When twenty-four-year-old Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong made her London stage debut in March 1929 in a play called Chalk Circle in London’s West End, critics questioned an aspect of her. Performance: Her Voice. So far, the five-foot-seven, dreamy-eyed Wong has mostly appeared in American silent films that play to stereotypes of docile Asian women. Her live audience might have been expecting a melodious vibrato. Instead, she gave them “squeaky” and “uneducated” in the eyes of the critics. Wong grew up near Los Angeles’ Chinatown and spoke Cantonese and English from an early age. She has a real California accent. After the eight-week “Chalk Circle,” Wong had lunch with some reporters to ask about her bad reviews. First, she answered their questions in English. Then, to their surprise, she switched to Cantonese.
The episode took place about halfway through “Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Intersection with American History,” a new biography of the star by scholar Wong, as evidence of what Wong says is “defiant and playful.” Wong isn’t just playing with public expectations in the language of her ancestors. Her audacious refusal to make her identity clear to the white audience watching her is one of the only ways she can. Wong Kar Wai is the first Chinese-American film star in the global film industry. Her four-year career spanning film, stage and television in the early and mid-2000s involved a complex series of negotiations. She had to bow to the cardboard caricatures the industry often asked her to play, while maintaining her self-esteem and protecting herself from the indignities she received because of her ethnic background.
Huang’s book comes at an opportune time for Huang’s legacy. Rarely has the public’s admiration for Huang been so high: the reappraisal of her work corresponds to a broader awareness of Asian American history in recent years. In 2022, the U.S. will put her likeness on the quarter, making her the first Asian-American woman to appear on the country’s currency; She resembles a Barbie doll. Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh scored a historic win at this year’s Academy Awards with her kaleidoscopic performance in “Everything Ready,” thrusting Wong Kar-wai back into the cultural conversation. In June, novelist Yueshan Gale’s historical novel “The Brightest Star” was published, trying to slip under Huang’s skin through fiction; another of her biographies Katie Gee Salisbury’s “Not Your China Doll” is scheduled to be released in March next year.
“Daughter of the Dragon” is the last of Huang’s triptych, focusing on Asian American history. Like its two predecessors, Charlie Chan and Inseparable, it uses its themes to represent the broader story of Asian American exclusion in the 19th and 20th centuries. Born Huang Liucong in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1905, the actress grew up during a time of intense hostility toward Chinese Americans. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, barred nearly all Chinese immigrants — known as Chinese laborers — from entering the United States. Huang’s grandfather came to the United States in the 1750s. Her parents, both born in the United States, have not been immune to the confrontation these laws have created. Families like the Huangs, who run the laundromat, are frequent targets of racial hatred in Los Angeles. Huang’s classmates taunted her by chanting “Chinese, Chinese, Chinese” while pulling her hair. Some would stick pins on her like she was a doll.
Huang found sanctuary in movies and, as she puts it, became a “movie freak” at the age of ten. Soon, she was hanging out on movie sets that were filmed outdoors in Chinatown. Her presence is so persistent that one staff member dubbed her “CCC” — Curious Chinese Child. Determined to become an actress, she began to stand in front of a mirror and force herself to cry, practicing stretching her facial muscles. To heighten the dramatic effect, she sometimes places a handkerchief on her chest and then rips it open in spasms of simulated emotion.
At the time, the American film industry was churning out films that exploited the “yellow peril,” developing a fascination with Chinese-American characters portrayed as opium addicts, slave owners, and criminals. “Yellowface,” the practice of white performers pretending to be East Asian, is common. It is difficult for actors of Chinese descent to gain a foothold in this hierarchy, especially lead roles. Wong was an extra in 1919’s The Red Lantern when she was a teenager. Set against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion in China, the film follows the divergent fates of two half-sisters, one white and the other half-Chinese and white. Both sisters are played by Alla Nazimova, a Yalta-born actress, and one has yellowface, with eyes artificially made with amygdala. Wong Kar-wai, who played the Girl with the Lamp, excitedly called friends to a movie, only to find that she was barely there.
Undeterred, Huang Mei changed her name to Huang Liushuang to make her name more acceptable to the audience. It was a routine act of Americanization experienced by many stars of the era. But it marked Huang’s realization that to succeed in the industry, she had to walk a tightrope between the unfamiliar and the familiar, packaging herself for a white American audience without compromising the mystique of her racial identity for moviegoers.
