during a time of anti-Chinese sentiment, she often seemed too frail for her repertoire of prostitutes and evil seductresses. She is a dazzling silhouette, but always demure. Dancing on a tabletop, she’s as light as an evening mist settling over a lake. In other words, she exudes none of the standard Hollywood sexuality of her time; she knows the moves, but seems above it all. She’s never vulgar, she’s sullen. She seems distracted, harboring some deep secret. Off screen, she was equally cryptic, as if talking too much would bring down storms of bad luck. “Tell what is on your mind,” Wong once said, “and you’ve spiked the guns of fate.”
Tales of incredible bravado powered the Wong legend. She was a star struck Los Angeles kid who used to skip school to hang out on movie sets. Still in her teens, she flouted the era’s anti-miscegenation laws by having an affair with 43 year-old director Todd Browning. At 19, already dubbed “the Chinese Mary Pickford,” Wong starred alongside Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Of fiery intellect, Wong quickly learned French and German so she could act in French and German films. Her career highlight was when she appeared with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932), a smash for Paramount and one of the top grossing features of the early sound era.
The press loved Wong during the 1930s. She had what Greta Garbo had – mystery and melancholy. Now and then, however, she let slip that she was lonely, and that she had trouble reconciling her Chinese ancestry with her modern American lifestyle. “I become more Chinese with each passing year,” she told a reporter.
She’d hoped Paramount would give her a detective series where she would play “a female Charlie Chan,” a nice respite from playing hookers and hopheads. Nothing happened. Wong abandoned her film work, weary of roles that perpetuated Chinese clichés.
During the lean years Wong appeared in plays and radio programs. She promoted cosmetics and perfumes, and tried to reinvent herself as a lecturer. Well into her 40s, she booked herself in various Midwest backwaters, performing fan dances in hotel restaurants and tearooms. Little is known about her personal life from these years, though there were rumors of ill health and financial problems. There was talk that Wong would appear in the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, but she died by heart attack at age 56.
These days, YouTube is flooded with amateur tributes to Wong. Her publicity stills are fascinating to the modern eye, her face in partnership with the noir lighting of the period, as are her photo shoots with Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair. Publishers have released a landslide of biographies about her, everything from turgid academic tomes to a children’s book. In 2020 Michelle Krusiec portrayed Wong in the revisionist Netflix series, Hollywood. Wong’s image has also been used as a Google Doodle, while Paper Studio Press issued a collection of Anna May Wong paper dolls.
Despite a few of Wong’s movies being restored - the National Film Registry selected Daughter of Shanghai (1937) for preservation in 2006 – a full-blown rebirth is doubtful. That would take a serious retrospective at a major museum or film festival, a difficult project since so many of her movies fall into Hollywood’s dreaded “yellowface” period. Wong was often the only real Asian in her films, surrounded by white actors in makeup, their eyes taped back. She once lost an important role because the studio didn’t think she looked sufficiently Chinese. The role, that of a humble Chinese peasant in The Good Earth (1937), went to Luise Rainer, a white woman. Rainer won an Oscar.
What Wong left behind is an image that can be bent to fit any political stance. She’s a hero and a victim, a groundbreaker and a stereotype. A recent article in Variety even linked Wong’s portrayals of temptresses to the recent spa shootings in Atlanta where six Asian American women were killed. Her movies remain unknown, but for authors who like to write about “white anxiety,” or condemn old-time Hollywood, Wong is a handy cudgel.
Wong’s movies are worth a look, however, if only to watch her rise above the limitations of the era. What would she think of the Google Doodles and paper dolls? She’d be too polite to share her exact thoughts.
Part of Wong’s philosophy was that entertainment was just a fleeting experience, and that actors received too much attention. “This is such a short life that nothing can matter very much either one way or the other,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1934. “I have learned not to struggle but to flow along with the tide. If I am to be rich and famous, that will be fine. If not, what do riches and fame count in the long run?
“Chinese are imbued with the consciousness that each of us is only a link in a long life chain…What does it matter that one link shines more brightly than another?”
The Film Detective will celebrate the career of Anna May Wong with Wong's Lady from Chungking (1942), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and A Study in Scarlet (1933) on Saturday, May 29 at 12:50PM ET.