Stories

I spent eight years making the documentary Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words.   I wasn’t all that interested in Anna May as a victim – condemned to play stereotyped Asian roles — lotus flower or dragon lady – and shouldered aside by white actors in yellowface. I was interested in Anna May Wong the person. I wanted to find out who she really was.

Anna May in "Shanghai Express"

 Not long after I moved to NYC from Seoul, Korea, I saw Anna May in Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich. She saves a group of hostages by seducing their captor, a Chinese warlord, and then killing him. She is tough, fearless, and funny. To me as an immigrant from Korea, she offered startling proof that Asian American woman aren’t necessarily quiet and submissive.  They are independent and strong!

Many years have passed since I started wondering about Anna May.  In 2000 I had the chance to make a short documentary, Becoming an Actress in NY, which followed three Korean American actresses: Vivian Bang, Esther Chae and Jina Oh.  When the documentary was finished, I came to realize that the situation these young actresses faced hasn’t changed much since Anna May’s time in the 1920s and the 1930s.  I wanted to do something about it.  So I went to a local library.      

I was struck by a photograph from the early 1920s — Anna May in her teens, in her first film,  Toll of the Sea. What struck me was how ordinary she looked, just a healthy-looking girl next door. Still, you can see something in her eyes – a passion to be somebody, someday. 

Anna May in "The Toll of the Sea"

I asked myself, “How did this teenager from Los Angeles become world-famous, independent and cosmopolitan, a woman ahead of her time?” This year is the fiftieth anniversary of her death, and no Asian American woman has matched her accomplishments.  Still, most people haven’t heard of her.  Why?  I went looking for answers.

 Among the people I talked to there was a generation gap.  The older generation still blames her for negative portrayals of Asian women.  I sometimes had to explain to those people that an actor is only playing a role.  As for myself, the more I found out about her, the more my respect grew. 

 When I started to work, I didn’t know how long it would take.  Because she died in 1961, it was hard to find people who had known her.  Sometimes it took a year for a letter to be answered.  Sometimes, it took several years to arrange an interview.  Many letters were returned by the post office.   I got many flat refusals. Once, I located one of her old friends in a nursing home, only to learn that she had passed away. So my frustration grew.  But I also got a lot of help along the way.  I didn’t take no for an answer and kept going. 

 The process of making the film took me to Los Angeles, where stars like Tamlyn Tomita, B.D. Wong and James Hong talked about the importance of Anna’s example, to England, where Anna found fewer casting restrictions and also appeared on the stage with the young Laurence Olivier, and to Germany, where Anna starred in four films. When she wasn’t acting in the movies Anna toured Europe in a cabaret act she worked up, including songs, dances, anecdotes and dramatic readings. I recreated her cabaret act for the film with actress Doan Ly.

 

Production Still from the documentary.

 Researching the film, I learned more about the experience of Chinese immigrant families — for example the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943).  The Chinese Exclusion Act affected Anna’s family and in some ways, her decision not to marry a Chinese man.  I also learned about the Production Codes of the 1930s, which stunted Anna’s career.  Interracial love was taboo, so Anna could not be a leading lady. ‘Anna May Wong Can Not Be Kissed’ was a typical tabloid headline.

 

Anna May came back from Europe in 1930 to campaign for a leading role in The Good Earth, a saga of peasant life in China based on a bestselling novel. This was her first chance to play someone who wasn’t an exotic immigrant. As Anna May told Walter Benjamin in 1928, she was ready to play a mother.  It never happened and it’s never really happened since. The leading roles in the film all went to white actors. Adding insult to injury, Luise Rainer, the Austrian  actress who got the female lead, won the best actress Oscar.  Can you imagine how different things would be if Anna May Wong had gotten that Oscar?  

Anna May Wong made her first visit to China after the Good Earth debacle, in 1936.  She hired her own cameraperson, Newsreel Wong, to document her travels.  She had an emotional reunion with her father and siblings in her ancestral village in Guangdong Province. For the next ten years or so, when China was a major American ally, she got to play some plucky, sophisticated characters. She paired with Philip Ahn in B-movies and starred in a few independent productions during the World War II. The studio even promoted Anna and Philip as a romantic couple in real life, the first publicized Asian American couple.  But her career lost momentum after that. She pretty much walked away from acting – apart from a TV series she did towards the end of her life.

 

My film draws on archival news and documentary footage, clips from Anna May’s films and on the actresses’ own letters and interviews. The letters reveal a woman who, though becoming despondent about her struggles, never really stopped trying.  She really did give up everything for her career. Thoughts of marriage, her family – she put everything aside as she tried to make herself into a star. But Hollywood studios, stuck with the Production Codes, wouldn’t cast an Asian woman as a romantic lead.

It remains pretty much the same today. Anna May was such an important figure. Even if you look at Asian actresses today – Lucy Liu, for example – Anna May achieved so much more at a time when it would have been infinitely harder for her as an Asian and as a woman. She was driven and she was brave and knew how to work her way through the complex social web of Hollywood system.  I think the lesson we can learn from her is how important it is to fight to find your own place in the world, no matter what the obstacles.  And how hard she worked!!   As Anna May has been inspiring for me, I would like to inspire my ten-year-old daughter and a younger generation of Asian Americans and other minorities.

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