Prove your humanity

Flings (excusez-nous, “alleged flirtations”) with Marlene Dietrich, top hats, tuxedos, flapper androgyny avant-la-lettre; we’re talking Chinese-American icon Anna May Wong. An actress who spent her entire career navigating a largely xenophobic industry, memorably resisting such labels as “exotic,” “Oriental,” and oh, right, “dragon lady.”


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Sad fact: Anti-Asian hate crimes topped 10k in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, according to The Washington Post on March 14. Unfortunately, as is the case with most race-based bias and violence, racialized thinking has long been institutionalized as power relations, including the capitalist powerhouse that is Hollywood — especially in its studio era (1927-1948). Anna May Wong would know.

This Chinese-American actress who never shunned an edgy sexuality that wasn’t contained by marriage or respectability is widely considered the first Chinese-American actress to conquer the silver screen.

Despite all Hollywood whitewashing and yellowface practices back in the day, girlfriend leaves behind a storied legacy beyond stylish ensembles.

Anna May Wong sporting a boss bob in the 1920s. Her bangs were on hairdressers’ most-requested lists all across the U.S. Image: online

The (Cauc)Asian Dilemma

Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905 – February 3, 1961), or 黃柳霜| Huáng Liǔshuāng in Chinese, was an American actress, considered to be the first Chinese-American Hollywood movie star and the first Chinese-American actress to gain international recognition. She was born in Los Angeles, California, to second-generation Chinese-American parents. Her career began in silent film but the transition to sound film successfully. She did vaudeville, theater, radio, and television, but she always had to fight for her place in the entertainment industry.

Her life changed when her friend told her that Alla Nazimova (a Soviet actress) was looking for 300 extras for The Red Lantern (1919). The first step she took towards building her career in cinema. She managed to be an extra continually and left school early (in 1921), knowing she was young enough to go back to school and pursue another career if she failed. She gave herself 10 years to become a successful actress. It didn’t take her long to find an acting job as more than an extra.

Wong eventually landed a role in the 1924 production Thief of Bagdad alongside Hollywood legend Douglas Fairbanks. FYI: Scroll down for more on the movie and its looks. The success of the movie made her famous. Still, it also showed her what she was good for according to the industry: the mystifying Asian or the innocent and naïve young lady, both with a sprinkle of opioids and hidden dirty business laundromats.

“There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”
Hollyweird back in the day used to cast white actors to portray East Asian characters, often using makeup to approximate East Asian facial characteristics (i.e., yellowface). Think Mickey Rooney as the bucktoothed Mr.  Yunioshi–with a loud, thick Asian accent to boot– in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wong for the life of her couldn’t get a leading role next to a white man, not even if she put on the makeup to appear white. Producers preferred yellowface and save themselves the time and effort to find Asian actors and actresses to play their parts.

Anna May Wong rocking that characteristically “boyish” flapper silhouette in the 1920s. Image: online

Reinventing Anna

Yet the same “exoticism” that kept Wong in a box opened doors for her too. In 1926, she and Norma Talmadge (a silent star) were responsible for the first shovelful of dirt where Grauman’s Chinese Theater would be built. Charles Chaplin also attended the ceremony. Sadly, while her colleagues’ handprints were immortalized, Wong’s were not. What has been immortalized of Wong, is the unmistakable fashionable palate that made her the first Chinese-American actress to gain worldwide recognition.

To fight off prejudice, Wong went on to adopt a flapper lifestyle. She was independent, free-spirited, and energetic. She posed for portraits that presented her as an all-American woman and a glamorous Hollywood starlet. However exhausting this may have been, the truth is Wong’s physique perfectly meshed with the flapper rage of the Roaring Twenties: great fit, short bangs, she ruled the ravenous vogue of the day.

