A Biography Examines Anna May Wong, a Revered and Reviled Chinese American Star

Yunte Huang was emerging from the bathroom at the Formosa Cafe, a legendary Chinese restaurant in Hollywood, when a woman with long blond hair waved him down and requested a table for one.

Huang, an author and English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, smiled and walked back to the red-leather booth where he was finishing his fried tofu lunch.

He is hardly new to these kinds of assumptions. His next book, a biography of the great Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, out on Aug. 22 from Liveright, considers the epic sweep of Wong’s life and her success in the face of the profound anti-Chinese sentiment of her day.

Wong is the third and final subject of Huang’s trilogy about Asian American icons in popular culture. He has also written about the fictional detective Charlie Chan and about Eng and Chang Bunker, who traveled the United States in the 19th century as the original “Siamese twins.”

For each book, Huang chose a subject with a complicated, controversial legacy. In the case of Wong, he said, she is “revered but also one of the most reviled characters in Asian American history,” seen by some as perpetuating the stereotypes of “dragon lady or Madama Butterfly.” It is the very complexity of the subjects that drew him, he said.

“I’m trying to Americanize myself,” said Huang, who was born in Wenzhou, China, in 1969, and moved to the United States in 1991. “What I found were these kind of fault lines, where people are so divided about these issues.” The contradictions his subjects embodied helped Huang reach a deeper understanding of his adopted culture, he said.

Later, Huang would return to that moment in the Formosa Cafe, and to the blond woman’s mistake. “Some things never change,” he reflected, “or too damn slowly.” And that, he added, is also part of Wong’s story.

Huang’s book, “Daughter of the Dragon,” arrives amid a flurry of new interest in the first Chinese American Hollywood star. A character based on Wong winds her way through the early scenes of Damien Chazelle’s 2022 film “Babylon” — a dazzler with black bangs, comfortable with her bisexuality. Earlier this year, Gail Tsukiyama published a novel based on Wong’s life, “The Brightest Star.” And next year, another biography, “Not Your China Doll,” by Katie Gee Salisbury, will be published by Dutton.

Wong died more than 60 years ago, but Huang is not surprised by the interest: He sees a direct line from the battles she faced as an actress in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood to those being fought — and increasingly won — today.

“If you want to know how momentous it is for Michelle Yeoh to win the Oscar,” Huang said, referring to the 2023 Academy Awards, which marked the first such victory for an Asian actress, “you cannot possibly understand without going back to Anna May Wong.”

Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles in 1905, and grew up in her father’s laundry, a few blocks from the city’s Chinatown. It was a dangerous time; there were growing restrictions on Chinese immigrants nationally and routine acts of violence and looting against the Chinese community, particularly in California. Chinese Angelenos wore whistles around their necks to ward off would-be attackers on the street.

And yet, Hollywood developed a fascination with the Far East, churning out movies such as “Chinese Procession” (1898), “Scene in a Chinese Restaurant” (1903) and “Rube in an Opium Joint” (1905). Hollywood scouts found in Chinatown a cheap and easy place to film, and Wong won her first role — a walk-on part in a crowd — in “The Red Lantern,” from 1919. It launched her. Cast in a supporting role in “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), and scantily clad in a two-piece outfit — for which her director, Douglas Fairbanks, had to seek permission from her parents — she won praise for her beauty and for the power of her expressions.

In the years to come, she would soar, starring beside Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express,” working with famous directors in Weimer Germany and London, and rubbing elbows with the great dynasties of 1930s Shanghai, like the Sassoons. Stylish and droll, she toyed with stereotypes, signing her letters “Orientally yours,” and often deadpanning with phrases such as “Confucius didn’t say this …”

Miscegenation was illegal onscreen and off: A Chinese person, or any person of color, could not be shown kissing someone white. Hollywood turned instead to actors of European descent, in “yellowface,” to play Asian roles.

Although Wong’s career broke barriers, working as an actress at the time often meant having to take roles that invoked stereotypes.

