“Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain- murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that.” ~Anna May Wong
California was not always the land of diversity, especially for the Chinese population. As a child, Anna was bullied for her looks. She recalled an incident where she was grabbed by her braids by a group of boys who chanted Chink, Chink, Chinaman then proceeded to push her into the street. However, she would find solace in the movie theater watching the silent films instead of going to Chinese school like she was supposed to.
In 1919 she landed her first role as an extra in the movie the “Red Lantern.” Set in China, the movie was actually filmed in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Which, if you know anything about Chinese culture, is not a proper depiction of what China looks like…especially back then.
In the early twentieth century, it was believed that Asians were dirty. It was mostly Chinese men that immigrated to the United States. The few women who did come over were put under intense moral scrutiny before they got approval. Any shred of immodesty caused them to be denied. Chinese American women were not seen as elegant. They were not seen as being women of high moral fortitude. They weren’t supposed to be like Anna May Wong.
Rolls for Asians went to white people. Actresses taped their eyes back and yellowed their skin so that they could look Asian. If you want a good example of yellow face just watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Anna had enough and in 1928 she went to Europe where minorities were being celebrated. She was successful and became friends with Marlene Dietrich. They continued to be friends, even when she returned to the United States in 1931. Eventually, she starred in the movie “Shanghai Express” with Marlene. Anna was, of course, the buddy while Marlene got the lead.
However, she didn’t get many parts upon her return to the States. She was considered too Asian. Sound eerily similar to current events?
My recommendations based on Anna May’s story:
- Marlene by C.W. Gortner: You are going to see this book pop up a few times during the course of the month but the reason why I am recommending Marlene for Anna is because they were friends and of course she makes an appearance in the book.
- China Dolls by Lisa See: It’s 1938 and three Asian girls are competing for the opportunity to be a showgirl in the “Oriental” nightclub. This story deals with race and life pre WW2.
- The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan: Winnie and Helen have been friends for a long time and naturally know all of each other’s secrets. Only, Helen is ready to spill the beans making Winnie panic attempting to beat her friend to the punch.