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain–murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilization that’s so many times older than that of the West. We have our own virtues. We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen? Why should we always scheme, rob, kill?”
Flappers of the 1920s were young women known for their energetic freedom, embracing a lifestyle viewed by many at the time as outrageous, immoral, or downright dangerous. Now considered the first generation of independent American women, flappers pushed barriers in economic, political and sexual freedom for women. They rode bikes and drove cars, chain-smoked cigarettes, drank like men, flirted outrageously, and plunged into wild jazz dances like charleston and black bottom. Through their behavior and appearance, these girls challenged the boundaries between the sexes.  After the personal freedom allowed to them during World War I, young women went out to work, got permission to vote, played sports and demanded to leave the house unchaperoned. New financial independence and emancipation followed and cutting their long hair into a short boss bob became a symbol of independence and strength equal to men.

Anyhoo, Wong got tired of putting on a flapper-tastic face every day and decided to give her career a makeover.

Wong pictured in 1932: sultry and… sapphic? Wong starred in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, in which she played a self-sacrificing courtesan. Rumor has it that Wong and her co-star, the magnificent Marlene Dietrich, got very cozy on and off set. That same year, Peking University awarded Wong an honorary doctorate, the only time an actor had received such an honor. Image: online

Out With the New, In With the Old

Tired of being othered and not given opportunities because of her Asianness, Wong went, “I’m outtie!” and swapped the U.S. for the Old World, aka Europe, in March 1928, taking up an offer to star in a movie in Berlin. She hoped that European audiences would be more open to an Asian movie star. And they were, indeed.

She quickly became a sensation. German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist Walter Benjamin wrote about her, photographers fought to get her picture, she was very photogenic, and her image was modern. Mayfair Mannequin Society even chose her as the world’s best-dressed woman.

During the 1930s, American studios were looking for fresh European talent. Ironically, Wong caught their eye, and she was offered a contract with Paramount Studios in 1930. Enticed by the promise of lead roles and top billing, she returned to the U.S.

Wong photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1930. In Europe, Wong joined the ranks of African American artists such as Robeson, Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes, who, frustrated by segregation in the U.S., had traveled to the Old World in search of fame, fortune and creative freedom.

The prestige and training she had gained during her years in Europe led to a starring role on Broadway in On the Spot, a drama that ran for 167 performances and which she would later film as Dangerous to Know. When the play’s director wanted Wong to use stereotypical Japanese mannerisms, derived from Madame Butterfly, in her performance of a Chinese character, Wong refused. She instead used her knowledge of Chinese style and gestures to imbue the character with a greater degree of authenticity. That’s right, you do you boo!

Following her return to Hollywood in 1930, Wong repeatedly turned to the stage and cabaret for a creative outlet. She also got the lead role in Daughter of the Dragon–Lawd, the clichés just keep comingwhere she still played the mystifying Asian, and despite her being the protagonist, she only got $6,000–equivalent in purchasing power to about $105,017 today. In contrast, her white colleague, someone who was on screen for about 20 minutes, got double the amount.

On January 14, 1932, a Chinese newspaper ran with the headline “Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China.” The picture in question was Josef von Sternberg’s soon-to-be-released Shanghai Express, in which Wong played a self-sacrificing courtesan alongside Marlene Dietrich. As the first Chinese-American movie star, with roots in old Hong Kong, the Chinese press (not to mention the nation’s then Republican government (1912-1949)) had long been less than favorable to Wong, believing her on-screen sexuality spread negative stereotypes of Chinese women.

China’s intellectuals and liberals, however, were not always so opposed to her, as demonstrated later in 1932 when Peking University awarded Wong an honorary doctorate, the only time an actor had received such an honor.


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Wong later started doing B movies where she wasn’t playing her typical roles, but the movies’ budgets were so low, that nobody gave them the time of day. After World War II, she got fewer and fewer jobs, which she considered a step backward in her career despite making history as the first-ever U.S. television show starring an Asian-American series lead in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.

“This is such a short life that nothing can matter very much either one way or another. I have learned not to struggle but to flow along with the tide. If I am to be rich and famous, that will be fine. If not, what do riches and fame count in the long run?”
In the last years of her life, she suffered from depression and took to alcohol. Her professional disappointments went with her painful personal life as her mother died in a hit and run, and her sister died by suicide. At only 56, Wong passed away from a heart attack.

