The American film industry has had a long and illustrious span with fantastic films and innovations for more than a century. A great many good things have come from American film, but let us not forget some of the darker aspects. Throughout history non-white actors have had a hard time in American movies (as well as being the victims of prejudice outside the cinema). Things have gotten a lot better, but take a moment and appreciate how far we’ve come.
Chinese American actress, Anna May Wong, was one such talented figure whose road to success was blocked by the color of her skin. Wong was born in 1905 Los Angeles. She pursued acting in the silent era and became the first Asian American international movie star, but she had a tough time keeping her spot in the limelight. In a time when many actors of European descent would put on makeup to play other races and anti-miscegenation laws prevented interracial scenes of sensuality (including kissing) and not many ethnic leading players, the studios generally did not always know what to do with Wong and she was, more often than not, cast as exotic background or as more stereotypical characters.
I first saw Anna May Wong in Raoul Walsh’s silent classic, The Thief of Baghdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. For all Baghdad’s special effects, impressive set design, and Fairbanks’ charismatic charm and stunts, it was Anna May Wong who (in my humble opinion) stole the show. She played a shifty Mongol slave and although the role was not particularly big or racially positive, her performance left an impression on me.
Recently I went to Hollywood’s Silent Theater for a viewing of The Toll of the Sea (1922), which was Wong’s first starring role and also one of the first films to be shot with a very early Technicolor process (so, yes, in IN LIVING COLOR). Alas, the final reel was lost to history, but the impact of the story and Wong’s wonderful performance made it well worth the price of admission.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly” (which was turned into a pretty good operatic film in 1995), Anna May Wong plays a young Chinese girl, Lotus Flower, who finds a stranded American on the shore. They fall in love and are married, but the man, pressured by his other American friends and concerned with his public image, returns to his homeland without his bride. Promised he would return to her, Lotus Flower waits everyday for her beloved husband. Her Chinese neighbors chide her for her silly devotion because they believe she was just an exotic fling for the American. Years pass and Lotus Flower raises her son (who her husband doesn’t even know he has) and she writes letters to herself from him in broken English that tell of his love for her and his son.
SPOILER ALERT: The heart-breaking final act has the American at last returning to China. Lotus Flower hears of his return and puts on her best clothes and makes her son ready for his father’s arrival, but is emotionally distraught to discover he has married an American girl and forgotten about her and has only returned at the behest of his new wife to explain the situation. Lotus Flower tries to keep her composure, but soon the American woman discovers the truth and Lotus Flower gives her son to the new woman. The scene where Lotus Flower tries to tell her son that it was all fairy stories when she said she was his mother and that she was just a silly Chinese nurse is truly gut wrenching. Lotus Flower’s eyes are filled with tears and her young son does not wish to leave his mother and clings to her, kissing her and trying to dry her tears. Eventually the American wife takes the son and they return to America with Lotus Flower’s husband. Having spent her whole life waiting for her beloved’s return and removing herself from all other alliances and her son now gone she throws herself into the ocean, thus paying the toll of the sea. This film is very sentimental but it’s quite good and Wong gives a wonderful leading performance.
Anna May Wong was a glamour girl in her time and a very fine actress, but the Hollywood system continued to refuse her roles (Asian leads were never terribly common). The last straw arrived when she was refused the role of O-lan for the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937). This was a role Wong had desired for a long time, but it was cast to the American actress, Luise Rainer (who won the Academy Award for her role). Wong eventually relocated to Europe where ethnic performers were met with somewhat less troubles. She eventually returned to Hollywood but remained chiefly a side character.
She played a slightly more positive double-agent character in the British musical Chu Chin Chow (1934), but her role isn’t big enough. She starred in the stylish E. A. Dupont film, Piccadilly (1929); did radio; and had a supporting role in the classic Marlene Dietrich film, Shanghai Express (1932). She starred in the wartime dramas Lady From Chungking and Bombs Over Burma (both 1942) and even became the first Asian American with her own detective TV show in 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (sadly, nothing exists of the show today). Later in life she sold her costumes and donated the money to Chinese aid for refugees. She died of a heart attack at age 56 in 1961. She never married.
Like Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar (as well as stealing every scene in Gone With the Wind, 1939), much of Anna May Wong’s success is marred by people who discount her and her work for portraying more racially stereotypical characters. I ask these attackers to consider the times in which these actors lived. It may not have been fair then, why should we keep it unfair now? Few can deny their talent or the obstacles that faced them. Let us celebrate them rather than belittle their legacies. Racial equality may elude us for another century, but let us not forget what steps have already been conquered or the brave, stubborn people who conquered them.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 27, 2009