In 1922, she had her first leading role in The Price of the Sea. She plays a Hong Kong girl who falls in love with a white man who impregnates her and abandons her; the film ends with her suicide. The character is the spiritual descendant of Madame Butterfly, a quintessentially submissive Asian woman who is sadly abandoned by a domineering white man. The role required Huang to cry constantly. “Someone threw a raft at Anna May Wong,” a crew member yelled. Her performance received critical acclaim, but she struggled to find leading roles — at least in America. Fortunately, the German director Richard Eichberg appreciated her work and offered her a five-film contract in 1927. Despite not knowing German and having never crossed the Atlantic, Huang said yes.
The change of location gave Huang the freedom to experiment with her identity: After arriving in Germany dressed as an American mod, she began to feel more connected to what she called her “Chinese soul,” and signed the inscription “You in the East, Anna”. Huang Mei,” winking cheekily at the image projected on her. Her subsequent films with Eichberg freed her from the stereotypes she faced in Hollywood. In 1929’s Sidewalk Butterfly, she played A Chinese dancer, despite what the title suggests, is more of a poised vampire than a passive wallflower.
Ms. Huang took off her fashionable clothes, showing a new temperament of European sophistication. She studied German and French. Speech classes removed all traces of her American accent. Her sound film debut was with Eichberg, who directed three versions of the same film, known in the United States as Flames of Love (1930), in English, French and German version, all versions feature Huang as a dancer in Tsarist Russia. Despite mixed critical reaction, Huang, unlike many stars of the silent era, survived the transition to sound films.
But after her two and a half years abroad, the Nazis were in power and the Weimar Republic was becoming increasingly hostile to foreigners. Homesickness drove her back to the United States. When Huang returned, she found that success abroad had increased her buying power in Hollywood. In 1931, she had a major role in her first American sound film, Daughter of the Dragon. Playing an exotic dancer who slowly transforms into a murderous vixen, she breaks one stereotype only to find herself stuck in another. In Wong’s words, she underwent “a total transformation that turned Madame Butterfly into the Dragon Lady,” the viscous, irredeemably evil stereotype that became synonymous with Wong’s name in the popular imagination. She gained critical and popular recognition for the role and the following year for her performance in The Shanghai Express alongside Marlene Dietrich, but it wasn’t enough to land her a studio contract. Wong has proven time and again that she is capable of bringing a spiritual dimension to the roles she plays, but Hollywood has been hesitant to acknowledge her talent.
While Huang contextualizes Huang’s ascent in her career against the backdrop of pervasive anti-Asian sentiment in America, he mostly avoids reducing her to simply a symbol of empowerment or an object of pity. He also doesn’t judge her for the compromises she makes in character choices. At the time, many Asian Americans accused Mr. Huang of perpetuating stereotypes. Wong wisely draws an analogy between similar criticisms directed at heirs to the royal estate, such as Michelle Yeoh, Asian-American actress Nanshi Kwan, and Lucy Liu, to show the difference between a community that craves to be seen and one that, like the Wangs, must be seen. enduring tensions between the artists who arrived. Take the burden of representation on your shoulders. Huang is clear why she needs to accept the roles she plays: She can’t say no to them. “When a person wants to get a foothold in a certain career, he can’t choose roles. He has to accept what is offered,” readers heard Wang tell a Hollywood Reporter.
It’s a great soundtrack clip that sheds light on Huang’s psyche and the traps she finds herself falling into. Huang likes it too. Eight chapters later, at a banquet with Chinese officials, a version of the phrase reappears, but with less force. Here, as elsewhere, Huang seems so concerned with carefully constructing the world around Huang that his impression of Huang himself begins to dim. As a result, Wong sometimes feels less like a flesh-and-blood character and more like a prop through which Wong conducts his investigations of Asian American history.
Three years after the Shanghai Express, Huang captures his subject rightly and gets to her emotional core as she chronicles the heartbreak of Huang’s career. She had long wanted to star in a film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel “The Great Earth,” about two Chinese farmers, Wang Lung and A Lan, who vacillate between poverty and affluence while coping with the woes of their marriage. ordeal. In the 1920s. Star Paul Muni, a Jewish actor born in what is now Ukraine, was offered the leading role in Wang Lung and agreed to play Yellowface. In 1934, the film industry adopted the Production Code (commonly known as the Hayes Code), which formally banned interracial marriages and romances on screen. The Hays Code prohibits interracial romance and, more importantly, the fragile sensibilities of American moviegoers, who Huang suggested would prefer white actresses wearing yellowface as counterparts to white actors, meaning that Mooney’s casting actually That ruled out the possibility of Huang getting the role opposite him. When a Chinese technical consultant hired to advise on the film claimed that Huang’s resignation to clichéd roles had damaged her reputation in China and that casting her would be a curse to the film’s box-office success in China, her The plight just got worse.