A thousand deaths

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am


Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend
by Graham Russell Gao Hodges
Hong Kong University Press

Hong Kong Eurasian actress Nancy Kwan took leading roles in two Hollywood movies in the early 1960s: The World of Suzie Wong opposite American actor William Holden and The Flower Drum Song. Kwan benefited from more liberal times in Hollywood, and as Wan Chai prostitute Suzy Wong was able to play a romantic lead in an interracial relationship. It was controversial at the time, but Kwan's character lived on at the end of the movie with her artist lover.

Now rewind 90 years to 1922, and the Technicolor movie The Toll of the Sea in which a beautiful, sexy Chinese-American plays the tragic role of a Chinese woman spurned by her white lover. He deserts her for a Caucasian wife, and she hands over their son to the couple for a better future, wades into the sea and drowns.

The actress, Anna May Wong, ironically and bitterly commented that they could write 'She died a thousand deaths' on her gravestone, for the number of times she committed suicide or was killed on screen. She made 50 films, was a style and fashion icon, a heroine of the underground gay scene, and in another era would probably have won an Oscar.

But she remains a controversial figure, largely passed over by film historians and the Chinese-American community because her roles were often embarrassingly stereotypical. Hollywood played on her 'American Orientalism', while nationalist and later communist China heavily criticised her as they felt that she did not portray the Chinese woman in a good light and showed too much leg.

The story of Wong's life is a damning indictment of the appalling institutional racism that existed in the US, which makes it impressive that she ever got ahead at all.

In Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend, Graham Russell Gao Hodges, professor of history and Africana studies at Colgate University, relates how Wong - born in California in 1905 - fought to overcome huge barriers in her career. She had tremendous self-belief yet had to compromise with the mediocre film fodder put her way by American Orientalism, the idea of the exotic Asian.

This was a time when film regulations prevented interracial on-screen romances and California state law forbade marriages between different races. Despite huge international fame in her heyday, Wong was forced to fill out immigration papers every time she returned home to California.

Wong's grandparents had come to America during the gold rush. Her father, Wong Sam-sing, had a first wife and son in China, and then a further eight children, of which seven survived, and a laundry business in California.

Hodges was unable to interview any family members - her siblings are all dead - but the family refused also to release some papers out of shame, he says.

Still, he managed to find numerous sources from private letters to magazine reviews of Wong's movies, and interviews with her from around the world that create a profile of a woman who went up against a traditional father to become an actress. She was savvy with real estate, had a propensity for doomed and temporary relationships with older, married, white film industry men, spoke several languages and worked on creating her own fame when the studios she worked for didn't.

Hodges succeeds in building a genuine picture of a teenager keen to get into the film industry she saw all around her, who covers her face in powder and make-up for her first audition, and is somewhat affronted by the alarmed make-up artist who quickly takes it all off.

Wong was remarkably beautiful, fashion photographers loved her and she had a charisma on screen that went beyond her sex appeal. It was her face that drew Hodges into the project - when he saw her portrait in a shop, he didn't know who she was, but had to have it.

Despite the cinematic dross she was forced to perform in, Wong also had roles in some significant films - The Thief of Baghdad (1924) with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Peter Pan (1924), Piccadilly (1929) and Shanghai Express (1932).

In Europe she would also fare better with meatier roles and, like French-American singer Josephine Baker, would also tour cities with song-and-dance shows. Wong was a stylish 1920s flapper, with a bob haircut and short skirts, who smoked and flouted other social norms of the time. She loved Berlin into the early 1930s when the artistically liberal Weimar Republic moved into the darker era of Nazism.

Social norms of the 1920s meant that while white Americans might feel the attraction of Wong and Japanese male actor Sessue Hayakawa, the fact they weren't white meant they were cast in an evil light and had to meet a sticky end before the film credits. The Motion Picture Production Code, written in 1930, didn't allow on-screen interracial romance, stating that 'miscegenation is forbidden', so Wong was forced into supporting roles.

In 1937, Hollywood created a movie of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, and German actress Luise Rainer got the lead role - and Wong had to teach her how to use chopsticks. She stoically dealt with rejections and being subjugated to a supplementary role but the situation took its toll. Hodges writes of her increased drinking, smoking and depression.

In 1936, Wong made a trip to China - it was life-changing for her and something she had long wanted to do. It wasn't the easiest time to go: the Kuomintang government had a campaign extolling women to accept the four virtues of chastity, appearance, speech and work, to withdraw from public gatherings and accept only modest political positions. The authorities even dictated hemlines. Wong's bare legs conflicted with the fully clothed styles of national stars Hu Die and Ruan Lingyu, writes Hodges.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Wong, even though she didn't speak Putonghua and was not universally welcomed. It began years of long service providing aid to China, particularly when it was under Japanese occupation and as the US government's attitude to China became more sympathetic.

Hodges' book reads well - his subject is interesting and the story moves along chronologically but, at 206 pages, with sufficient speed. He could have lost some of the detailed plotlines of the more trying films Wong was in. Hodges is also keen on the symbolism of Wong's costumes and hairstyles; he credits his Chinese wife for advising him about both. Yet at the same time Hodges drops in tantalising sentences with no more information, such as Wong meeting Laurel and Hardy - more please.

It would have also been interesting to hear more about her relationships with powerful men in the film industry, even if they weren't ultimately successful. But we do get a clear picture of Wong - her ability to speak several languages, her innate intelligence, her ability to push - to a certain extent - for better working conditions, and her general popularity. Wong died in 1961, ultimately of a heart attack, but had suffered from a diseased liver from years of partying and alcoholism. Hodges loves his subject and is - rightly - sympathetic to her, but the alcoholism, one gets a feeling, is somewhat glossed over.

Ultimately, it is a well-researched and interesting story of a courageous actress who battled traditions both from her country of birth and her Chinese background and who worked for a far smaller salary than such counterparts as Marlene Dietrich.

In 1960, shortly before her death, Wong was planning a cinematic comeback and had been cast in the leading role of The Flower Drum Song, an all-Asian musical. But her health wasn't up to it. It was ironic that a key role she had waited her whole career for came too late. Instead, Nancy Kwan got the role.

This is the second edition of Hodges' book, originally printed in 2004 and this time published by Hong Kong University Press - but it's not simply a revamped introduction and is updated throughout. His book in 2004 was one of three on Wong, and the past decade has seen a renewed interest online in her life, but there is still room for more. Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang has highlighted Wong in his work, but it is surely time for a biopic on her ... and with a Chinese actress playing the lead role.