Anna May Wong: the legendary actress who broke all the boundaries

Asia House Film Festival artistic director Japser Sharp gave an illustrated talk about Anna May Wong at Asia House.

Asia House Film Festival Artistic Director Japser Sharp gave an illustrated talk about Anna May Wong at Asia House. A film that features the Chinese-American actress 'To Climb A Gold Mountain' will be screened at Asia House on 14 January 2016

Anna May Wong: the legendary actress who broke all the boundaries

14 December 2015

By Naomi Canton

Before the Second World War making it big in Hollywood if you were of Chinese heritage was virtually impossible.

This was owing to the America’s Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which made life as a Chinese immigrant in the USA generally difficult until it was repealed in 1943, as well as the racial prejudice towards Chinese immigrants at that time and anti-miscegenation laws, which did not allow kissing or romance between different races on screen. This meant Asian actors in Hollywood could never be cast into lead roles.

But despite her career spanning this exact period and being typecast in ‘Oriental’ or exotic character roles that stereotyped Asians, Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong did become a Hollywood star, thanks to the opportunities she got offered in the British film industry.

Wong, who now has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, features in To Climb a Gold Mountain, a documentary about Chinese-American women in the US, which is being screened at Asia House on 14 January.

Ahead of that screening, Asia House Film Festival Artistic Director Jasper Sharp gave an illustrated talk about her life.

The first Chinese settlers came to America after the California Gold Rush in 1849. In his talk Sharp described the Chinatown of Los Angeles in the 1850s as the “real Wild West” .

“It was a place where men outnumbered women 20 to one, where there was lots of human trafficking of women, it was a lawless place,” Sharp said. “The first woman came in 1852 and committed suicide a month later,” he added.

“Lots of women were brought over were prostitutes and sex slaves. There were lots of Chinese gangs. Americans at that time viewed Chinatown as beyond their understanding,” he said.

Wong was a third-generation Chinese-American born on Flower Street in Chinatown in January 1905.  It was her grandfather who had made the move to America from China.

The second daughter of seven children, and unusually tall for her age, she lived above her father’s laundry businesses and worked there part-time even when she had got quite far into acting career.

“The Chinese were looked down upon. There was a lot of prejudice against the Chinese,” Sharp said. “The so-called Night of Horrors in 1871 was when gangs descended on Chinatown and killed several Chinese people owing to racial prejudice and fears of Chinese labourers undercutting wages. Lots of Chinese were put on boats and asked to go home,” he added.

This led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which stopped Chinese immigrants from owning land, starting up businesses and from gaining US citizenship. It also meant they had to carry a registration card and apply for permission to leave the country.

“This was the only law in US history that was specifically targeting a particular ethnic group.  It was there for 60 years,” Sharp pointed out.

The American film industry was born in New York. “Hollywood only really began around 1905, the time Anna May Wong was born. Small production companies in California eventually morphed into the large ones we know today,” he said.

“They would be shooting on the streets and Anna May Wong would often see these films and be in awe of the magical apparatus called cinema.”

She asked for work as extra and got her first screen role at the age of 14, as an uncredited role as a lantern bearer, in The Red Lantern (1919), a silent film.

Her next uncredited role was in Dinty (1920), also a silent drama, which portrayed Chinatown as a den of vice.

Bits of Life (1921) was her first credited role. “It was also the first ever omnibus [anthology] film which was made up of four short stories,” Sharp said.

Apart from Wong, it featured Lon Chaney, the renowned silent film actor known as the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ because of his ability to transform his look with make-up.

She had her first leading role in The Toll of the Sea (1922), the first film shot in technicolour , which was restored in the 1980s and released on video.

“She was 16 when this was filmed. It’s a version of Madama Butterfly set in China rather than Japan. Wong plays Lotus Flower. She falls in love with an American sailor who turns up in China and then gets her pregnant. He declares his love for her but then goes back to the USA and leaves her. She is left in China traumatised and kills herself,” Sharp said.

Until after the Second World War, Hollywood films were generally not shot on overseas locations.

“Cinema was the key to America’s cultural ascendancy in the 1920s to enforce their view of how world should be,” Sharp said. “A lot of Hollywood films were shown in China and Japan before the Second World War. There was a big flow of cinema texts and also labour – which ties in with the theme for the 2016 Asia House Film Festival which is transnationalism. Even in London in the 1920s and 1930s there was German money, German directors and Chinese American stars. It is surprising how big it was,” Sharp commented.

“Once sound came in, Hollywood colonised the world and people were left to watch subtitled or dubbed versions of American films. People retreated back to their own domestic cinema and nationalism took over and the flow of international communication stopped,” Sharp said.

After her first starring role in The Toll of the Sea, Wong started to get bigger roles.

But Sharp said “race was inscribed on all of them, even in the subtitling.”

During the 1920s Hollywood films always displayed the East as ‘Oriental’ and exotic.

After The Toll of the Sea, Wong appeared in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) as a Mongol Slave and in Peter Pan (1924) as Tiger Lily, a native Indian. “In Thief of Baghdad she stole the show and had a massive screen presence,” he said.

Peter Pan was very interesting. It was before the Disney version. It was a very interesting adaptation of the original,” he said.

“These roles were all typical of the way she was cast. She always played anyone not white even though she had never actually left America in her life. Frequently her co-stars were Asian actors like  Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa or Korean-American actor Philip Ahn,” he said.

Her next films such included Streets of Shanghai (1926), The Chinese Parrot (1927), Fifth Avenue (1925) and A Trip to Chinatown (1926).  But she had never had leading roles. “ There was glut of Chinatown narratives in 1920s. But she always played roles like a prostitutes,” Sharp said.

