Yunte Huang writes in his new book of a meeting between Anna May Wong and Sir Robert Ho Tung in Hong Kong. What started with a gathering at Ho Tung’s estate on the Peak quickly turned into a miniature biography of Ho Tung himself, the son of a Dutch Jewish father and Chinese mother. In this account, Huang writes of Ho Tung’s half-brother, a man with twelve wives and more than thirty children. One of these children was a woman named Grace Ho. This account appears to be a little slice of Hong Kong history, fascinating and not atypical of the mixing of families in the earlier years of the British colony. But then Huang writes that Grace Ho was the mother of Bruce Lee, an actor who, like Ho Tung’s guest, Anna May Wong, was slighted by Hollywood.
Huang’s book, Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History, is chock full of such tidbits from the early days of Hollywood until Anna May Wong’s death in 1961. This timeline, which is less a mere account of Anna May Wong’s career—who paved the way for many actors today—than a narrative about the early years of Hollywood and how an obsession with Chinatown was central to the industry.
The narrative in the book has another layer, which is much more familiar to people who have followed the issue of representation in Hollywood. From its beginnings, Hollywood has been reluctant to cast Chinese American actors—Anna May Wong the brightest of them all—in leading roles due to xenophobic US laws and attitudes. It’s this dichotomy of Hollywood’s obsession and reluctance that makes this book unique.
Around the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, some of the earliest films were shot in Chinese laundries, including more than a few by Thomas Edison. As feature films became more mainstream—still in the silent movie era—Huang shows that more than few were set in Chinatown.
A passing glance at the titles and dates of the era’s films reveals how eagerly the producers exploited popular fantasies of turn-of-the-century Chinatown. Such films included Chinese Procession (1898), Parade of Chinese (1898), Chinese Shaving Scene (1902), San Francisco Chinese Funeral (1903), Scene in a Chinese Restaurant (1903), Scene in Chinatown (1903), Chinese Rubbernecks (1903), The Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teachers (1904), and Rube in an Opium Joint (1905).
None of these films was made by a Chinese American director or writer and this would set the stage for feature length Hollywood films in the decades to come.
Anna May Wong was born in 1905, at the tail end of this list, and grew up on the outskirts of Chinatown. Her father ran a laundry and when she ran errands for him, it wasn’t unusual for her to come across a film production crew in mid-shoot. After being cast in small roles, she starred in her first feature role in the 1922 film, The Toll of the Sea. Five years later, Hollywood’s “lasting China fever” reached its apex with the grand opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which still stands today and seems to be the focal point of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Soaring to ninety feet, it boasted gigantic coral-red columns supporting a jade-green roof, silver dragons spreading across the ceiling of a 2,258-seat auditorium, a pagoda posed as the box office, and ushers dressed in Chinese costumes.
Huang writes that four new films were released from Hollywood studios in 1927 as well with the titles of Mr Wu, Old San Francisco, The Chinese Parrot, and Streets of Shanghai. Anna May acted in every single one of them, but she was only cast as a minor character as was typical of Hollywood back then. The leading roles in all but one were instead given to white actors in yellowface. It was only in The Chinese Parrot, the second in the Charlie Chan series, that a Japanese actor named Sojin Kamiyama starred in the lead role. That was a rare occurrence.
As Hollywood rode into its Golden Age and Anna May struggled to find roles suitable to her talents and not stereotypical characters—either a devious dragon lady or a self-sacrificing Madame Butterfly—Huang shows that she tried to poke fun at these roles to demonstrate how ridiculous they were. For instance, she started signing her name, “Orientally Yours, Anna May Wong”. Huang sometimes adapts this tone in his writing. Not long before that chapter set in Hong Kong, he describes the political tensions in China when Anna May made her first and only trip there in 1936. He gives a comprehensive background of the climate back then, as he does with each period covered in his book. In this chapter, he goes back to Japanese militaristic aggression in 1932:
With Fu Manchurian cunning, a cabal of renegade officers from the Imperial Japanese Army had concocted a plot to destroy the rail track and blame it on Chinese brigands, in much the same way that the Germans would invade Poland on a casus belli in 1939.
When Anna May made her trip to China and Hong Kong in 1936, her frequent co-star Warner Oland made his own special trip to China. The Swedish American Oland was known for playing Charlie Chan and Dr. Fu Manchu in yellowface. Oland starred with Anna May, among many other films, in Daughter of the Dragon, the 1931 picture from which Huang takes his title. Oland also played a Jewish cantor in The Jazz Singer, which Huang points out to further show how Oland was awarded roles of playing “the other” throughout his career because it was the standard in Hollywood. Oland’s trip to China as a “homecoming” seems ridiculous by today’s standards, but it was completely acceptable in 1930s Hollywood.
Her old friend Warner Oland, having played Charlie Chan about a dozen times, had come to China for a quick tour of his “homeland” and to promote the new Chan movie that would hit Chinese theaters later that year: Charlie Chan in Shanghai. Unlike his character’s fictional journey, which is troubled from the start by murderous malfeasance aboard ship, Oland’s arrival in Shanghai on March 22 via the Empress of Asia was a celebratory event witnessed by hundreds of fans and journalists. They referred to him as Mr. Chan and saluted his “homecoming.”
Huang describes many more examples of this Hollywood obsession with Chinatown and Chinese characters that were not played by Chinese American actors. Anna May’s determination to make it in Hollywood, with detours in Berlin and London, shows how difficult it was to crack the system. Miscegenation laws in the US and industry regulations often shut the door on roles Anna May should have been a natural fit for but would never get. When Austro-Hungarian Jewish Paul Muni was cast in the leading role of Wang Lung in The Good Earth, the 1934 Hays Code dictated that a Chinese-American actress—Anna May being the natural choice—could not act opposite him as his wife. Instead, German Jewish Luise Rainer was cast in the O-Lan role. Huang doesn’t fault these actors for taking these roles and instead shows an empathy for European Jewish emigres trying to become Americans in Hollywood.
At the end of the book, Huang writes about visiting Anna May’s gravesite last year and makes a point of showing how he paid his respects.
According to the Chinese custom, one should bow before the grave, as Anna May had done at the burial of the Ming emperors outside Peking many years earlier. But perhaps instigated by the American flag, I placed a pebble on the cement base and said a silent prayer. Since Anna May was familiar with both Chinese and American traditions, I was sure she would understand my gesture.
But placing a pebble on a gravestone is not an American tradition per se, but a Jewish one. Perhaps this was done to honor Anna May’s romantic relationship with the British Jewish writer Eric Maschwitz or her work with Austro-Hungarian Jewish director Josef von Sternberg, the first director who did not cast her in a dragon lady or Madame Butterfly leading role. Or maybe it was just a memorial to Anna May and other Hollywood pioneers who didn’t want to be pigeon-holed by their ethnicity.