Flipping a Coin: The Significance of Anna May Wong’s Quarter
By John Barrett
What emerges from even a cursory study of Anna May Wong’s life is that her complexity and depth were rarely acknowledged but she used her intelligence to control the narrative as much as she could.
In October of last year, the US Mint released a quarter bearing the face of Anna May Wong — widely acknowledged as the first Chinese-American movie star — as part of its American Women Quarters initiative. The program recognizes the pioneering contributions of women in technology, science, and the arts. For some, however, there is a sense that the posthumous honor comes as a “mea culpa.” Even so, I think it is important to shift the narrative a bit. I would rather see Wong’s recognition more as a belated victory and less as a cultural afterthought.
No small amount of verbiage has been spent on framing Wong almost exclusively as a victim of racism and orientalist objectification. It would be foolish to deny that those elements loomed large (and continue to); however, I think it is worthwhile to celebrate what she did accomplish — as a performer, a woman, and a cultural icon; as what we would call an activist; and as what she might call a woman speaking her mind.
It has been debated just how meaningful her contributions have been to opening doors to Asian Pacific Americans and, by extension, greater diversity in the arts. Some argue that her effect on the studios was minimal, if not nil, and that too little has changed in the years since her heyday or her death. In the oddly insultingly titled biography Tool of the Sea, Jennifer Warner comments, “Her legacy was not that she had broken down racial barriers or changed prejudices, but that her career existed at all.” I would argue that the fact that Wong’s career “existed at all” was pivotal. Her perseverance for over two decades in film and a late career foray into television moved the needle forward in progressive representation.
That representation, of course, had its limits. She was routinely denied starring roles and parts where she “got the guy” (let alone was able to kiss him onscreen). Even when she played the heroine of the story, she was doomed to die. Her later films at Paramount provided Wong with (perhaps) more sympathetic characters, but she was passed over for what should have been the defining role of her career, as O-lan, the heroine of the 1937 screen adaptation of Pearl Buck’s wildly successful novel The Good Earth. The German-born Luise Rainer played O-lan in “yellowface,” and won an Oscar for her performance. (As consolation, the studio offered Wong the opportunity to read for the second wife in the story, who winds up ruining the family). This was not the first snub; she had been dropped from The Son-Daughter (1933) in favor of Helen Hayes.
Even considering such setbacks, though, Anna May Wong was able to maintain a presence (and a well-regarded one, at that) during the height of her Hollywood career, from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s. She was still not getting roles worthy of her, but she remained a high-profile representative for Chinese Americans and her presence contributed to greater representation for other actors of Asian descent over the coming decades.
This is not to say that Wong’s stardom was necessarily welcomed by either the Chinese American community, Chinese people in what was then the Republic of China, the Chinese Nationalist Government, or for that matter, her own family. Indeed, she was excoriated for damaging the image of Chinese people both in the US and in China, both for simply being an actress and even where that was accepted, criticized for playing women of dubious or low character, which in turn was considered to reflect badly on China and Chinese people.
Nevertheless, what emerges from even a cursory study of Wong’s life is a woman of complexity and depth that were rarely acknowledged, who used her intelligence to control the narrative as much as she could. She actively participated in crafting her image; recognizing that staying in Hollywood would ultimately lead to ghettoization and stagnation, she left in 1928 to work in Europe, which not only elevated her prospects for better dramatic material but also expanded her recognition as an international cosmopolitan figure.
Those years spent filming and performing on stage in Germany, France, and England said as much about prejudice and exclusion in the United States as it did about legitimizing Wong’s talents. She was in good company: Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and others luxuriated in an air that was easier to breathe. The price was varying degrees of exoticism that would surely grate, but it was a price worth paying rather than suffering increasing marginalization in your chosen field and exclusion from the greater society of the nation of which you were a citizen.
Certainly, after her return to the US in 1931 (she would return to Europe periodically over the next two years) and the rise of critical acclaim stemming in large part from her performance in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich, her impact on the cultural consciousness would have been hard to deny. Moreover, some of her roles now were smart women surviving by their wits and played as such, with no pidgin English to diminish her own or her character’s stature. Even in roles that are little more than walk-ons, Wong lent a presence to characters who would have made far less of an impact in other hands (I have in mind her turn as an accomplice to murder and fraud in 1933’s A Study in Scarlet, but you could insert just about any role where her appearance was minimal but pivotal to the story).
As much as Anna May Wong’s contribution to Asian and Asian American representation and greater inclusivity can and should be framed more positively, it was limited by the intensity of the racism, tokenism, and eventual dismissal that she encountered in her life and career.
