The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
SILVER SCREEN PIONEER. Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, a documentary highlighting the life and career of Anna May Wong, airs May 6 at 10:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting. Pictured is Wong in a still from Song (1928), a silent film directed by Richard Eichberg. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Asian American Media)
From The Asian Reporter, V23, #09 (May 6, 2013), pages 11 & 15.
Breaking ground: Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words
Directed by Yunah Hong
Airs Monday, May 6 at 10:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting
By Josephine Bridges
The Asian Reporter
Actress Anna May Wong described working in motion pictures as "the hardest profession possible. Instead of all fun and no work, as many appear to think, they’re all work and no fun. But I’m not complaining, for there is nothing I would prefer to do. The harder the work, the greater the satisfaction in accomplishing it." Wong appeared not only in more than 56 films, but also in stage productions, cabaret acts, and television, yet her greatest accomplishment may have been breaking ground for those who would follow.
Born in Los Angeles in 1905, Wong grew up in Chinatown and watched silent films created there. At age 13, she was given her first opportunity to act, as an extra in The Red Lantern, then insisted, despite the disapproval of her parents, on pursuing a career in acting. Very early in that career, she told a reporter, "I represent one considerable spot of yellow that’s come to stay on the silver of the screen."
Following a long struggle with illness during her second year in high school, the recovered young actress chose not to return to school, but to devote herself to acting. At age 17, using the screen name Anna May Wong, she landed her first starring role in the 1922 film The Toll of the Sea. Wong’s family may not have been enthusiastic about her acting career, but Anna May continued to live at home. Some might have been embarrassed by her father’s laundry business, but she considered it "not so bad working for your family so you can wait and take good parts and be independent as you’re climbing ... not have to worry about where your next meal is coming from."
Wong had supporting roles in 23 films over the next six years, but according to actress Tamlyn Tomita, "She knew that there was something very limited in the depiction of Asian Americans or Asians on film." This was due, in the words of film historian Thomas Doherty, to "the insidious racism that permeates every facet of American culture in the 1920s."
Berlin, however, was a sophisticated, modern city in 1928, with opportunities for minorities. "I sought the advice of relatives and German friends in town," said Wong. "Many of them advised against such a difficult and uncertain adventure, but I made up my mind. I would go."
The actress was a great success in both Germany and England that year. While many silent-film actors were unable to make the transition into sound cinema, in Flame of Love, Wong’s first sound film, she spoke her lines in three different versions of the film, in German, English, and French.
Returning to her native country in 1930, Wong was starring in the Broadway play On the Spot when her mother was fatally injured in a car accident in Los Angeles. Forced to choose between "my American professional duty and my Chinese familial duty," Wong chose her career. "I kept busy performing, but my heart was still breaking."
"She worked, she worked, she worked," said Paramount executive A.C. Lyles. "She came into a community that wasn’t striving, ‘Let’s find a Chinese lady and make her a star.’ Anna May Wong created a desire for Paramount to have a Chinese leading lady. She did it herself."
Wong played a prostitute, one of the biggest roles of her career, in the 1932 film Shanghai Express, in which some thought she upstaged Marlene Dietrich. But Wong remained troubled by the depiction of her race in film: "Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always a villain? ... We’re not all like that. You see, how could we be, with a civilization so many times older than that of the west? We have our rigid codes of behavior, of honor. Why is that never seen onscreen?"
Shut out of a sympathetic role in the 1937 film of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth by a production code forbidding onscreen miscegenation, Wong was devastated but not deterred. Chinese-American roles she played in later films such as Daughter of Shanghai and King of Chinatown, she said, "better represent a woman of my race." While she found the idea of live television bewildering, she took on that challenge as she had every other. Only her death in 1961 prevented her from playing the final role in film for which she was cast.
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words is a striking documentary primarily because Wong’s words — quotes from letters and interviews — are extraordinary, telling a story of hard work that paid off only intermittently for Wong herself. But actresses of Asian ethnicity who have come after her — Doan Ly, who brings her words to life in this documentary, is among them — no doubt walk an easier road thanks to the steps first taken by Anna May Wong.
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words airs Monday, May 6 at 10:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting with a replay scheduled Wednesday, May 8 at 3:00am. To learn more, visit <www.opb.org> or <www.annamaywongdocu.wordpress.com>.
Read the current issue of The Asian Reporter in its