Long before ’60s Eurasian tease Nancy Kwan and chopsocky Angel Lucy Liu, Anna May Wong — rediscovered this month in a retrospective presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archive — was the Chinese face lighting up screens around the world. Often referred to as “the little Chinese girl” in her films, the “exotic” Wong was 5-foot-7, and tough. Though not naturally graceful, she gamely plunged into the pseudo-Siamese, risqué dance sequences that became her trademark, while injecting into each of her stereotypical roles boldness and dignity. And no matter how many times she died, her death mask bore a look of defiance.
Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu-Tsong on January 3, 1905, above the Flower Street laundry her family ran in L.A.’s Chinatown. She was barely 17 when she starred, in what is arguably her best performance, as the Chinese maiden wronged by her expat lover in the first two-color Technicolor silent feature, The Toll of the Sea (1922). She went on to horrify her family — and win fans — appearing half-dressed as the slave girl in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and as Tiger Lily in Peter Pan (1924), but by the time she drove the first rivet at Grauman’s Chinese’s glitzy groundbreaking in 1926, she was feeling underestimated.
Determined to thrive in talkies, where other silent stars were failing, and after critics said she sounded too Californian, Wong went to Europe in 1928, took speech lessons, trod the boards at the Haymarket opposite Laurence Olivier, and came home with a handful of films and an Etonian accent. Of her European films, her best work was in Piccadilly (1929) — another silent feature — playing an ambitious scullery-maid-turned-dancer. But the dragon robes and incense never stopped pursuing her. Paramount signed her up to play Fu Manchu’s avenging daughter in Daughter of the Dragon (1931), and she was cast as yet another mysterious Oriental in Josef von Sternberg’s Marlene Dietrich vehicle Shanghai Express (1932). Wong soon fled back to England, where screen roles and parties at Claridge’s awaited, and where she told a London paper: “I think I left America because I died so often. I was killed in virtually every picture in which I appeared.”
For the record, the Brits killed her many times, too.
Years later, in 1957, when Wong appeared on the American TV show Bold Journey to share home movies made on her 1936 trip to China, the poignancy is in what she didn’t talk about: The reels were filmed around the time she lost the lead in MGM’s The Good Earth (1937), based on Pearl S. Buck’s best-seller. Paul Muni had been cast as the Chinese peasant Wang Lung, and a pernicious new Motion Picture Code meant that even a major star like Wong couldn’t play his wife, O-Lan, because she was Asian. The role — and an Oscar — went to Vienna-born Luise Rainer. Offscreen it was no better: Wong was barred from buying property in Beverly Hills or Hancock Park because of her race. At that point, she was just 31, and could tell that her best days were over.
Wong rallied briefly with two of her best films, both by prolific B-movie director Robert Florey, Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and Dangerous To Know (1938). But A pictures were now closed to her, due in great part to Hollywood’s sudden preference for “yellowface” — even Kate Hepburn went Chinese for 1944’s The Dragon Seed. In 1961, following a 10-year hiatus, Wong was cast as the matriarch in Flower Drum Song, but died of liver cirrhosis — the consequence, no doubt, of hard drinking — before shooting began. In the politically correct ’80s, she became one of the statuesque Four Ladies guarding the gateway to Hollywood Boulevard at La Brea, but even today she remains a conspicuous omission from David Thomson’s doorstop, the New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
At her peak, though often afforded little screen time, Anna May Wong always got top billing. She didn’t have much to do as the imported wife in the English costume drama Java Head (1934) or as the crime boss’s melancholy moll in Dangerous To Know. But as we watch her work, her secret unfolds: Even as she operates, already paradoxically, as both the moral and the erotic center of nearly every film she appeared in, there’s something else simmering below the surface, beneath the peekaboo costumes, behind the kohl-lined eyes and their profound watchfulness. Think of her wielding that dagger in Shanghai Express. Or think of Fu Manchu’s daughter in the silliest of matinee romps, bellowing: “No love! No jealousy! Just merciless vengeance!” Anna May Wong was, quite possibly, the movies’ first really angry grrrl.
“Rediscovering Anna May Wong” runs Friday, January 9, through Sunday, January 25, at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater. For more information, see Film & Video Events in Calendar, call (310) 206-8013, or visit www.cinema.ucla.edu.