I'm Anna May Wong.
I come from old Hong Kong.
But now I'm a Hollywood star.
from a song she performed in her cabaret act
This week, the Oscar nominations were announced, and five of the 20 slots in the acting categories went to Africans or African-Americans. That number, the most in the 77-year of the Academy Awards, heartens those who know how rare it was for any actor of color to be recognized as an accomplished artist in Hollywood. In 1940 Hattie McDaniel became the first non-white to win an Oscar, and that for a stereotype role, as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, a Civil War-era house slave who stayed loyal to the mistress of her plantation. The Oscar was for Best Supporting Actress. No black had been nominated for an Oscar in a leading role, for the simple reason that no black had played a leading role not in a mixed-race film produced by a major Hollywood studio.
RICHEE / PARAMOUNT / MPTV
Anna May Wong in 1933
In the quarter-century of Hollywood feature films before 1940, only two non-white actors had been regularly cast in starring roles. One, Sessue Hayakawa from Japan, was a stalwart heartthrob in the late teens. The other was all-American: born in California, a native English speaker, and with a sensual, intelligent allure that even the studio bosses could not ignore. She was Anna May Wong, whose centenary we celebrate this month.
Born Jan. 3, 1905, in Los Angeles' Chinatown, Wong played the lead role in the first Technicolor feature, The Toll of the Sea, in 1922, when she was just 17. By 19 she was intriguing against the movies' top action star, Douglas Fairbanks, in his super-production The Thief of Bagdad. At 23 she went to Europe, where she starred in a half-dozen A pictures including her best one, E.A. Dupont's Piccadilly and, when sound films arrived, performing roles in three languages: English, German and French.
She returned to the U.S. to share top billing with Hayakawa in a Fu Manchu melodrama, Daughter of the Dragon, and, a year later, was Marlene Dietrich's companion in Shanghai Express. After starring in three films in England, she anchored a series of B pictures at Paramount, a major studio, then starred in two more for a Poverty Row outfit.
Wong's eclat spread beyond the big screen. In 1929 and 1930 she starred in plays in London (The Circle of Chalk, with the young Laurence Olivier), Vienna (the title role in Tschun Tschi) and New York (the Broadway melodrama On the Spot, which she would film at Paramount as Dangerous to Know). Her cabaret act, which included songs in Cantonese, French, English, German, Danish, Swedish and other languages, took her from the U.S. to Europe to Australia.
She was a figure of exotic fashion around the world, feted by high society in London, Berlin and elsewhere. (You can see her glamour and stature in a Jan. 1929 photo snapped by Alfred Eisenstadt: it shows Wong flanked by two almost-as-gorgeous German actresses: Marlene Dietrich, soon to decamp for Hollywood, and Leni Riefenstahl, soon to be the director of the Nazi-era documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia.) In 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her (to much uproar) the "world's best dressed woman"; in 1938 Look magazine named her the "world's most beautiful Chinese girl." TIME magazine, run by beetle-browed, China-born Henry Luce, was a special champion, taking every opportunity to chronicle her social life. A few excerpts, from the must-search Time Archive:
July 2, 1928: ...next month, Dr. Tien Lai Huang, 'Chinese Lindbergh,' hopes to take off for Hong Kong with a passenger, Anna May Wong, cinema star and daughter of a Los Angeles laundryman.
Mar. 20, 1933: Greta Garbo and Anna May Wong are among Margie Chung's best friends.
Dec. 7, 1936: Under a bright Hawaiian moon, dainty Anna May Wong put out to sea one night last week in a pineapple barge. Embarked on neither a pleasure jaunt nor a cinema stunt, Actress Wong and 446 fellow passengers were [sailing home after a] shipping strike...
Nov. 24, 1941: Anna May Wong, 34 [actually 36], unmarried, announced to interviewers: 'I've come to the conclusion that everybody should marry, including me.'
June 20, 1960: Announcing their comebacks after long retirements : two fiftyish former cinema stalwarts Anna May Wong, 53 [actually 55], who quit the screen 17 years ago after countless mystery women roles in Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan easterns... and Leni Riefenstahl...
Feb. 10, 1961: Died. Anna May Wong, 54 [actually 56], Los Angeles-born daughter of a local laundryman, who became a film star over her father's objections that "every time your picture is taken, you lose a part of your soul," died a thousand deaths as the screen's foremost Oriental villainess; of a heart attack; in Santa Monica, Calif.
Tall, pretty and sinuously graceful, Wong had a smoldering effect on people, especially men; they could be driven to a purple passion trying to describe her beauty. It's said that her friend Eric Maschwitz wrote the dreamy lyrics to the pop standard These Foolish Things in Wong's honor. She also had mesmerized set and costume designer Ali Hubert. Listen to his little Wong rhapsody:
"On her tender and youthful body, expressing every moment with the indescribable grace of the Oriental woman, towers her head which, although completely Mongolian, is beautiful by European standards. Her eyes, for a Chinese unusually large, deep and dark like a Tibetan mountain lake, gaze with enormous expressiveness. Her well-shaped, slightly voluptuous lips form a striking contrast to the to the melancholy darkness of her eyes. Her hands are of outstanding beauty, slim and perfectly formed. Only a Van Eyck or a Holbein could capture her on canvas."
Her career as a leading lady ended during World War II, during which she devoted most of her energy to China war relief. In the 50s she appeared on a few TV shows, and for 13 weeks hosted her own, The Gallery of Mme. Liu-Tsong (making her the first Chinese-American to host her own show). But she was not an important presence after the war. Indeed, Wong may be unknown to most readers of this column. Still, her achievement and legend cast a long, sultry shadow. Three recent books appraise Wong's life and career with a sympathetic acuity: the biography Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Gao Hodges; the social and film critique Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, 1905-1961 by Anthony B. Chan; and the very helpful catalogue Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work by Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane.
All this for an actress who by convention was not allowed to kiss her leading man. All this for a Hollywood star who, at the peak of her popularity, could not have bought a house in Beverly Hills. All this for a woman no white man could legally have married in her home state until 1947.
THE PERIL OF BEING YELLOW
Anna May Wong, a third-generation Chinese-American her grandparents had been in California at least since 1855, long before many of the state's natives had plenty of hurdles to jump. She was a minority (a woman) within a minority (Chinese) within the larger, fractious congestion of minorities, in an America where white was all-right, the brown could stick around, the black had to get back, and the yellow... they'd better not bellow.
The Chinese, who in the mid-19th century had come to America by the tens of thousands and helped build the transcontinental railway, were on the receiving end of much prejudicial legislation. Various federal acts and Supreme Court rulings forbade the Chinese to own real estate, to become naturalized citizens, even to emigrate to the U.S. (if they were laborers). In California, an 1879 law banned Chinese laborers from working on public projects. Miscegenation laws enacted in 13 states, including California, criminalized marriages between whites and Chinese. In the slang wisdom of the day, sojourners from the Middle Kingdom "didn't stand a Chinaman's chance."