Hollywood Movies

The 1920s film starlet whom Hollywood shoved off the screen

March 29, 20246 Mins Read

The early days of Hollywood produced some remarkable women, but Anna May Wong – the Asian-American actress whose “wild and shimmering life” story is told in Katie Gee Salisbury’s Not Your China Doll – was in a class of her own.
Wong was the first non-­Caucasian Hollywood star, and for decades, the only one from an Asian background. Born in 1905 in Los Angeles’s Chinatown to hard-­working parents who owned and ran a laundry business, she began her career as an extra and quickly rose through the ranks. She was catapulted to fame aged 19, when she appeared in the lavish fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The camera loved her, and she moved gracefully between moments of comedy and those of high emotion.

But rather than showcasing Wong, 1920s Hollywood wasted her in supporting parts, in which she had to play second fiddle to white actresses – often white actresses in “yellowface”. European attitudes were different, at least, so when she was given the opportunity to play more prominent roles in films shot in Germany and London, she grabbed it. Notable among these were the romantic drama Song (1928), which was written for her, and the proto-film noir ­Piccadilly (1929). 
As an actress who started out in the last decade of the silent era, Wong had to contend first with the advent of talkies, and later with the shift of focus away from ­cinema screens to television. ­Luckily for her, she was an early mistress of reinvention, and someone for whom fame was not the driving force.

Rather, as Salisbury, a magazine writer and photographer, makes clear, Wong was driven by both the desire to practise her art and the awareness that she was in the unique position of being able to represent her race on the big screen. As a fellow Asian-American, Salisbury is particularly interested in Wong’s self-image. The actress once described herself as, “an American-born Chinese girl – proud of her parents and of her race, yet so thoroughly Americanised as to demand independence, a career, a life of her own… But though I love my father dearly, and am proud of my people, I can see their faults. It is the cause of much conflict in me.” Salisbury explains: “The conflict was not the fact of her being both Chinese and American… No, the contradiction was in others’ insistence that she be one thing or another, that she live up to their expectations in lieu of the ones she had clearly set for herself.”

Off-screen, in the 1920s, Wong was a flapper, a bright young thing who viewed herself as an American girl but was constantly “othered” in the media as a strange and exotic being. An early example was a Movie Weekly article that posed the rhetorical question: “Does she, ­chameleon-like, become as ­thoroughly Chinese when among her own people? Are her Americanisms merely part of a clever pose?” Throughout her career, Wong was criticised for not being what ­people expected. In England, she didn’t sound Chinese enough; in China, her Cantonese had too much of an American twang.

The Wong who emerges from Salisbury’s lively and admiring account, however, is a character who brimmed with resilience, intelligence and wit. Even as a teenage starlet, she wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself: she caused a delay to production on The Thief of Bagdad after she experienced a racial slur on the set. “She pursued everything she wanted in life with a steely determination and grit,” Salisbury writes. “She didn’t force things, but she didn’t quit either.” Wong rose above disappointments both professional, when Chinese parts went to Caucasian actresses or her characters were downgraded to supporting roles, and personal, not least the end of her love affair with the British writer and producer Eric Maschwitz.

Salisbury also paints an evocative picture of the ramshackle embryonic days of Hollywood, when movie-mad Wong would play truant from school and join the crowds watching crews filming in Chinatown. Later, we read about The Good Earth, an epic mid-1930s MGM drama set in China. Wong’s name was regularly linked with the leading female role – but in the end, she was offered what amounted to “a supporting role to a supporting role”, and the lead went to the German actress Luise Rainer. Wong’s response, Salisbury relates, was to undertake the trip that would fulfil her lifelong dream – to visit China. That she ever returned to Hollywood after such a snub is a measure of how pragmatic she was. She managed to achieve her ambition of promoting positive images of China and the Chinese in a number of ­Hollywood movies, culminating in King of Chinatown (1939), in which she plays Dr Mary Ling, a character inspired by the real-life surgeon and humanitarian Margaret Chung.

Heavy drinking led to ill health from the late 1940s, when Wong was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, and for a few years she worked less frequently and became something of a recluse. Yet she ­continued to be a pioneer: the 1951 tele­vision series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong was the first to star an Asian-American woman. There­after, “her TV career blossomed”, and she was about to appear in the movie version of the musical Flower Drum Song when, in 1961, she died in her sleep of a heart attack. Although her acting career never fulfilled its potential, Wong doesn’t emerge as a tragic heroine. This Anna May Wong is a solo flyer who – more than anyone before, or for a long time after – helped to dismantle the Chinese stereotypes fav­oured by Hollywood, and paved the way for the Asian-American stars of today.

Not Your China Doll is published by Faber at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books

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