Anna May Wong was born in 1905 a second-generation Chinese American in Los Angeles. She grew up in a neighborhood just outside of Chinatown with her parents and seven other siblings. From a young age, Wong was no stranger to racism.
“We tried to walk unconcernedly home from school, always with a larger and larger crowd of our tormentors around us shouting, “Chink, Chink, Chinaman. Chink, Chink, Chinaman.” Yanking our “pigtails” as they called our straight black braids of hair. Pushing us off the sidewalk into the street. Pinching us. Slapping us…. Every day was one of torture for us.”
Chinatown was quickly becoming a hub for American film, and Wong grew fascinated with it from an early age. To the dismay of her parents, she chose to pursue a full-time acting career by the age of 16. She landed her first role at 17, and achieved international stardom by 19.
She was a natural. Her presence in films commanded attention. But despite her talent, she was always relegated to two simplistic, repetitive characters. The sly Chinese villain or the butterfly temptress. Americans loved her, but it seems 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.
Wong played these roles for over a decade, traveling back and forth between Europe and America doing film, trying to find her place. The biggest disappointment of her career was being refused the leading role in the movie, The Good Earth. It was as a literal Chinese woman, which she lost out to the white actress Luise Rainer.
Devastated and disheartened, Wong left for China in 1936 to tour the country and visit her father who had retired to his home village. She was met with a range of reactions from complete adoration to a vehement insistence that she’s a disgrace to China. For playing such stereotypical roles.
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 had been planning to return to film in the Flower Drum Song, but she passed away before she could 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)