Imagine being Anna May Wong at the premiere of your film, “Thief of Baghdad,” title apropos to these times, as a Chinese American at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, then in its Chinarama phase, chock-a-block with faux orientalism, a chinkee apocalypse in plastic and red paper. And you, surrounded by an extraction of your own culture, are not allowed to put your hands in the wet cement to commemorate your contribution. So piquant in the way that you actually really own all the imagery around you, or you did at one point, and it was taken from you to adorn the theatre, make it mystical, magical. Remember, you are a star of the film. People lined up for blocks to see just a glimpse of you. But your permanent prints will not be there for the future to see that you were part of the golden age of Hollywood, even though they borrowed the golden hues of your skin without asking. This honor was reserved for the white actors. In addition, you could be desired by all the white men on screen with you, and the ones leering from their crimson empress red velvet seats, but you couldn’t marry one, because it was against the law. Imagine.
Anna May Wong left Hollywood in 1927, and sailed for Europe, where she made many films, and had fans all over the Continent. Following in the lively dancehall footsteps of Josephine Baker, she went for the European’s wild taste for the exotic. Germany was host to a cultural renaissance, where the Weimar Republic was in full decadent splendor. They absolutely went insane for anything that was different or unique. Anna May Wong was happy there, as she felt more acceptable. She was quoted as saying that Europe had “acceptance for people of color,” and that is the first time I believe that phrase ever had been used. In fact, the opposite was true. Intolerance and racism was so rampant, even flagrant. IMAGINE.
I admire the savvy and complete self confidence of Josephine Baker, whose talent and charisma is iconic and revered. Anna May Wong came home for good after a brief tour of duty, but Josephine Baker remained largely in Paris after several disastrous attempts to return to the US and establish a career – completely unacceptable during the segregationist phase. She got bad reviews for being black!!!!! After being refused service at the Stork Club, she began a very open and public fight with pro-segregationist columnist Walter Winchell which the times, and The Times, dictated that she could not win. She went back to the City of Lights that had put her name in lights, and stayed a tremendous star all over Europe for her entire life. Upon her death, in 1975, the French declared it a national day of mourning, honoring her with a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman buried in France with military honors. 20,000 mourners arrived to grieve and the funeral blocked the streets. The NAACP named May 20th, Josephine Baker Day.
Even though she has no official day, I adore Anna May Wong, and I like to think that I look a bit like her. I do, not the way they say Asians “all look alike.” We have the same kind of head, like you know when you see people around and you realize they have the same shape dome you do and you kind of either love them or hate them right off the bat, depending on the relationship you have with yourself. I did a reading of a play, a biographical melodrama, which was absolutely true to life yet somewhat underplayed for emotion, for intensity of feeling is generally kept internal in most Asian cultures. I was the star, or I read the part of the star. The playwright was a friend of mine, Elizabeth Wong, one of the writers of my ill-fated television show, “All American Girl.” She had written it just for me and hoped to gain attention for the work by putting together a group of actors and reading it at the building across the street from the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, not so far from the Hill Street in Chinatown where the real Anna May Wong had grown up.
One of the actors, David Dukes, was a beautiful man, in his fifties. He’s one of the guys that you see in movies or TV forever; you never know the names of these people, but you also expect to see them. Your eye always makes room for them, actors like him, because you know his face, his angle, his motivation, because he is incredibly familiar and that familiarity is comforting. This is an everyday nonplussed kind of acceptance that we have for white heterosexual male archetypes. They have every reason to be there, they populate the world, and the world exists solely for them. No, they are not to blame individually for this, but that is the bare truth of the matter. It is one of those things that we, as non-white heterosexual male archetypes, accept and must compromise all up and down and around for anytime we experience any type of media since the Age of Antiquity. No big deal.
Anyway, David Dukes played my lover. We talked, in between scenes, about his chinchilla farm, which he was very proud of, and the production of Bent he had been in. I marveled at the fact that though he was not particularly famous, I knew every plane and surface on his face from memory, most recently from the ambitious Marilyn Monroe biopic with Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd, one playing Marilyn, the other playing Norma Jean. The best part about this film is when Marilyn is joined by Norma Jean on the therapist’s couch, and they cry together as only a Gemini can. David played Arthur Miller, and he was too handsome to do so, but of course, he made a fine made-for-the-screen Miller. David died unexpectedly soon after this reading.
