Anna May Wong (1905 – )
“I can’t for the life of me understand why a white man couldn’t fall in love with me on the screen…without breaking some terrible censorship law. What is the difference between a white girl playing an Oriental and a real Oriental, like myself, playing them? The only difference I can see is that in most cases, I would at least look the part, where the white girls definitely do not. If it were possible to overcome this terrible censorship barrier, a new field would open for me, giving endless chances to act in good parts. I don’t want to play white girls, but I do think I should have the chance to play the roles that are mine by rights. Is the moral any different because a white man makes love to a white girl who is playing an Oriental? I think not.”
Is the 21st century the dawn of a Golden Age in western culture’s embrace of Asian-themed films?
Last Year’s anarchic, surreal Everything Everywhere All At Once, written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as “Daniels”), is about a Chinese-American immigrant played by Michelle Yeoh, in a jaw-droppingly amazing performance, who, while being audited by the IRS, discovers that she must connect with parallel universe versions of herself to prevent a powerful being from destroying the multiverse. It features Asian actors Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Harry Shum Jr., James Hong, plus gay icon Jamie Lee Curtis in a supporting. This film has grossed $104 million, gained a score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, made it on to most critics Ten Best list, and has been nominated for six Golden Globe Awards. Look for Yeoh to get Oscar-nominated; it’s a sure bet.
Parasite (2019) directed by Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won, follows the members of a poor South Korean family who find a way to work for a wealthy family and insinuate themselves into their household by posing as unrelated, highly qualified individuals. It stars Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin, and Lee Jung-eun.
It grossed over $260 million on a production budget of about $11 million, becoming the highest-grossing South Korean film ever. Parasite won four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film, becoming the first non-English language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.
Shoplifters (2018), directed, written and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda, stars Lily Franky and Sakura Ando. It is about a group of Japanese friends that shoplift to cope with their life of poverty. Kore-eda says he wrote the screenplay contemplating what makes a family, plus he was inspired by reports on poverty and shoplifting in Japan. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The 2018 super-hit Crazy Rich Asians grossed $290 million, against a production budget of $30 million. It is the highest-grossing rom-com of the past decade, and the sixth-highest-grossing ever. Directed by Jon Chu, from a screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan. The film stars Yeoh, Constance Wu, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, hottie Henry Golding.
Crazy Rich Asians is not just a landmark film, it started a movement for greater Asian-American representation in Hollywood, a daunting task, especially considering that Asian-Americans embody such a vast array of cultural, religious, linguistic and economic backgrounds. Plus, Hollywood films have had a crappy history when it comes to its portrayals of Asian-Americans, from the early yellow-face roles to the present-day examples of whitewashing.
Asian-American film festivals are now held in Chicago, San Diego, Washington DC, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Austin and elsewhere.
An earlier generation of sporadic Asian-American filmmaking: Wayne Wang‘s Chan Is Missing (1982), Mira Nair‘s Mississippi Masala (1991), Ang Lee‘s The Wedding Banquet (1993), all found audiences primarily in the mainstream art house circuit, yet the films fed a nationwide hunger of Asian-Americans to see themselves reflected onscreen on their own terms.
Crazy Rich Asians was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority Asian-American cast in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. It received two Golden Globe nominations and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Two sequels are currently in development.
The Farwell (2019) sheds light on Chinese culture and philosophy while delivering a doozy of a paradigm shift. By telling its story through the eyes of a Chinese-born girl who was raised in the USA and is now returning to her homeland, writer-director Lulu Wang allows Western audiences to empathize with the main character’s complex feelings about unfamiliar Chinese traditions and attitudes.
The Farewell is subtitled, but with the funny, relatable Awkwafina as the star, the language gap isn’t too overwhelming. Wang challenges Western views by presenting an opposing way of interacting, leaving audiences to chew on what’s “right” and what’s “wrong”. After winning a bunch of Critics Circle Awards, the film and its star were also nominated for Golden Globes.
Silent film star Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1970) is considered the first Asian-American movie star, and except for maybe Bruce Lee (1941–1973), there hasn’t been a bigger one until the past few years. By 1918, Hayakawa had to start his own film studio because of his frustrations over Hollywood’s offensive and inaccurate depictions of Asians. He produced 23 films and was one of the highest-paid actors of his time. He left Hollywood in 1922 because of rising anti-Asian sentiment, eventually returning after World War II. In 1957, he received an Oscar nomination for his role in The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957).