“The stereotype of the Chinese immigrant was so ossified,” said Janet Yang, a longtime film producer who is president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “It had to be a certain look and a certain sound, if you could even get those horrible roles. So, Anna already broke down a lot of barriers, but yes, sometimes she took roles and she couldn’t transform them on her own.”

Because Wong could not always transcend these toxic customs, her legacy may have suffered.

“She’s been unfairly forgotten and neglected,” said the actor Paul Giamatti, a longtime admirer of Wong.

Like his subjects, Huang himself has crossed cultural chasms. Sitting in the Formosa Cafe, he explained that he had attended Peking University hoping to become an English professor in China. But during his sophomore year, in the spring of 1989, soldiers gathered to quell student protests in Beijing — protests in which he and his friends were taking part, sometimes even sleeping out on Tiananmen Square.

At the end of May, he received a cable telling him his mother was gravely ill. Worried, he traveled for three days to get to his family’s home, about 300 miles south of Shanghai. When he arrived, he said, “my mom was standing in front of our house, smiling like a bride.” His parents had tricked him into going home to get him out of danger’s way. Days later, government tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square, leaving thousands injured or dead. Watching the scene unfold on his parents’ television, Huang knew that he could not remain in China.

“Intellectually, emotionally, it was just not for me anymore,” he said.

Two years later, he arrived in Tuscaloosa to earn his master’s degree. He had chosen Alabama because it was first in an alphabetical guidebook to U.S. universities, he said. He didn’t have a car, so on Sundays, he would stand on the corner holding a Bible. When people pulled over, they’d ask, “What church are you going to?” and Huang would say: “Yours.” This was how he experienced Tuscaloosa’s Calvinist, Baptist and Mormon offerings.

He applied for four credit cards and used them to open a Chinese restaurant. “Like in ‘Out of Africa,’ when Meryl Streep says, ‘I had a farm in Africa,’” Huang said, “well, I had a Chinese takeout in Tuscaloosa.”

With the money he made, he pursued his Ph.D. at the State University of New York, in Buffalo. It was there, rifling through an estate sale one weekend, that he discovered Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan detective novels. They cost a dollar. He bought them, and eventually they inspired his first book, “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History,” which won the Edgar Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and helped earn him a Guggenheim fellowship.

In researching Charlie Chan, Huang learned more about Wong: She was close friends with the Swedish actor Warner Oland, who wore heavy makeup to play the detective in movies.

As Huang sank into her life story, he couldn’t help seeing the irony of his situation: During the pandemic, as he was writing “Daughter of the Dragon,” violence toward Asian Americans soared. His wife and 3-year-old son were stuck in China, behind closed borders. For three years, he saw them only on FaceTime. When they were finally allowed to reunite in China, they faced new travel restrictions and weren’t sure they’d be able to get back to the United States.

“It was a Chinese American story,” Huang said. “We are caught between systems that are totally not compatible.”

In Los Angeles, there are few traces left of Wong’s residences. Chinatown as she knew it, along with her childhood home, was leveled in the 1930s by the construction of Union Station. The two homes she had in an affluent stretch of Santa Monica — the first as a prospering star and landlady, the second as an older, out-of-work actor — have been razed.

Late in the afternoon, Huang stopped his car in front of Wong’s final address. It was where she was found in 1961, dead of a heart attack, next to the script for “Flower Drum Song,” the project she had hoped would be her comeback after almost 20 years with no major roles.

On her old block, the breeze off the Pacific was cool and the sunlight was doing its California best. A woman emerged from the house. She hadn’t known that Wong had lived at this address, she said, but gamely led Huang out to her backyard to view the pool, which she believed might be original, a remaining link to the past.

In thanks, Huang pulled a shiny silver quarter from his pocket and handed it to her. It was newly issued and printed with Wong’s face, a token straight from the U.S. Mint that seemed to promise this groundbreaking American might finally get her due.

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