Asian American actress Anna May Wong (1905- 1961) was the most famous actress among all Chinese American actresses during the first half of the twentieth century. Her career spanned four decades and during that time she played all the Asian stereotypes from Dragon Lady and lotus blossom to seductress. Her status as a female of Asian ancestry living in America complicted her precedings in getting out of stereotypical parts she was offered. So how and why could Anna May Wong then raise to stardom in a time when Orientals were faced with racism, but in spite of that, is not sufficiently remembered nowadays?
Anna May Wong, as being a female, had special difficulties. Being a woman of Asian ancestry has always been a challenging in America since the mid nineteenth century. Early immigration laws such as the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, the Page law that was passed in 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 placed obstacles for women entering the USA. The Page law of 1875 prohibited the immigration of women for purposes of prostitution. And the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law to ban groups of people only “because of race and nationality” (Gyory 254). But it mainly affected Chinese laborers, skilled or unskilled, for ten years, and denied all Chinese the right to naturalize. Since women were not specifically named in the Chinese Exclusion Act’s provisions, the Supreme Court resolved that women inherited the status of their husbands or fathers. “The U.S. Congress amplified these laws over the next twenty years in a series of measures that specifically curtailed the rights of Chinese Americans” (Gao Hodges
Therefore it’s no wonder that Anna May Wong’s parents had to struggle in racist California. Even Chinese Americans faced riots and boycotts. Americans presumes that “Chinese were less civilized and less moral than American” and so Chinese had to endure “legal and extralegal harassment or even violence” (Leong 58). Both her parents were born in America but “their personal lives retained strong elements of Chinese traditions” (Gao Hodges 6). Those Chinese traditions were easy to foster in Chinatowns which were established as “places of shared culture and safety” (Leong 58). In the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century Chinatowns mainly consisted of bachelor societies because of the imbalance in the sex ratio caused by anti- Chinese laws. Very few women were to be found in Los Angeles Chinatown as well as in other Chinatowns. And if there were any then they either were prostitutes or later married women. So you can see that the “low number of females among the Chinese” in America’s Chinatowns had the “most profound consequences for Chinese personal, social, and community life” (Lyman 88). “Prostitution was an inevitable sequel to the excess of males in America’s Chinatowns” (Lyman 93). Next to gambling and drugs, prostitution provided an important branch of income for Chinese living in Chinatowns and also “characterized the Chinese community in America to many white Americans” (Lyman 93). It was estimated that “the average Chinese American prostitute served about seven clients per day” and would work “an average of six days each week” (Peffer 6).
Women continued to be exceptional in Chinatowns “until the middle of the twentieth century” (Lyman 87) because “parents dominated the Chinese concept of family” (Peffer 5). It was the obligation of married sons to “bring their wives home to the family” (Peffer 5). Women then came to live with their husbands because they wanted to form family units. But not in case of Wong Sam Sing, father of Anna May Wong, who left his first wife, Lee Shee, in China. The very few wives that could join their husbands “were usually married to merchants” and “were kept in well- guarded seclusion by their husbands” (Lyman 89). Married and single women very rarely seen in public because “no virtuous and respectable Chinese woman is ever permitted to show herself in public” (Lyman 89).
Since more and more women longed to be with their husbands they mainly accommodated themselves in America’s Chinatowns. Their activities in the men- overcrowded Chinatowns granted them only modest roles in the Chinese society in America. In a “traditional Chinese society, women were subordinate to men” (Tsai 157). That is why Chinese women had to stay at home and be devoted mothers to their children and care for their husbands and sometimes also for his parents. Just like Anna May Wong’s mother, Lee Gon Toy, had placed her “primary emphasis on the role of woman as wife and mother”, so that “her status, fulfillment, and economic livelihood depended on men” (Tsai 158). Traditional immigrant wives were only viewed as “essential helpmates in the family’s daily struggle for socioeconomic survival (Peffer 11). For Anna May Wong represented “her mother’s own isolation the lack of freedom for Chinese women” (Leong 80).
Growing up outside Chinatown and her entire family working in their own laundry (Leong 59), Anna May Wong knew that “her choice of acting as a career” would “challenge preconceived notions of what it meant to be a Chinese American woman” (Leong 57). So when Anna May Wong’s father learned about his daughter’s acting plans, he objected saying that acting is not the right profession for a Chinese girl like Anna May. Most sixteen- year- old girls were either married or “found work mostly in the service sector as domestic workers or seamstresses” (Leong 62). By choosing acting as her acreer, Anna May Wong was disgracing her father’s family (Leong 70). But Anna May Wong “was determined to be independent some day” and would not want to be like a traditional Chinese girl (Leong 70). Anna May Wong wanted to be American and “associated her fascination with movies with being American (Leong 62). This disclosed the “tensions between her ancestry and her Chinese American identity” (Gao Hodges 25). But nevertheless, “no respectable Chinese father wanted a daughter to become an actress” (Gao Hodges 17). Then an actress would only make little money and had to “shuttle back and forth from work as ‘dancing girls’, a euphemism for prostitutes” (Gao Hodges 28). Chinese fathers wanted to “keep children obedient” and wished that their children go on fostering Chinese traditions (Gao Hodges 16). Although “her father was the principal opponent of her budding film career” and wanted to make clear that the reputation of an actress in China was “ranked with courtesans”, Anna May Wong’s mind was still filled with dreams of stardom (Gao Hodges 19/25).
As great as acting was for her she certainly never imagined how hard it would be for her as being a female Chinese actress.Her career start was not only difficult because she was a female, another burden was her race. Her first jobs as an actress were mainly playing extras in major productions. Unfortunately, “Hollywood was creating an identity for her” (Gao Hodges 20). Through her Chinese appearance and racial prejudice that dominated America at the beginning of the twentieth century “required her to perform oriental femininity for public consumption” to foster the bad and uncivilized image of the Chinese (Leong 57).
Significantly, Anna May Wong “shaped her own ideas of China” (Leong 62). In Hollywood’s view China and therefore American Chinatowns served as “a magnet for criminals, alienated persons, and cynics” (Leong 62). But Anna May Wong once explained that “Chinatown were neighborhoods with people, not exotic, mysterious locales”, but that American view of Chinatowns perpetuated in Hollywood movies by “shooting on location in Chinatown to recreate the atmosphere of the ‘Orient’” (Leong 62/80). For Anna May Wong, it was great to shoot in Chinatowns, but it was hard for her to see how Americans expected Chinese to live and how they created nasty stereotypes of them. Later, however, she had to realize that “her imagined China was a China imagined by her fellow Americans” (Leong 91). Hollywood’s racial logic forced Anna May Wong to play all the Asian stereotypes that were available. Anna May Wong’s career was very much “affected by changes in the United States’ national identity and relations with China, which in turn resulted in changing popular portrayals of China” (Leong 58). Anna May Wong’s Hollywood career could only work because Hollywood had stereotypical ideas about Chinese and Asian American people. Anna May Wong mainly portrayed Asian characters like the Dragon Lady, Tiger Lily, Lotus Flowers, and the Mongol Slave. In a picture taken from the “Limehouse Blues” of 1934 she portrayed the Dragon Lady [fig p.10]. You can see that she was cast because of her unique beauty and Chinese appearance.