Snakes, slaves and seduction – The Guardian


When Anna May Wong reached China in 1936, some said she should never have been allowed down the gangplank. She was a third-generation Chinese-American on a mission to reconnect with her family’s home culture, but she was much more than just another tourist. She had starred in the first Technicolor epic, had sparred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, had sunk the first rivet into the steel skeleton of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and was the most admired Asian actor in western cinema: a glossy, shimmering presence. But she had achieved her status by embodying the whole canon of western fantasies about the Chinese. And she knew it.
In 1933, Doris Mackie of Film Weekly magazine visited Ealing studios to observe the shooting of a sweaty tropical melodrama called Tiger Bay, and found its star railing against cinema in general and Hollywood in particular. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain?” asked Wong. “And so crude a villain. Murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilisation that is so many times older than that of the west?”
In the past decade, the reputation of Wong has been returned to brilliant life. Her image – the intense gaze, the sleekly serpentine arms, the impossibly reflective flapper bob – is in circulation again, in poster tubes and postcard racks. There have been two new biographies and a meticulous filmography, and now comes a documentary about her life. Called Frosted Yellow Willows, a literal translation of her Cantonese name, the movie has its UK premiere at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday.
This is mainly due to the rediscovery of Wong’s performance in the 1929 melodrama Piccadilly, in which she plays Shosho, a kitchen scullion whose gyrations among the soap suds of a West End club lead to a star residency above the stairs. The film was dismissed as vacuous by generations of critics who never had the privilege of seeing it. Now it is recognised as a masterpiece whose power is derived, in part, from Wong’s skilful manipulation of familiar oriental cliches. “I danced once before in Limehouse,” reads one tantalising intertitle. “But there was trouble, men, knives.”
Frosted Yellow Willows tells the story of Wong’s birth in her father’s laundry in Los Angeles, her single-minded devotion to the movies, her rise to fame, her dealings with a crazy extortionist who threatened her family, her tireless war work. But it seems confused about how we should now regard her. The film celebrates her as a pioneer, but invites the viewer to despise much of her work – all those 1930s crime dramas in which she plays a gangster’s moll, a beautiful assassin or the knife-wielding offspring of Fu Manchu. It offers her as a victim – enumerating the painful moments when she was passed over in favour of western actors with unconvincing makeup, or cast, improbably, as an Inuit or a Native American – yet the footage from her pictures shows that she transcended this status. And it makes little of her boozing and complicated love life. (The lyricist Eric Maschwitz is said to have memorialised an affair with Wong in his song These Foolish Things, but you won’t hear it in this documentary.)
And this is the trouble with Anna May Wong. We disapprove of the stereotypes she fleshed out – the treacherous, tragic daughters of the dragon – but her performances still seduce, for the same reason they did in the 1920s and 30s. Watch her as the Mongol slave girl running around with Douglas Fairbanks Jr in the silent The Thief of Bagdad. Or in Tiger Bay as the proprietor of the sultriest dance hall in British Guyana, spooking some troublesome clients by suggesting she might have poisoned their food. Or in the 1928 film Show Life, in which she spears a lobster from a rock pool, cracks it with her teeth and sucks out the meat. You’ll see how much the camera loved her, and how impossible it is not to feel the same – whatever ideological badness we might now detect in these pictures.
By the war, Chinese-flavoured melodramas had gone out of fashion, and Wong with them. But in 1960, after two decades of relative obscurity, she made a faltering comeback, playing housekeeper to Lana Turner in Michael Gordon’s slightly pervy thriller Portrait in Black. It was her last big-screen role and, four decades after her debut, the publicity employed a tiresomely familiar language. A press release attempted to explain her absence from cinema with a proverb, supposedly passed down to Wong by her mother: “Don’t be photographed too much or you’ll lose your soul.” When asked in person, Wong’s reply was very different: “I was so tired of the parts I had to play.”
ยท Frosted Yellow Willows is at the National Portrait Gallery, London (020-7312 2463), on Friday, and at the BFI Southbank (020 7928 3232) on Saturday


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