In Mr Wu (1927) a French actress had to be cast in addition to Wong as no romance was allowed with Chinese actresses.

“No screen kiss with a white male meant she could not appear in romantic leads so she was never going to be a major actress in Hollywood,” Sharp said.

In 1928 for the very first time she left North America aged 23 and went to Europe with her sister frustrated by being only cast in exotic Asian character roles. It was in Britain that her career really took off and her first screen kiss took place in a British film.

She then signed up a five picture deal with German film director Richard Eichberg, the first three of which were silent movies.

The first of these was Song (1928) which Asia House screened at the Regent Street Cinema recently.

This was followed Piccadilly (1929) and Pavement Butterfly (1929). “These three films were all constructed around her knowing at the outset she would be the star,” Sharp said.

Piccadilly is the best known of these three and is readily available on DVD. Song and Pavement Butterfly only exist as film prints in the collection of the British Film Institute, he said.

“In Piccadilly she dressed up in a strange Thai costume playing shamisen – there was nothing authentic about it, it was a mishmash of Asian cultures,” Sharp said. “It did not matter where the British films were set, he said – they always felt like fancy dress parties – There was nothing authentic about them. It was as though these stories had just been set anywhere.  Anna May Wong herself always put an emphasis on her Chinese culture, upbringing and heritage.”

It was directed by German émigré Ewald André Dupont, written by Arnold Bennett and also starred Gilda Gray.

Sharp said when he saw her in Piccadilly, he wanted to know who she was. “Was she Chinese? American? British? Why was she playing in a British film etc. and that intrigued me to find out more about her,” he asked.

She was a Chinese-American making films in London with German directors sometimes in the French language  – so her films are very good introduction to transnationalism, the theme of the 2016 Asia House Film Festival,” Sharp said, mentioning the multiple-language versions of her first talkie Flame of Love / Hai Tang / L’amour maitre des choses (1930).

“She plays a scullery maid who works in the basement of a high-class nightclub in Piccadilly. The owner of the club takes a shine to her and puts her on stage and she becomes the talk of town and falls for her. He gets shot for his troubles and it ends with Anna May Wong dead.  This was a recurring theme in a lot of her films – she was always complaining she did not want to die at the end of all of the films.”

“She is always an object of desire,” he added.

But American magazines tended to sneer at European films then, Sharp said. “The US reviews of these three silent films set in the UK were generally quite negative,”  he added.


Anna May Wong

A month before Piccadilly (February 1929) Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail – one of the first British sound films – had been released  in USA. So 1929 was the end of the era of silent films.

By the time of the Berlin Press Ball, which was held in 1929, Anna May Wong was quite established, Sharp said, showing a picture of her next to Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. “At that time she was at the peak of her career.”

“It was pretty much over 10 years later,” he said.

In the 1930s Anna May Wong did mainly B movies.

There were teething problems during the transition to sound around 1930-1931, and in comparison with the silent era, many films seemed fairly static and theatrical due to the limitations of the recording technology,” he said.

In her West End stage debut Wong got criticised in the UK press for her “yankee squeak” and so she took elocution lessons. “When you look at her talkie films she does sound like a lot like Thatcher,” Sharp said.

But compared with many stars of the silent era, Wong actually managed her transition to appearing in talkies very well, Sharp explained.

Then The Good Earth (1937) was a career-defining moment for Anna May Wong. It was a massive production about struggling Chinese farmers. “The key role of a Chinese character went to Caucasian actress Luise Rainer not Anna May Wong as no interracial kissing was allowed. It won five Academy Awards. Wong was left out of it.”

Frustrated by being typecast and losing out on lead roles that went to Caucasian actresses, she went to China but realised she was “too American” to act in many films. She then returned to America in the late 1930s.

By 1938 the world saw the rise of Nazism.

“In the 20s and 30s she was very famous and then no one spoke about her after that. If you look at old books on silent cinema or classical Hollywood, she only gets a cursory mention,” Sharp said.

“There is very little of her work on DVD. We can’t access the American prints. Americans can’t see the British ones,” he explained. “In the silent era it was very easy for films to circulate. All you had to do was remove the subtitles and replace with another language; with the talkies it was just impossible,” he said.

Piccadilly got reissued by the BFI on DVD in 2004 which kickstarted resurgence of interest in her because she was not that well known.

There was quite a big selection of literature on her which coincidentally came out at the same time including an exhaustive reference book which gave details of all her films, running times, brief synopses etc. Another looked at her place in the cultural racial landscape of America. From 2008 onwards there were quite a few retrospectives of her work in North America and a Radio Four documentary.  In 2008 the BFI screened Piccadilly and Pavement Butterfly to commemorate the Chinese New Year.

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong

She also featured in a children’s book Shining Star: The Anna May (2009.)

“A lot of people say she had a miserable career trajectory but I would say it was not that bad for an actress in that period at her time,” Sharp said.

“Lots of actresses had to come to Europe to make their best films. Louise Brooks also had to come to Europe to make her best films and she could not get hired again after 1935.”

Anna May Wong had her own TV series and appeared sporadically on TV in the 1950s and then died in 1961 aged 56 having never married.

“There is a hint of tragic narrative – that she never got the roles she wanted and never married. But I don’t think of her like that – she was a Hollywood star, she had lots of roles and was a massive star in Europe,” Sharp said.

The documentary which features Anna May Wong To Climb a Gold Mountain  is being screened at Asia House on 14 January. For more information click here.