Both Gandhi (1983) and The Killing Fields (1985) won Oscars for its actors: Ben Kingsley (who is half-British, half-Indian) and Haing S. Ngor. Miyoshi Umeki won for Sayonara (1957) and they are still the only three Asian actors to ever win Oscars for acting.
Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star, and the first Asian-American to become an international superstar. Her long (1922-1961) and varied career spanned both silent and sound films, television, stage, and radio. Her star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame is at 1708 Vine Street. She can also be seen larger-than-life as one of the four supporting pillars of the Gateway To Hollywood sculpture located on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, along with Dolores del Río (Hispanic-American), Dorothy Dandridge (African-American) and Mae West (Gay Icon-American). She invested her money wisely and owned a bunch of properties in Hollywood and Santa Monica. Wong’s image and career have left a fascinating legacy.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892 was with the most significant restrictions on immigration in America’s history (so far). It prohibited all immigration of Chinese people. It was the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the USA. It was repealed in 1943. The Immigration Act of 1924 was a U.S. Federal law that limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living here as of the 1890 census.
The law was especially used to restrict immigration of those dirty dark-skinned Southern Europeans and Africans and it had outright banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. The State Department declared that the law was: “To preserve the ideal of American Homogeneity”, or as we call it today, the GOP. It may have been aimed at preserving American racial homogeneity, but it set no limits on immigration from other countries in Northern Europe.
Members of Congress who supported the 1924 Immigration Act often used a justification for restriction of certain races or ethnicity as a method to prevent the spread of “feeble-mindedness” in American society. Because you know how stupid those Asians are. The law was replaced by The Immigration and Nationality Act Of 1965.
Through her films, public appearances and prominent magazine articles, Anna Mae Wong helped to show white audiences that Asian-Americans were actually human beings during a period of especially overt racism and discrimination, if you can imagine such a thing. Asian-Americans, particularly the Chinese, had been viewed as perpetually foreign in American society, but Wong’s films and public image established her as a real American citizen of Chinese descent at a time when laws were on the books that discriminated against Asians.
Wong didn’t mean to, but she served as a kind a cultural ambassador, a curiosity, and the de facto embodiment of “Oriental” for millions of film fans. She worked hard, subtly, cleverly, persistently, to challenge what Americans thought an Asian or Asian-American should or could be.
To prove how tough it was for her, when MGM was making a high-profile film set in China, depicting a Chinese family, The Good Earth (1937), they cast Paul Muni (Austrian) as the lead male and the very German Luise Rainer as the female lead. The studio offered Wong the small role of Lotus, a slutty teahouse dancer who seduces the main character. But Wong refused. She said:
“You’re asking me, with Chinese blood, to do the only unsympathetic role in a picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters?”
She took MGM’s offer as an insult, as she should have.
Wong became a fashion icon and achieved international stardom in 1924 after appearing in Douglas Fairbanks‘s The Thief Of Bagdad, playing a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” role. Wong had an affair with director Tod Browning, shocking at the time, it was an interracial relationship and Wong was underage.
Frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she reluctantly played in Hollywood, Wong went to Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several notable plays and films. She spent the first half of the 1930s traveling between the USA and Europe for work, appearing in Daughter Of The Dragon (1931) and Daughter Of Shanghai (1937) and with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg‘s Shanghai Express (1932).
After being passed over for The Good Earth, Wong traveled to China, visiting her family’s ancestral home and studying Chinese culture. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying more positive Asian characters. During World War II, she devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan.
In 1951, Wong made history with her television show The Gallery Of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first ever American television show starring an Asian-American. She returned to working in films in 1960 for Portrait In Black, starring Lana Turner. She still found herself stereotyped, with one press release explaining her long absence from films with a supposed proverb, which the studio claimed had been passed down to Wong by her father: “Don’t be photographed too much or you’ll lose your soul“, a quote erroneously used in her obituaries.
For the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, she was all set to play a better part, but Wong’s final credits rolled before shooting began, taken by a heart attack as she slept at home in Santa Monica, two days after shooting a role on the television series The Barbara Stanwyck Show. She was just 56 years old.
The Anna May Wong Award of Excellence is given yearly at the Asian-American Arts Awards; the annual award given out by the Asian Fashion Designers is also named after Wong.