Partly as a response to this, in 1936 Wong traveled to China, both to inquire into her origins and to reassert her cosmopolitan transnationalism. Her 10-month visit resulted in a documentary she produced, which was filmed professionally and released on television 20 years later with her own narration. Her stated desire was to find her roots, but she also admitted that she had reservations about how she and her project would be received. This wariness is understandable, given her reception by the Nationalist government years earlier
Wong’s travels in China and the resulting film, along with dispatches she wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, were crucial to her career because they heightened her visibility. More important, she came away with a deeper sense of self. Shirley Lim, author of Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, sees Wong’s self-produced film as a reflection of her inner growth and maturation.
Upon returning to the States, Wong secured a four-picture contract with Paramount, playing savvy, brave, women in what were very much “B” movies. She may have had misgivings about the artistic quality of those films, but she was confident by then that she would be representing herself and her community in a considerably more positive light than her earlier roles.
Rewatching Daughter of Shanghai and King of Chinatown now, I’m struck by how deftly Wong reclaims the “Chinese detective” trope from the Swedish-American Warner Oland as Charlie Chan or the English Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong. She ratchets it up a notch because she’s a woman. None of the Paramount films are by any stretch “bad” — they are solid entertainment. Their significance lies in what they mean to a marginalized community. Today we hear quite a bit from underrepresented communities about how important it is that they be seen; something similar may have crossed the minds of Asian Americans in the ’30s who saw a smart, articulate woman representing them in what were traditionally Caucasian-led genre flicks.
As Wong turned her energies more to activism on China’s relief and other areas of the war effort, her output dwindled. Even then, though, she tried to make movies that would count. Her last two filmed during World War II — Lady from Chungking and Bombs Over Burma — gave her two more heroic leads as well as salaries that she would donate to China relief efforts.
Predictably, roles evaporated during the war when Wong became a woman of a “certain age” (in her late 30s at the beginning of the war and turning 40 by its end). To her credit, Wong was ahead of the patriarchal curve in that regard. She took pains to invest in real estate before the inevitable fickleness of Hollywood struck. She developed the apartments she had purchased and, apparently, took care of her siblings. She did not return to the screen until 1949’s Impact, and would not return to a feature film for another 11 years.
What she would do is launch the first Asian American–helmed television series for the Dumont Network, The Gallery of Madam Liu-Tsong, which was canceled after 10 episodes in 1951 (Dumont would shut down in 1956). Madame Liu-Tsong (Anna May’s Chinese given name) was the owner of a worldwide collection of art galleries who solved crimes. Unfortunately, nothing of the series survives; the Dumont kinescopes are literally lying on the floor of New York Harbor.
Nonetheless, Wong continued to work extensively in the new medium of television. She even scored a belated triumph by appearing as the Other Woman (the wronged “Chinese Wife,” in the teleplay) in a small-screen adaptation of William Wyler’s The Letter (playing a role she had been passed over for in Wyler’s earlier feature).
A small role in the Lana Turner film Portrait in Black was significant enough to help her land a strong supporting part in Flower Drum Song, based on the musical’s book by Oscar Hammerstein, itself based on C.Y. Lee’s novel. Sadly, Anna May Wong died in early 1961 before filming began. That she was highly regarded enough to appear in supporting roles (admittedly, most unworthy of what she could deliver) into the ’50s is telling. That her role in Portrait in Black made enough of an impression for her to be afforded a film “comeback” only compounds the tragedy of her death at 56.
How would she have felt about Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Or Peter Sellers as Fu Manchu? Would she shake her head at Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the Major in the live action Ghost in a Shell or Emma Stone’s turn as a half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian woman in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (the epitome of WTF-ery if ever there were one)? The film industry still has a long way to go in terms of representation. Had she lived longer, I think Wong would have been outspoken enough to take the appropriate parties to task.
It would be absurd to conclude that the mere existence of an Anna May Wong or her filmography addressed, let alone rectified, the systemic racism that is a significant and painful part of this country’s DNA. But that her career existed at all, that she was able to say “I protest,” is worthy at the very least of coinage. That she deserves more has only grown more apparent in recent years.
Note: A handful of Anna May Wong’s films are on streaming services like Amazon Prime. However, over half of her filmography has passed into public domain and may be found at the Internet Archive (Archive.org) or on YouTube. There is a curated collection of many of her features, short subjects, and even television plays on the “The Gallery of Anna May Wong” channel: https://youtube.com/@thegalleryofannamaywong.
John Barrett is a painter, printmaker, writer living (for the moment, anyway) in Houston, TX. He is definitely looking forward to returning to New England in the near future and back to Asia later this year. He has written for the Somerville News, Tai Chi magazine, and random joints here and there. Like everyone else in this world, he maintains his own little bit of the internet at Reaction Shots.