The Legacy of Anna May Wong
The first Asian American actress to make it big in American Hollywood.
Anna May Wong entered the US film industry at quite an unexpected time. In the early 1920’s, she rose to prominence when stereotypes, systematic racism, and discrimination were commonplace. Her presence in films commanded attention, but despite her undeniable talent, she was always relegated to simple, repetitive roles.
Wong was born in Los Angeles in 1905, just outside of Chinatown. She grew fascinated with films from an early age, since Chinatown was a popular area for filmmakers. To the dismay of her parents, she chose to pursue a full-time acting career by the age of 16. She achieved international stardom by 1924 at 19.
The sly Chinese villain or the butterfly temptress; those were the two roles that Wong would play with slight variations. Americans adored her, but only one-dimensionally. They just wanted a taste of the orient. See, “orientalism.”
In very broad terms, “Orientalism” refers to the overarching tendency of the “Occident,” or the Western world, to fetishize and exoticize the “Orient” (“The East,” or civilizations and cultures spanning the Asian continent). Scholar Graham Huggan defines exoticism as an experience that “posits the lure of difference while protecting its practitioners from close involvement” — and that’s exactly what Westerners wanted: a taste of “difference,” usually in the form of an evocative song, poem, or painting, without the actual immersive and possibly challenging experience thereof.
Anne Helen Petersen. Sep 30, 2014. (who I got most of this information from)
Audiences loved the actress, but there was no unanimous conclusion about her. Do we embrace her culture? What even is her culture? Does she identify with Americans or the Chinese? She was a phenomena.
Americans would see her as just another American, then two days later as a Chinese foreigner. They would applaud her talent in publications, but refuse to grant her leading roles… even when the role played was literally as a Chinese woman. China had a similar dilemma. When she finally visited the country, reactions ranged from complete adoration and pride, to insisting vehemently that she’s a disgrace to China.
Wong moved back and forth between Europe and America doing film, trying to find her place. She eventually settled back to America and made history with “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.” The first ever US television show starring an Asian American series lead. She passed away soon after that at the age of 56.
Anna May Wong’s story is one of heart and determination. It’s a delicate, tragic embodiment of the American Dream: making it against all odds; breaking into a system that’s set up for your failure. But Wong’s story also represents an all too relatable narrative of conflicting identity for Asian Americans. The perplexity in holding on to traditional values and embracing American culture.
It’s a story to be remembered.
Wong was a silent-film demi-star, a European phenomenon, a cultural ambassador, and a curiosity, the de facto embodiment of China, Asia, and the “Orient” at large for millions. She didn’t choose that role, but it became hers, and she labored, subtly, cleverly, persistently, to challenge what Americans thought an Asian or Asian-American should or could be — a challenge that persists today.
Anne Helen Petersen. Sep 30, 2014. (thanks again)
RIP Anna May Wong (1905 – 1961)