Saturday, January 4, 2014

Monthly Muse: Anna May Wong

This months muse is Anna May Wong. Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American actress to achieve Hollywood stardom and international acclaim. Anna May was born Wong Liu Tsong (meaning yellow willow frost) on January 3rd 1905 near the Chinatown neighbourhood of Los Angeles to second generation Cantonese parents. She was the second of seven children born to Wong Sam Sing, owner of the Sam Kee Laundry in Los Angeles, and his second wife Lee Gon Toy.
In 1910, the family moved to Figueroa Street where they were the only Chinese on their block, living alongside mostly Mexican and Eastern European families. The two hills separating their new home from Chinatown helped Anna to assimilate into American culture. She attended public school with her older sister at first, but then moved to a Presbyterian Chinese school when the girls became the target of racial taunts from other students. Classes were taught in English, but Anna attended a Chinese language school afternoons and on Saturdays.

Anna became obsessed with movies around this time when U'S motion picture production began to relocate from the east cost to LA. Movies were shot constantly around Anna's neighbourhood. Anna began going to Nickelodeon movie theaters and quickly became obsessed with the "flickers", missing school and using lunch money to attend the cinema. Her father was not happy with her interest in films, feeling that it interfered with her studies, but Wong decided to pursue a film career regardless. At the age of nine, she constantly begged filmmakers to give her roles, earning herself the nickname "C.C.C." or "Curious Chinese Child". By the age of 11, Wong had come up with her stage name of Anna May Wong, formed by joining both her English and family names.

Anna's first break into film happened when she was working at Hollywood's Ville de Paris department store. Metro Pictures needed 300 girl extras to appear in Alla Nazimova's film The Red Lantern (1919). Without her father's knowledge, a friend of his with movie connections helped Anna May land an uncredited role as an extra carrying a lantern.

Anna worked steadily over the next few years picking up extras roles in various movies, including Priscilla Dean and Colleen Moore pictures. Finding it difficult to keep up with acting and her school work Anna dropped out of school in 1921 to persue her passion. That year, Wong received her first screen credit for Bits of Life, the first anthology film, in which she played the wife of Lon Chaney's character, Toy Ling, in a segment entitled "Hop"
At the age of 17 she played her first leading role, in the early Metro two-strip Technicolor movie The Toll of the Sea. A movie based loosely on Madame Butterfly written by Frances Marion. Anna received high praise for the role but despite this Hollywood was reluctant to give Anna more starring roles. She spent the next few years in supporting roles providing "exotic atmosphere".

At the age of 19, Anna May Wong was cast in a supporting role as a scheming Mongol slave in the Douglas Fairbanks picture The Thief of Bagdad playing a typical 'Dragon Lady' type role. Her brief appearances on-screen caught the attention of audiences and critics alike.

After this second major role Anna chose to move out of the family home conscious that Americans viewed her as foreign born and promoted her flapper image. In 1924 she created Anna May Wong Productions a production company that was to create movies about Chinese myths but when her business partner was found to be engaging in dishonest practices, Wong brought a lawsuit against him and the company was dissolved.

After a while it became evident to Anna that due to America's Anti-miscegenation laws that meant she was not allowed to kiss a white actor on screen she would never get any more leading lady roles. Anna continued to be typecast into supporting roles where she played indigenous native girls.

In early 1925 she joined a group of serial stars on a tour of the vaudeville circuits; when the tour proved to be a failure, Wong and the rest of the group returned to Hollywood.

In 1926, Wong put the first rivet into the structure of Grauman's Chinese Theatre when she joined Norma Talmadge for its groundbreaking ceremony, although she was not invited to leave her hand- and foot-prints in cement.

In the same year Wong starred in The Silk Bouquet. Re-titled The Dragon Horse in 1927, the film was one of the first U.S. films to be produced with Chinese backing, provided by San Francisco's Chinese Six Companies. The story was set in China during the Ming Dynasty, and featured Asian actors playing the Asian roles

Tired of being both typecast and being passed over for lead Asian character roles in favor of non-Asian actresses, Anna left Hollywood in 1928 for Europe. Anna became a sensation in Europe starring in a number of noteable films.  Anna made her debut on the London stage with Laurence Oliver in The Circle of Chalk (1929), which caused a sensation in the UK. Later that year she made her last silent film Piccadilly which presented Anna in one of her most sensual roles, but she was not permitted to kiss her Caucasian lover; a controversial kissing scene was cut before the film was released. Anna subsequently refused to attend the premiere.

During the 1930s, American studios were looking for fresh European talent. Ironically, Anna caught their eye and she was offered a contract with Paramount Studios in 1930 who lured her back to America with the promise of leading lady roles. Anna landed  a starring role on Broadway in On the Spot, a drama that ran for 167 performances and which she would later film as Dangerous to Know. When the play's director wanted Wong to use stereotypical Japanese mannerisms, derived from Madame Butterfly, in her performance of a Chinese character, Wong refused. She instead used her knowledge of Chinese style and gestures to imbue the character with a greater degree of authenticity.

In November 1930 Anna mother was run over by an automobile in front of her house and subsequently died. The family remained in the house until 1934 when Anna's father returned to China with her younger siblings.

With the promise of appearing in a Josef von Sternberg film, Wong accepted another stereotypical role – the title character of Fu Manchu's vengeful daughter in Daughter of the Dragon (1931). This was the last stereotypically "evil Chinese" role Wong played. Though she was given the starring role, this status was not reflected in her paycheck: she was paid $6,000 whilst her Asian co-star Sessue Hayakawa received  $10,000 and Warner Oland, who is only in the film for 23 minutes, was paid $12,000.

Anna used her new found celebrity to make political statements for example, she wrote a harsh criticism of the Mukden Incident and Japan's subsequent invasion of Manchuria. She also became more outspoken in her advocacy for Chinese American causes and for better film roles.

