Daughter of the Dragon by Yunte Huang review

Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang explores the discrimination beneath Hollywood’s glamour.

Anna May Wong, 1932. Photo by Otto Dyar/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images.

Anna May Wong’s stardom has surged in the 20 years since her ‘rediscovery’. Arguably the first Chinese-American film star, following her death in 1961 her place in Hollywood history was overlooked until 2004, with the release of Graham Russell Gao Hodges’ biography Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend and the simultaneous reissue of Wong’s best known film, Piccadilly (1929). These events set in motion a Wong renaissance that continues apace today. In 2022, the US Mint issued a quarter bearing Wong’s likeness. She has appeared as a character in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (2022) and the miniseries Hollywood (2020). The latter features a counterfactual twist with Wong receiving an Oscar, something she was denied in her lifetime. The English actress Gemma Chan has announced a film based on Hodges’ biography. Hollywood, it seems, has fallen in love with Anna May Wong.

Yunte Huang is the latest writer to attempt a telling of Wong’s life. His book completes a trilogy on early Chinese-American popular culture, each of which bears the same subtitle, ‘Rendezvous with American History’. The first book, in 2011, examined the fictional Chinese ‘honorable detective’ Charlie Chan; the second in 2015 told the story of the ‘original’ Siamese twins, Chang and Eng. Both books were revelatory and succeeded in humanising figures often portrayed in (racist) stereotypes.

Anna May Wong presents her most recent biographer with different challenges. Hodges offered a complete narrative of Wong’s life in his 2004 book. Huang seeks to distinguish his biography with historical context. He covers Wong’s early life as a laundryman’s daughter with evocative descriptions of Los Angeles’ Chinese laundries and their ubiquity in silent-era films as a representation of ‘noisy operations and repetitious actions’. Wong endured troubled teenage years but made her film debut as an energetic extra in The Red Lantern (1919). From there, she made a rapid ascent to stardom in the early 1920s with roles in Toll of the Sea (a 1922 reworking of Madame Butterfly), The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and the first cinema adaptation of Peter Pan (1924) as Tiger Lily.

But racism limited Wong’s career. Although born in Los Angeles in 1905, she was considered an ‘alleged American’, a term used by immigration officials to denote an applicant who claimed American birth but whose race raised questions. Formally introduced in 1934, the Hays Code forbade interracial casting of lead characters who might fall in love and marry, but the suggestion was first made, and informally implemented, in 1924. Unable to share an on-screen romance with a co-star, Wong was eliminated from the staple boy-meets-girl Hollywood fodder that created huge followings and income for some lucky actors. Stuck in bit parts and tired of being tortured to death cinematically (she complained of always dying in her films) Wong migrated to Germany, France and England, starring in Piccadilly and The Flame of Love, a talkie that Wong performed in three languages. A stint in the British drama The Circle of Chalk in 1930 with a young Laurence Olivier convinced Wong that she needed to rework her accent. She took diction lessons to give her a ‘Cambridge voice’, which gave her confidence when making the transition to talking movies and later intimidated Anglophile Americans.

In 1931 Wong returned to the US with an amplified résumé to star in Daughter of the Dragon with Sessue Hayakawa and Warner Oland. She followed this with perhaps her biggest role, starring alongside Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932). Despite these triumphs, Wong was saddled with lesser roles and always condemned to die, often violently (with multiple suicides). The final insult came when MGM rejected her public campaign for the lead role of O-Lan in The Good Earth, an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 novel about farmers struggling in rural China. Stung when the role was given to the Austrian actress Luise Rainer (who would win the second of her two Oscars for her performance in the film), in 1936 Wong left the US for a trip to China with Hearst cameraman H.S. ‘Newsreel’ Wong in tow. It was her first visit to the country, and she later stated that, though she was an American, her heart was in China. Upon her return, Paramount signed her to star in several films, but by 1940 her career was on the wane, reduced to roles in wartime propaganda films and a stint in television in the 1950s. Just as she might have enjoyed a second act with the 1961 film Flower Drum Song, Wong died at the age of 61 from the effects of alcoholism. Subsequently she was thrown in the dustbin of history until her revival in 2004.

Huang has a fulsome take on Wong’s career, giving the reader what feels like insider information on Hollywood mores, as well as her extraordinary meeting in Berlin with Walter Benjamin, and her trip to China. He treads lightly on Wong’s sexuality, only hinting at her affairs with her married directors and her liaisons with Dietrich and other female co-stars. There is very little in the book about her father’s first family in Guangdong Province to whom he loyally sent money for 40 years and where Anna May Wong visited in 1936. She would later make her own documentary about the trip, My China, first shown in 1957 as an episode of the television series Bold Journey. Footage of the trip was released at the time on the Hearst Metrotone News newsreel ‘Anna May Wong Visits Shanghai, China’.

Where does Anna May Wong go from here? Katie Gee Salisbury’s Not Your China Doll, another biography of Wong, is imminent, and is unlikely to be the last. Perhaps the Wong renaissance will encourage interest in Hollywood’s other Chinese-American stars. Soo Yong – who had two roles in The Good Earth and whose career serves as a counterpoint to Wong’s – is just one example.

  • Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History 
    Yunte Huang 
    Liveright, 400pp, £25
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)

 

Gao Yunxiang is Professor of History at Toronto Metropolitan University. She is currently finishing a biography of Soo Yong.