Saturday, February 12, 2011

Muse: Anna May Wong

Gorgeous actress Anna May Wong (1915-1961, née Wong Liu Tsong on Flower Street, Los Angeles) always dreamed of herself on the silverscreen.  She vowed to spend the first ten years of her adult life trying to break into acting before calling it quits, luckily she didn't have to wait so long.  Despite a rough start-- including a bout with an illness called St. Vitus's Dance where the sufferer has quick involuntary movements that resemble dancing or piano playing-- Wong quickly found film roles.  

Unfortunately, she was completely dissatisfied with her burgeoning film career.  The only roles offered to her were denigrating and stereotypical, including 'Mongolian Slave' and the 'dragon lady' characters.   She became very aware of the limitations on her career, not only due to prejudice and xenophobia, but also anti-miscegenation laws (those prohibiting people of differing races to marry) which prevented her from ever having an on-screen kiss with a White actor.  She consistently lost roles to producer-preferred 'Whites in yellowface'.  Generally, the roles where the Chinese character was evil were offered to Chinese actors such as Wong, but movies where Chinese characters were the main, heroic character, Whites in yellowface were preferred.  

To address these obstacles, Anna May first decided to begin her own production company to offer wider screen roles.  Shortly after starting the company, her business partner was found to be mismanaging her funds and the company dissolved.  She then decided to try out Vaudeville, traveling with a group of performers that crumbled apart during the tour.  Despite her best efforts to side-step the racism of the film & entertainment industry, she lost hope with Hollywood and left for Europe.  

In Europe, Wong was a star.  Starring in German and British silent films, Wong was treated as a fresh new talent and exotic beauty.  She also did a film where she had to recite lines in English French, and German.  Overtime though, Hollywood studios turned an eye to Europe for new talent, and Wong was rediscovered.   Though it seemed promising, Wong faced the same obstacles as before concerning casting and actor pay scale.  This time around though, she gained more prominent roles, including her famous part opposite Marlene Dietrich.  Their sexually charged scenes prompted a surge of rumors about Wong's sexuality and relationship to Dietrich.   Reaching her peak of fame in the mid-late 30s, Wong was seen as a fashion icon and voted "Worlds best dressed" and "World's most beautiful Chinese Woman" by Look magazine.

Wong's new fame allowed her to become more politically active for Chinese-American, and Chinese national causes, and as World War II's mounting anti-Japanese campaign stirred, the American media sympathized more with Chinese characters and causes.  Unfortunately at the peak of her career she was reminded of the racism in her country  when, despite fame, talent, and buzz, she was turned down for the role of O-lan in American book sensation, The Good Earth.  Executives claimed she looked 'too chinese', offered the role to a white actress, and offered her the role of the deceitful Lotus character.

Wong decided to visit China to try her hand at a career there.  Upon leaving for China she told a journalist, "... for a year, I shall study the land of my fathers. Perhaps upon my arrival, I shall feel like an outsider. Perhaps instead, I shall find my past life assuming a dreamlike quality of unreality."  But the reality turned out much different. She was viewed as a traitor and outsider and-- especially because she was raised to speak a local village dialect rather than standard Mandarin, she was viewed as even less authentic by the Chinese public.  She returned to the US disillusioned and felt although her career prospects in the US were low they were much bleaker in China.  She faced the precarious situation of being too Chinese in American and too American in China.  

As her career was winding down, in the late 30s-40s, she acted almost exclusively in B-movies, trying her best to only stick to roles positively portraying Chinese people.  She reinvented many of the shallowly written roles, adding authentically Chinese dance movements and costuming to the characters.  And, as the war heightened, she sold costumes and products to donate proceeds to the war efforts, also supporting the Chinese struggle against Japan. 

She went on to do occasional TV guest appearances after the War, but after years of drinking and stress, attempting to cope with her strange brand of fame, she died at age 56 of a heart attack. 

Also check out the worlds greatest most stylish passport photo!  Yes, this was her actual passport photo:


Harem Cinema said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

This is a lovely tribute to this interesting lady. I recently started showing her movies on my online cinema and was surprised at how many people did not really know Anna May Wong or her work. After watching Lady From Chungking many viewers messaged me to say how much they liked Wong and were looking forward to me showing her other films too. You did a very nice job here and should be proud. I think I will promote it in our newsletter if that is OK with you?

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