Most of us are too young to remember Anna May Wong, who, in her tragically short life (1905 – 1961), is believed by most accounts to be Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star.
In “Daughter of the Dragon” (Liveright), author Yunte Huang’s meticulously researched biography of Wong solidly buttresses that claim while also documenting the obstacles she overcame to earn that title.
Huang, a distinguished scholar and award-winning author, is no stranger to persecution. A politically active Chinese citizen, he left China for America around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre at the urging of his parents. “Daughter of the Dragon” is the final installment of Huang’s “Rendezvous with American History” trilogy, following the publication of detailed examinations of the lives of the “Original Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng, and “Honorable Detective” Charlie Chan.
He tells the tale of Wong’s early life in San Francisco, her entry into show business at age 15, her rise to stardom and downward spiral. It’s also the story of the soulless industry that, as with so many aspiring for fame, discovered this daughter of the owner of a Chinese laundry, promoted her, profited from her beauty and talent, and ultimately cast her aside.
Despite the hardships and setbacks, Wong had an amazing run, thanks to her wit, beauty, grace and fluid acting style.
“At a very young age, I went movie crazy,” to quote Wong. In a four-decade career, Huang notes that she appeared in more than 60 films, a dozen stage productions, several TV series and a slew of vaudeville shows.
Beginning with her breakthrough as an extra in “The Red Lantern” in 1919, Wong was also one of a minority of film stars to make a successful transition from silent films to the talkies. She received third billing in the silent 1924 swashbuckler “The Thief of Bagdad,” directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Considered one of the best silent films ever made, the New York Times called it “...a feat of motion picture art which has never been equaled...”, her performance earned her kudos and led to a featured role in Shanghai Express in 1932, sharing billing and screen time with megastar Marlene Dietrich.
Huang also documents in detail Wong’s segue into vaudeville, and her success in films in Britain and in Germany, where she cemented her legitimacy as a movie star of the first rank, landing a five-picture deal with a German production company during her time in Weimar Berlin in the years between the end of World War I and the rise of the Nazis.
Examples of the racism, both subtle and overt, that Wong endured throughout her career abound in Huang’s telling. Usually typecast as an evil “Dragon Lady or submissive “Lotus Blossom,” her talent usually overcame the limitations of her roles and earned her critical praise, even in less-than-stellar “Oriental”-themed B pictures in which she was often the only featured actor of Chinese ancestry, playing opposite a cast of white male and female leads in yellowface.
Huang also takes the opportunity to lament the portrayal (usually negative) of Asians, particularly Chinese, from the silent era well up through the 20th century and beyond, citing both the controversial (Jonathan Pryce’s role in Miss Saigon) and patently offensive (a buck-toothed Mickey Rooney as “Mr. Yunioshi” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
A stunningly beautiful woman by any standard, the print media of the day did not stray far from praising her “Oriental” beauty, one leading magazine (Look) referring to her as “The world’s most beautiful Chinese girl” despite the fact that Wong was born in America and did not set foot in China until later in life. Embracing the trope and turning it to her advantage, she developed the habit of signing her publicity photos “Orientally Yours.”
Tragically, Huang’s biography ends with a chronicle of the decline of Wong’s career and her death from the effects of alcoholism at age 56, ultimately a victim of Chinese xenophobia, and the sexism and ageism toward women that is still very much in evidence in Hollywood and our society at large.