What is strange to me is that in biopics, they always cast someone finer looking than the original, as if the reality of life must be tidied up for the camera’s gaze. Nowhere is this more poignant and outrageous than in Anna May Wong’s own life. She knew that there was a good film brewing in the Hollywood Hell’s Kitchen. Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” had been optioned, and there was a huge part, the indisputable lead in fact, for a sympathetic Asian character. It was for O-lan, a mother, who was sacred and not profane. This was miles away and far better than the Dragon’s Daughter parts Anna May Wong had grown so used to. When she played these parts she would always rise above them, so that you did cheer for her, as she would poison everyone. Her evil-ese was mind altering, so much so that she became good.
The historical accounts differ on the real feelings Anna May Wong had about this role. Some say that she knew she wouldn’t get it, that there was no way that the Hollywood that she had known so well would possibly accept her, the most famous and talented Asian American star, as the real deal, O-lan, the most endearing Asian portrayal in Western literature to date. Others state a different story, that she rallied and begged and came one day to the studio in a rickshaw dressed up in the O-lan costume – like Sean Young’s Catwoman stunt, or Madonna’s open plea for Alan Parker to cast her as Evita in her video, “Take A Bow.”
The play I worked on centered around this particular point in Anna May Wong’s life. In the third act, when it is revealed that the part of O-lan went to GERMAN actress Luise Rainer, who went on to win an Oscar, for such amazing acting happening underneath all that makeup (not unlike Charlize Theron in the recent, magnificent “Monster”). It is the final nail in the coffin for Anna May Wong’s ill fated, ill timed career. For the rest of her life, or rather, her life within the lines of the play, Anna May Wong would be bitterly discussing this to all the people around her (not many, by her own choice) before dying alone and angry in 1961. The truth is somewhere in between. Anna May Wong had hoped, against hope that she could win this part, but she knew that it wasn’t possible, because she was in fact, actually Asian.
Imagine. Knowing that you were unable to play the part because you were the right race at the wrong time. When Paul Muni was cast as the male lead – that is when the hope died. She knew that since the male and female leads were to be lovers, in fact, married, that there wasn’t a chance in Hollywood hell that she would win the role. Miscegenation was a misdemeanor, even perhaps a felony, punished to the full extent of the law. Yellowface was not. Yellowface was the safe route. Yellowface was the politically correct answer. Imagine.
Even the cinematographer, the illustrious James Wong Howe, was taken out of the running when the crew was being assembled, even though he had tremendous experience shooting all over the world, and was perfect for the job, BEHIND the camera. We read the play, ironically, retelling this story of insane racism that was considered acceptable, in fact morally responsible behavior at the time the events took place, against the backdrop of the drama of my own television nightmare, assumptions abounding about how things were so much better today, and thanking our joy luck club stars that we were no longer living in this world we were bringing to the stage, that things were so much better – now- when particularly short sighted Korean activists were taking me to task for not hiring actual Korean actors to play the parts of my family members. They boycotted, wrote articles, mobilized en masse against me because we had not a Korean writer on staff. We had Asian American actors, really fine ones, in all the roles, and Asian American writers in the writer’s room, but the fact that they were not specifically Korean, and the fact that we were charged with Yellowface for this and many other factors, got the show taken off the air. IMAGINE.
The play never did get produced, although it was a spectacular work, and hopefully now, it might get some attention. Anna May Wong lives on, in the minds of film scholars and fans of cinema’s odd transitional time between the silent films and the talkies. She is a tremendous gay icon, worshipped by drag queens for her tragedy and her icily androgynous beauty. She is not well respected by Asian American activist academics, if they know of her at all, for she falls into the Charlie Chan category, and represents a period of Asian American complicity (!) that is for some, best forgotten.
Imagine. John Lennon would never have written the song without Yoko Ono.