Anna May Wong Did It Right

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Discrimination was not uniquely American to the Chinese. They suffered it back home: Shanghai in the early 20th century was divided into three concessions — French, International and Chinese — and the locals were banned from many parts of the other three. (No Dogs or Chinese read a sign in an International-concession park.) So after coming to the Golden Mountain, as they called the U.S., they herded into another concession: the enforced isolation of Chinatowns in a dozen big cities. The residents there were mostly hard-working, productive, resourceful — and quiet. So it took a lurid ingenuity (and just a few headlines) to plant in the popular mind the twin, and contradictory, notions of the Chinese: as both passive opium addicts and meta-violent Tong gangsters.

Yet there was an awestruck aspect to Americans' view of the Chinese, a grudging admiration for the traditions they brought from their home country: the reverence for learning, the family loyalty. The familiar epithet for the Chinese was inscrutable, a word that certifies Otherness but not in a contemptuous way. It meant they were unknowable, with a complicated system of manners and values beyond our understanding — unlike Americans, who had no secrets, no depths to plumb; we thought we were totally scrutable. Inscrutable elevated the Chinese above other non-white groups; they were a foreign language, ethos, species that we couldn't understand.

So we called them yellow. The vileness of the word, apart from its derogatory taint (yellow means cowardly), was in the word that went with it: peril. The Yellow Peril was the plague of cunning amorality that spread from China (and Japan) to America, as embodied in malefic fictional characters like Fu Manchu. There was no complementary phrase to oppose it. Anna May Wong could have been, but never was, called the Yellow Pearl.


Drink a bit, laugh a bit, love a little more,
I can supply your need,
Think a bit, chaff a bit, what's it all for?
That's my Eurasian creed.

Half-caste woman, living a life apart,
Where did your story begin?
Half-caste woman, have you a secret heart
Waiting for someone to win?

Were you born of some queer magic
In your shimmering gown?
Is there something strange and tragic
Deep, deep down?

Half-caste woman, what are your slanting eyes
Waiting and hoping to see,
Scanning the far horizon,
Wondering what the end will be?

—by Noel Coward, 1931

Wong, who used Coward's ballad as a signature song in her cabaret act, wasn't half anything, ethnically; she was all Chinese. But culturally, this Chinese-American tried to keep her balance with a foot in two worlds, East and West. She was where the twain met.

Or where it got derailed, by any number of mistaken presumptions. She was not just Chinese; she was a Chinese woman. Among the Chinese in the U.S. at the time of her birth, there were seven men for every woman. Her parents might have wanted her to marry a nice educated fellow from the Mainland, but Mandarin Chinese students in the U.S. tended to disdain the Cantonese who had settled here. Two attributes that made Wong attractive to Euro-Americans — her 5ft.7in. stature and her large eyes — were off-putting to many Chinese men. They also rejected the tinge in her of modern American womanhood: she did the Charleston and was quoted in one profile as saying, "My, that's a nifty car. It's like the kitty's eyebrows, what?"

The kitty she often played in movies was a sex kitten, a role shocking to Chinese conservatives in the U.S. and around the world. "Her role as a sexually available Chinese woman," writes Hodges, "would eventually earn her resentful criticism in China." Wong was stung by the attacks. "It's a pretty sad situation," she said, "to be rejected by the Chinese because I am too American."

She might have added: "...since I've already been rejected, pigeon-holed and fetishized because I am Chinese." As Chan writes in Perpetually Cool: "She was always a 'Chinese' because she looked Chinese even when she sought to be and act American, with her flapper slang and costume during the early 1920s. She was, in fact, truly American in being and action. She even walked and stood like a European American. But she was neither European American nor 'white'."

Part of Anna May was the dutiful Chinese daughter, who lived at home and kept the books for her father's business even after she was working full-time in movies. The other part was of a strong-willed pioneer who ignored formal and informal laws of discrimination to forge the most successful movie career of any non-white performer of the first half of the 20th century.


The birth name of the first prominent Chinese-American star is poetically, or pathetically, appropriate. Wong (Huang in Mandarin) means yellow; her Chinese name, Wong Liu Tsong, means Yellow Frosted Willow. The second of six children, she attended a mostly-white school until the racial taunts got to her, and she transferred to a Chinese school. But she had the itch to get out of Chinatown and into the big world. Her ticket was the movies.

"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..." Continuing her flashback in another magazine, she said: "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." She also received advice from James Wang, one of the few Chinese actors in early pictures. He told her: "Your eyes are large and your features stand out clearly. There is no reason you should not make good if you are willing to work hard. You will do."

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