In the United States, the depiction of the “Asian” woman had been one of fragility. Silent, quiet, and a feminine being who is hidden, and obedient to the dominance of men. Going through life with no thought process, she nods her head, and plays her role as the exotic Orient, who can be used for pleasures, behind the camera’s eyes. She is regarded as having no thought process. She is presented as feminine, but in a way where she is not fully in charge of her existence and decisions.
Entering into the world of Chinese Americans and the 1920’s Hollywood scene, we bare observation to perceptions of the “docile Orient.” The Hollywood pictorial scene often marginalized, and made invisible, Asian-American actors and actresses in leading films. Such behavior even occurred in Asian-themed films, where White actors and actresses would play the role of Asian characters. Make-up was used to darken the skin of White American/European actors and actresses, in addition to using tape to slant their eyelids, in imitating Asian features. It sent a message that even within their own culture and ethnicity, the very presence of Asian people was not valuable.
It was during the 1920’s where the United States film industry saw a shift in the narrative of Asian, specifically Chinese-American women characters on film. That shift came through the artistry, and talent, of
Anna May Wong!
A Chinese-American actress, dancer, and fashion/style icon, Anna May Wong, made it very clear that she had more to offer Hollywood, than a celebrated stereotype. From her work on silent films, colored films, radio, and the first Asian-American television lead series-The Gallery Of Madame Liu-Anna May Wong played Chinese women characters, who were assertive and outspoken. These characters carried complex stories, which illuminated their womanhood and humanity. It was far out of the traditional role, that mainstream U.S.A. was used to seeing.
When Anna May Wong was overlooked for the lead role in the film, The Good Earth, in 1935 (losing to Luise Rainer), she highlighted her defiance for Hollywood’s racism, by refusing the only role for a Chinese character allowed in the film, (an evil character, at that), she created her own documentary film in 1936, entitled “My China Film.” The film was based on her travel adventures in China, and her re-exploration of her Chinese heritage and roots. What makes this piece of artistry so holistic is that it allowed a Chinese woman to be the image, and voice of China. In telling her story, she was telling it, right!
Wong continued to perform characters in Hollywood, which awakened the industry to the humanity of Chinese-American/Chinese women. One of those prominent characters included “Daughter Of Shanghai,” in 1937. Acting alongside Hollywood legend, Marlene Dietrich, the role highlighted Wong’s ability to create her own iconic image and legacy. In the film, she was equal.
The work of Anna May Wong is imperative during these current times. This is especially pertinent to the Chinese-American community. It was as if she was foreshadowing to future generations of her culture. Hinting that, one day, similar prejudices, and the tainting of one’s image, would arise, again; being far more vigilant that what had been experienced, before. In this present era, we are witnessing such, through the COVID-19 pandemic. Violence and bigotry against Chinese-Americans are modern repetitions in creating “the docile Asian.” Quite honestly, one could argue that it is far worse than, during Wong’s international stardom of the roaring 20’s and beyond. Don’t forget that China was part of the Allied forces in World War II, in their fight against the Japanese invasion. While there was disdain against Chinese immigration to the United States, the vigilance, and subjugation, of Chinese-Americans could always be confined to “the nice, quiet, obedient, smiling Asian.” Their presence was not interpreted as hostile. However, this period of COVID-19, in addition to Chinese-US trade wars, have created an atmosphere, where Chinese-Americans are viewed with even more suspicion; while being viewed as a hostile threat. Hmmm! What would Anna May, say?
The beauty of Anna May Wong’s work, for the present era, is that it reminds the Chinese-American community of their humanity. Her film, television, and performance projects states Chinese-American women, of there being a time when a woman of their community, used the arts to present healthy versions of their womanhood. It was a genre when there was, only one. And yet, the arts were her greatest weapon against bigotry, and the tainting of her cultural image. Her message was simple-simply be. Dare to be! Do not compromise or subjugate yourselves to fit prominent stereotypes, connected to your existent. Just reflect your humanity, and the world will have accept, or tolerate. Whichever route they choose. Forget stereotypes pertaining to the “smiling Asian” or even “the model minority.” Just be human. Reflect humanity in your particular culture, and it will take care of itself. Maybe, just maybe, that is her living legacy.
It’s interesting that in order for Hollywood to appreciate, and listen to Anna May Wong, she had to leave it for some time. In not saying much, silence became her greatest weapon. She simply retreated to a space, where image was celebrated. No shame at all. Rather than cater to the madness, she let Hollywood deal with it. Returning on her own terms, and under the condition that she would command her performances. Portraying Chinese/Chinese-American women, in the authenticity, that they deserved. In a terse amount of words, she would not play second in an image, and culture, that was hers. Once that premise has been established, there was nothing more to say. If the mainstream gaze (in the USA), did not want to accept this, then she would perform her humanity, elsewhere. After all, film and theater is an international platform. There are other stages, that await. Letting outside of her community, and culture, ponder on her absence. Sooner, more than later, they would have to appease her. Wong’s work showed that they did!
As the legendary Nina Simone would say, “. . . you’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.”
What is not often told is how this Chinese-American, Hollywood icon battled with depression and alcoholism. This is an image, that remains hidden. Perhaps it was the stress of presenting the beauty of her womanhood. After all, a culture of people depended on it, for the softening of their presence in the United States. Maybe, such is another reason why her art was important to her. It gave her the opportunity to pour her frustrations into her characters; while experiencing beauty in the process. Whatever the reason, she wore her art, beautifully; with an elegance that his her pain from reality’s harshness.
As the United States of America, and the world, is going through a transition, a great uncertainty arises. We don’t know when things will end. We are not sure when life will be normal, again. Yet, one thing is for sure. Life goes on. It will continue to blossom and bloom, regardless of humanity’s shortcomings. Regardless of man-made catastrophes, life is a cycle. Meaning, humanity has a choice to make. In spite of our differences-whether they be cultural, racial, national, and others-the test of happiness relies on embracing who we are. Cherishing our Being in this essence, called, life. If others want to exert their prejudices against your difference (without any reason, research, or legitimacy), continue on in your skin. Let it glow in yellow and rising suns. ??? Perform it. Style it. Dance it. Present it in fashionable and a stylish embrace. So when your curtain is finally called, you will have passed on a living blueprint, for the future, to imitate, and trace.