Wong’s story is briefly told in Ryan Murphy’s 2020 Netflix Original Series Hollywood, where she is portrayed by Michelle Krusiec, and in the 2020 PBS documentary Asian Americans. On March 28, it was announced that British actress Gemma Chan, daughter of a Chinese father and a Scottish Chinese mother, is gearing up to play the (fashion) icon in an upcoming biopic. The actress will also serve as the film’s producer. Now that’s what we call paying tribute.

The “dragon lady robe” may have been created by longtime Paramount Studios costume designer Travis Banton, but was worn indelibly in the 1934 film Limehouse Blues by Wong.

Her Story of Style

Among the dresses at the 2015 “China: Through the Looking Glass” Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition (ya know, the annual Met Gala on the first Monday of May, that despite the screeching lack of style still makes front pages, is held in honor of that stuff) in New York was a high-necked silk and satin Belle Epoque–era gown, with a dragon fashioned out of silver and gold sequins that curves about the contours of the sleek silhouette and spans its entire floor-skimming length. It’s the “dragon lady robe,” made famous by Wong in the 1934 film Limehouse Blues.

As the first Chinese-American actress to gain international recognition in film, her directors may have relegated her to subservient and stereotypical roles, but it was due to that same studio-projected “exoticism” that she was outfitted in some of the most extraordinary costumes of her time. Back then, Westernized ideas of Far East dressing might have come from a naïve place, but the fusion often yielded fantastic results (be they made of metal, fringe, sequins, beads, or all of the above) that outshone that of her Caucasian costars—and because she began as a star of the silent screen, the clothes she wore became nothing less than a tool of visual expression.

Wong was simply doing what all trailblazers must do: taking the roles that were offered to her while using everything she had at hand to communicate what she meant. In her case, that meant a highly subversive statement, most often delivered in the form of what she wore. Wong’s influence has extended to entire collections. Among other designers, John Galliano credited her as a muse for his SS 1993 collection for Dior.

Thief of Bagdad. The weird and wonderful Arabian Nights–inspired fantasy replete with flying carpets and magic urns was said to have been Wong’s  costar Douglas Fairbanks’ favorite of all his films.

Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Directed by Raoul Walsh
Costume designer: Mitchell Leisen

Wong played the part of a Mongol slave, but an unendingly glamorous one, seething and shimmering in a beaded and sequined halter-neck dress with a fringed skirt. Her headpiece chicly framed her face like a pair of sprightly, yet ethereal butterfly wings, the so-called “slave” far outshone the lady over whose veiled and lounging figure Wong ever so slowly waved a massive feathery fan.

Piccadilly. Wong’s cast as a dishwasher, but a rebellious, overqualified one who should be on stage rather than in the kitchen of the Piccadilly Circus nightclub.

Piccadilly (1929)

Directed by Ewald André Dupont
Costume designer: uncredited

A star is born and then—well, no spoilers, let’s dwell instead on Wong’s shining moment in this 1929 British silent film. Fired for distracting the others on staff with her dance routines, Wong’s character Shosho is then brought out front where she delivers a riveting dance performance, and all while clad in a scanty, armor-like costume that Barbarella and any given cyberpunk aficionado/-a would fight over.

Shanghai Express. Like her co-star Marlene Dietrich, Wong played a “coaster”; that is, a woman who lives by her wits on the Chinese coast; that is, a courtesan; that is, an escort. Image: online

Shanghai Express (1932)

Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Costume designer: Travis Banton

In Von Sternberg’s tale of intrigue aboard the storied train, Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) and Hui Fei (Wong) alternately scandalize and seduce their fellow passengers, Dietrich in her feather boa and dressing gowns, Wong devastating in equally slinky qipaos. The takeaway, from a fashion perspective: A little tailoring and polish in your look will connote enough refinement to allow you to get away with almost anything, and have a pretty delightful time while you do. “Don’t you find respectable people dull?” Dietrich asks a shocked passenger, who is made even more so when Wong pointedly adds: “I must confess, I don’t quite know the level of respectability that you demand in your boardinghouse.”


By the way: In 1960, one year before her passing, Wong got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

And that shimmy will shine eternal.















Elsbeth van Paridon
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