Images courtesy of The Cinema Museum.
Film scholar and Asia House Film Festival artistic director Jasper Sharp will present an illustrated overview of the life and work of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition.
Throughout a career spanning four decades, Anna May Wong (1905–1961) uncomfortably straddled two cultures. Born in California to second-generation Chinese American parents, she became interested in films at an early age. She started off working in silent films but was at first regularly cast in the stereotypical role of the long-suffering, submissive Oriental woman, from her first starring appearance as Lotus Flower in the Madama Butterfly-adaptation The Toll of the Sea (Chester M. Franklin, 1922), set in China rather than Japan, to parts in Yellow Peril melodramas such as Mr Wu (William Nigh, 1927) and Daughter of the Dragon (Lloyd Corrigan, 1931). While her exotic looks ensured small parts in major titles such as Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Peter Pan (Herbert Brenon, 1924), America’s strict anti-miscegenation laws hampered any possibilities of a Chinese actress playing romantic leads against Caucasian actors.
However, in the late-1920s, she headed to Europe in search of more satisfying roles, resulting in some of the richest appearances of her career in films such Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont, 1929) and Java Head (Thorold Dickinson & J. Walter Ruben, 1934).
Wong, who now has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, broke the barriers of only having Caucasian actresses in leading roles in Hollywood and only having Caucasian actresses kiss Caucasian men. How much have things changed since then?
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As a separate event on Sunday 15 November at 15.00 the Regent Street Cinema will screen Richard Eichberg’s 1928 silent classic Song in which Anna May Wong plays the lead. Song is Wong’s rarely-shown first European feature, and the first in a line of films by the German director Eichberg for British International Pictures, is a real cross-cultural curio. Set in a constructed multicultural melting pot somewhere east of the Bosphorus, it features the Hollywood icon as the eponymous Song, who falls for a surly cabaret knife thrower with a suspicious past named Jack. Song’s loyalties are tested and her life thrown into peril when Jack is blinded in a criminal scam.