Anna appeared alongside Marlene Dietrich as a self-sacrificing courtesan in Sternberg's Shanghai Express. The sexually charged scenes with Dietrich fed rumors about a relationship between the two stars and whispers about Anna being bisexual that bought shame on Anna's family. The Chinese press where critical of her role in Shanghai express as they thought her onscreen sexuality spread negative stereotypes of Chinese women. One paper even ran the headline  "Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China". The most virulent criticism came from the Nationalist government, but China's intellectuals and liberals were not always so opposed to Anna, as demonstrated when Peking University awarded the actress an honorary doctorate in 1932. Contemporary sources reported that this was probably the only time that an actor had been so honored.

In both America and Europe, Wong had been seen as a fashion icon for over a decade. In 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her "The World's best-dressed woman", and in 1938 Look magazine named her "The World's most beautiful Chinese girl".

After her success in Europe and role in Shanghai Express Anna career went back to its old pattern of being typecast in supporting roles. Due to Hays Code Anna was passed over for the leading lady role in The Son-Daughter as MGM deemed her "too Chinese to play a Chinese" and the code meant she would not have been allowed to perform any romantic scenes with her co-star.

Disappointed once again by Hollywood Anna return to Europe where she appeared in 4 four films and toured the UK in a vaudeville show.Her film Java Head (1934), though generally considered a minor effort, was the only film in which Wong kissed the lead male character, her white husband in the film.

In the 1930s, the popularity of Pearl Buck's novels, especially The Good Earth, as well as growing American sympathy for China in its struggles with Japanese Imperialism, opened up opportunities for more positive Chinese roles in U.S. films. Anna returned to Hollywood with the goal of obtaining the lead role in the MGM's film version. The studio apparently never seriously considered  Anna for the role because Paul Muni, an actor of European descent, was to play O-lan's husband, Wang Lung. The Chinese government also advised the studio against casting Anna in the role. The Chinese advisor to MGM commented: "whenever she appears in a movie, the newspapers print her picture with the caption 'Anna May again loses face for China'. MGM's refusal to consider Anna for this most high-profile of Chinese characters in U.S. film is remembered today as "one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s".

After the disappointment of losing the role Anna announced her plans to tour China and visit her family. She also wanted to learn more about Chinese theatre. Anna chronicled her travels for US newspapers. During her travels Anna was criticised by the Nationalist government and the film community and wasn't well received. After returning to Hollywood, Anna reflected on her year in China and her career in Hollywood: "I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese Theatre. I have no feeling for it. It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I'm 'too American' and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.

To complete her contract with Paramount Anna made  a string of B movies in the late 1930's. These films were often dismissed by critics but gave Anna the chance to play non-stereotypical roles. Anna used this to her advantage to portray successful, professional, Chinese-American characters. Paramount also employed Anna as an adviser to other actors, such as Dorothy Lamour in her role as a Eurasian in Disputed Passage.

Through the late 30s and 40s Anna toured her caberet act which included songs in Cantonese, French, English, German, Danish, Swedish, and other languages through Europe and Australia. In 1938, having auctioned off her movie costumes and donated the money to Chinese aid, the Chinese Benevolent Association of California honored Anna for her work in support of Chinese refugees. Anna starred in Lady from Chungking (1942) and Bombs over Burma (1943), both anti-Japanese propaganda made by the poverty row studio Producers Releasing Corporation. She donated her salary for both films to United China Relief.

In later life Anna invested in real estate and owned a number of properties in Hollywood. She converted her home on San Vincente Boulevard in Santa Monica into four apartments which she called "Moongate Apartments". She served as the apartment house manager from the late 1940s until 1956, when she moved in with her brother Richard on 21st Place in Santa Monica.

In 1949, Anna's father died. After a six-year absence, Anna returned to film the same year with a small role in a B movie called Impact. From August 27 to November 21, 1951, Anna starred in a detective series that was written specifically for her, the DuMont Television Network series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in which she played the title role which used her birth name. Anna's character was a dealer in Chinese art whose career involved her in detective work and international intrigue. Although there were plans for a second season, DuMont canceled the show in 1952. After the completion of the series, Anna's health began to deteriorate. In late 1953 she suffered an internal hemorrhage, which her brother attributed to the onset of menopause, her continued heavy drinking, and financial worries.

In 1956, Anna hosted one of the first U.S. documentaries on China narrated entirely by a Chinese American. Broadcast on the ABC travel series Bold Journey, the program consisted of film footage from her 1936 trip to China.[128] Wong also did guest spots on television series such as Adventures in Paradise, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.

For her contribution to the film industry, Anna May Wong received a star at 1708 Vine Street on the inauguration of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. She is also depicted larger-than-life as one of the four supporting pillars of the "Gateway to Hollywood" sculpture located on the southeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, with the actresses Dolores del Río (Hispanic American), Dorothy Dandridge (African American) and Mae West.

In 1960, Anna returned to film in Portrait in Black, starring Lana Turner. She still found herself stereotyped.
She was scheduled to play the role of Madame Liang in the film production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, but was unable to take the role due to failing health.

On February 3, 1961, at the age of 56, Wong died of a heart attack as she slept at home in Santa Monica, two days after her final screen performance on the television show The Barbara Stanwyck Show. Her cremated remains were interred in her mother's grave at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. The headstone is marked with her mother's Anglicized name on top, and the Chinese names of Anna May (on the right) and her sister Mary (on the left) along the sides.

During her lifetime Anna made over 50 films, the most of any Asian actress even to this day. She faced adversity and racism which meant she was passed up for leading lady parts and typecast in supporting roles but Anna's star still shined through and to this day she is a great inspiration for Asian and actresses of other ethnicities alike.

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