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A Life in Stereotype
By Shawn Stone

Anna May Wong: From Laudryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend
By Graham Russell Gao Hodges
Palgrave MacMillan, 304 pages, $27.95

Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong
By Anthony B. Chan
Scarecrow Press, 320 pages, $45

Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work
By Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane
McFarland & Company, 179 pages, $45

To borrow a phrase from the big book of Hollywood hype, Anna May Wong is back and bigger than ever. The Chinese-American actress, who died over 40 years ago, is undergoing a popular resurrection and critical reevaluation as improbable as it is deserved.

A beautifully restored version of one of her best films, the British-made drama Piccadilly, was shown as part of the New York Film Festival last fall, and will be available on DVD later this year. A Hugh Hefner-funded documentary is making the rounds of the festival circuit now. And then there are these volumes. The question, of course, is why?

Briefly, because she’s a significant figure in both Hollywood and Chinese-American history. Of all the Asian-American actresses in film history, she had the longest, most varied career as a featured player, lasting roughly from 1922 through 1942. (Believe it or not, Lucy Liu probably comes in second.) At a time of overt, legalized racism, she crossed over to become a genuine international star, filling in the gaps between films with stage work and personal appearances.

Oh, and she was stunning to look at. Graham Hodges, author of Anna May Wong: From Laudryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend, says he was first attracted by a photograph of Wong. As he researched her life, he met opposition from other academics who couldn’t get past the many stereotypical parts she played: murderesses, prostitutes and Dragon Ladies.

The daughter of a prosperous laundryman in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Wong found herself drawn away from the traditional expectations her family had for her. She skipped school, hung around movie sets, modeled for newspaper ads, and eventually became an extra. Her beauty and work ethic paid off with larger and larger roles, for important directors. Hodges has solid research on Wong’s family history, but has to rely on second-hand accounts for her early Hollywood experiences. He samples enough sources to weed out most of the promotional hooey, however.

One of Hodges’ best insights relates to how Wong “authored” many of her onscreen roles. Her first lead was in the 1922 film The Toll of the Sea, a Madame Butterfly knock-off and the first Technicolor feature. White critics praised her performance, but only Chinese audiences recognized the way she used the appropriate Chinese hairstyles and clothes to express her character’s social and sexual status. As he explains, “by using her emotions, hairstyles, choice of costumes, gestures and words, she was staging a Chinese persona on the screen in ways that the western director and screenwriter were unlikely to understand.”

The role that really put her over was a bit in Douglas Fairbanks’ opulent The Thief of Bagdad. This led to a contract with Paramount, and everything looked peachy. Except that the studio didn’t know what to do with her; they even tried casting her, twice, as a Native-American. As the ’20s wore on, her roles became marginal, in insulting, racist films that caricatured Chinese- Americans. Her characters never fell in love, or married, or triumphed—they were evil, and they died.

Wong’s canny reaction was to decamp for Europe. German and British film companies had no problem giving her star roles, even if the stories were only marginally less stereotyped. Though she still couldn’t have an on-screen romance—especially interracial romance—and still often died at the end of every picture, she was given more of a chance to show her talents.

Hodges does an excellent job telling how Wong constructed her career, and life, around the social and legal strictures on Chinese-Americans. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 blocked the immigration of men described as “laborers,” and most women on “a presumptive belief that they were prostitutes.” Congress refined and extended these laws over the following decades. Even though she was born here, Wong had to get a certificate proving her citizenship each time she left the country. If she had married a non- citizen, she would have forfeited her own U.S. citizenship. (Wong never married.)

Hodges also has accumulated a great deal of fascinating personal detail, gleaned from letters and interviews. He’s somewhat squeamish on her the last 15 years of her life, and her severe alcoholism, however.

Anthony B. Chan brings a wealth of knowledge about Chinese-American history to Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, and places her life in the context of the social life of Los Angeles and the political turmoil of China. Nothing wrong with that. His prose style is a good deal less meandering than Hodges’, and he covers much the same ground. However, Chan’s book lacks the sources needed to fill in the personal side of Wong’s life. (He barely alludes to her alcoholism.)

The structure of Chan’s bio actually gives the game away: The first part covers the facts of her life, the second puts her life in the context of social and spiritual movements, and the third consists of a close racial-sexual-political reading of a few of her key films. (This doesn’t give the book much flow, by the way.) The result is more like “the many theories about the life of Anna May Wong” than her actual story. It’s perfectly valid analysis, but isn’t biography.

Leibfried and Lane’s Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work, isn’t biography either—but it’s not intended to be. It is a carefully researched scholarly volume. They present the basic story of Wong’s life with economy and clarity in a brief essay, followed by an in-depth cataloging of her work.

Each film is exhaustively covered with a detailed synopsis, reviews and a note on viewing availability. For those interested in either film history or the twisted representations of Asians in Hollywood cinema, it’s an invaluable resource.

It’s the wealth of rare stills and publicity materials, though, that make Leibfried and Lane’s book a fine companion to either biography. They even have a “romantic clinch” still from Piccadilly, illustrating how close Wong could get—or not get—to on-screen interracial romance. It’s easier to absorb the absurdity of Wong acting with Caucasians in yellowface when you see a normally convincing actor like Jason Robards Sr. done up in Chinese garb and squinting away in silly fashion. The strikingly artful movie posters and theater programs shown underscore Wong’s star status in Europe—and what Hollywood missed out on, thanks to racism and a lack of imagination.


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