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PIONEERING PERFORMER. Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, a new book aimed at readers age six to 11, shows a glimpse of the difficulties faced by Asian Americans in the early 20th century and provides a good role model for what a truly determined person can do when faced with adversity.
From The Asian Reporter, V19, #18 (May 5, 2009), page 17.
Struggling with stereotypes
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story
By Paula Yoo
Illustrations by Lin Wang
Lee & Low Books, 2009
Hardcover, 32 pages, $17.95
By Julie Stegeman
Becoming the first Chinese-American movie star was not easy, as we learn in Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, which describes the life of the pioneering actress.
Anna May Wong was born in 1905 and grew up in Los Angeles. She, along with the rest of her family, labored at her father’s laundry in Chinatown, although she got away from the difficult work by daydreaming and going to the cinema. "Watching a movie, she could escape from her everyday life, travel to interesting places, and experience new things."
School proved to be no haven for Anna May. Most of the other students were white and "they taunted Anna May, yanking her pigtails and shouting ‘Chinaman’ and other hurtful names." Her father counselled her against fighting back and urged her not to hold grudges and to be proud of her heritage.
One day, when a movie was shooting on the street on the way to school, she happily skipped her classes to learn more about the filming. Her questions earned her the nickname the "Curious Chinese Child" from the cast and crew. Anna May decided at this point she would become an actress; she would be rich and famous and her family wouldn’t have to work in the laundry anymore.
Despite opposition from her parents — "A good girl will not be an actress," her father told her — Anna May broke into acting by working as an extra. And she eventually won over her father, who began helping by driving her to auditions, after witnessing her strong determination to be in the movies.
Anna May won her first big role in Bits of Life and was dismayed when her white co-star — who was playing a Chinese man — was made up with "yellowface," consisting of yellow powder on his skin and tape to make his eyes slant. "Her father had always told her to be proud of her race, but the ugly makeup made her feel ashamed."
Anna May was offered many other roles, but they portrayed Chinese women as stereotypes — "from the scared and submissive ‘China doll’ to the evil and domineering ‘dragon lady.’" Although she hated the demeaning roles, she couldn’t afford to turn them down. Finally, she became fed up and moved to Europe for a few years. With her success there, she became an international star.
She returned to the U.S. in 1935 to audition for the lead female role in The Good Earth, "considered the most important movie of its time for Asian-American actors." But, since the male lead had already been given to a Caucasian, Anna May was denied the role of his wife, because "movie studios forbade actors and actresses of color to kiss their white co-stars because they feared audiences would disapprove."
Feeling rejected by her home country, Anna May decided to go to China, where she found fans as well as people who resented her for the stereotypical roles she’d portrayed. While in China, she resolved in the future to take only roles portraying Asians in a realistic light, to honor her heritage. Anna May kept her resolution. She said of the first movie she made after returning to Hollywood: "This picture gives the Chinese a break — we have sympathetic parts for a change. To me that means a great deal."
An author’s note at the end of the book provides details of Anna May Wong’s life after the story ends and also talks about her legacy. She made the best of limited roles and helped open doors for future Asian actors.
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story shows readers a glimpse of the difficulties faced by Asian Americans in the early 20th century and provides a good role model for what a truly determined person can do when faced with adversity.