Remembering a Legend: Anna May Wong

Without question, Anna May Wong is one of the most remembered and perhaps most celebrated Asian American actresses of the twentieth century. An international star, she has captivated audiences for generations with her charisma and timeless beauty.

She was the star of one of the very first Technicolor productions, The Toll of the Sea (1922), and one of the few Hollywood performers whose career survived the shift from silent films to “talkies.” Her career spanned over forty years, during which she appeared in no less than fifty films, her own television show, and a number of stage productions that took her name global.

And yet, when I told my friends that Turner Classic Movies would be screening a documentary on her life, the response I received was invariably: “Who?”

The years, it seems, have not been kind to Wong’s memory. For decades, many of her films were thought to be lost; her television show, “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong,” (1951) lasted only ten episodes before it was cancelled, and was not considered important enough to preserve. If not for the dedication of her fans and the recent work of biographers, her name might have been lost forever.

It was this concern that led director Elaine Mae Woo to embark on a three-part project to reclaim Wong's legacy.

The first of these three parts is a biographical documentary, titled Anna May Wong - Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times, and Legend. The film gives us a brief glimpse into the many facets of Wong's life, in order to introduce—or, perhaps, reintroduce—modern audiences to a woman who has, until recently, remained largely overlooked by film historians.

Shying away from the more common “talking head” format of most documentaries that tends to showcase expert commentary, Woo’s approach to Wong’s life seems almost to be an excerpt from a storybook. Narrated by Nancy Kwan, most famous for her performances in The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song, the film focuses on Wong as an actress, rather than as a historical figure, and is accessible to a wide range of audiences.

Much like the silver screen that brought her to international stardom, Wong led a complicated life beneath her glamorous surface. Her career began and ended before California’s anti-miscegenation laws and the Motion Picture Production Code were repealed, both of which prevented her from playing the lead role opposite a white actor—even if that actor was playing a Chinese role. Her American dress and dialect repeatedly bewildered audiences, despite her Los Angeles birth and upbringing.

And yet, while she worked to earn acknowledgment as a serious actress in Hollywood, she became alienated from her own community. Many Chinese Americans criticized her, believing that her acceptance of the stereotypical roles prescribed to her would reinforce the already longstanding anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. For years, she has been remembered best for her performances as two of the most frustrating archetypes that continue to limit Asian women in American cinema: the submissive, demure Lotus Flower, and the cold, cruel Dragon Lady.

In bringing these issues to light, the film becomes less about Wong's personal life, and more about the challenges that face Asian Americans, particularly women, who try to navigate Hollywood successfully. At the time, she responded that she had no control over the parts that were offered to her. In order to continue the work that she loved, she was obliged to accept them. Woo’s documentary reminds us that in addition to serving as a cultural ambassador between mainstream and Chinese America, Wong was, at her roots, a woman who was determined to do the job she loved best, whatever the cost. Indeed, she considered herself to be “wedded to her art.”

As a result, it seems, she was to become an outsider in all the social circles in which she moved: in the United States, in Chinese America, in Hollywood, and in both Communist and Nationalist China.

Although the film shies away from many of the controversies surrounding her life, it is an informative and detailed account. For years, the Asian American community has avoided celebrating her work, for fear of confusing the woman with the stereotypical roles that she played.

However, as we move into a new generation of Asian American stars in cinema, and as we continue to fight for more complex, honest, and positive representation in the media, it is important to look back and remember how far we have come. As director Thi Thanh Nga has said, “The long march isn’t complete, but maybe we do see the hint of light at the end of the Hollywood tunnel.”