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Anna May Wong And The Dragon-lady Syndrome

July 12, 1987|EDWARD SAKAMOTO | Sakamoto is a Times copy editor and playwright. Research assisted by Terry Tam Soon.

She was the first Asian-American film star when pictures learned to move but not talk. And on the Walk of Fame near Hollywood and Vine there's a star in her honor.

Anna May Wong was the Oriental beauty of her day, with doleful, mesmerizing eyes and fashionable bangs to the eyebrows. The Roaring '20s image of a China doll.

Today, long after her image has faded from memory, Asian-American film makers are focusing on her life again. Film festivals at UCLA and in New York recently held tributes for her.

Wong's career offers interesting parallels between then and now. For one thing, the dilemma she faced then still confronts Asian-American actors now: either play the Oriental stereotypes that Hollywood wants you to play--or don't play at all.

Because she played over and over again the exotic slave girl, the villainous Dragon Lady, the mysterious siren of the Orient with deadly charms, it's not surprising that in her obituary (she died of a heart attack in 1961) Time magazine dubbed her "the screen's foremost Oriental villainess."

What was true of Hollywood six decades ago is true today. Hollywood still delights in spewing out superficial characters and trite stories: Oriental damsels in distress, Vietnamese adversaries battling Chuck Norris, Rambo, et al., Chinatown gangsters waging war, Asian bad guys in general menacing the meek and hapless who need the help of MacGyver, Magnum and other all-American heroes.

While authentic dramas on the struggles of newly arrived immigrants deserve to be told, Hollywood tends to look past the truth of such events and zoom in on the exploitative elements.

Born Wong Liu Tsong, the actress had her first major success in 1924 when she played a Mongol slave in the classic film "The Thief of Bagdad" with Douglas Fairbanks. She was a striking vision opposite one of the biggest stars of silent films, and she wasn't overshadowed.

But as early as 1928 Wong was disgusted with the way Hollywood treated her. So she took a big chance and went to Europe. In Britain and on the Continent she was a smash, starring in English, French and German films and stage productions, in which she fluently did all the dialogue.

In a 1933 magazine interview, she explained her move: "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? I got so weary of it all--of the scenarist's concept of Chinese characters. You remember 'Fu Manchu'? 'Daughter of the Dragon'? So wicked."

Like Josephine Baker, Wong probably could have stayed abroad indefinitely as a major headliner. However, she was homesick for Los Angeles and her family and decided to return.

Back in Hollywood, no surprise, her first movie was another crime melodrama, "Daughter of the Dragon" (1931), in which the sinister Fu Manchu dies and his daughter (Wong, naturally) carries on the notorious way of life.

Nothing had changed. Her films in the 1930s were mostly grade B melodramas in which she often looked sleek and mysterious in her standard costume: the cheongsam.

Perhaps the worst insult to Wong was when MGM cast Luise Rainer as O-lan in "The Good Earth" and made her up to look "Chinese," denying Anna May the lead role in an A movie, a common occurrence.

In another interview, Wong told her side. MGM had asked her to take a test for the role of the concubine Lotus. Said Anna May to the studio: "I'll be glad to take the test, but I won't play the part. If you let me play O-lan, I'll be very glad. But you're asking me--with Chinese blood--to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."

After the test was completed, the studio wanted her for Lotus, Wong said, but she refused.

Instead, she traveled back to her roots. She visited China for the first time in 1936, but the reception was not what she had hoped for.

Reporters criticized her portrayals of Chinese women, saying the roles were derogatory. Why, they asked, did she do films like that?

It's the same question posed to some Asian-American actors today. But what was Wong's response? She didn't write the characters, she said; she only obeyed the directors' instructions. Besides, those were the only roles available to her.

Wong confessed that her knowledge of China came from writers like Pearl Buck. China, to her, was a place where the people always sipped tea and philosophized about life. She knew little about being Chinese. After all, she was born in L.A., a third-generation American. Her father was born in Sacramento. His father had emigrated to California during the Gold Rush.

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