When the U.S. Mint in 2022 released its Anna May Wong quarter, the fifth coin in the American Women Quarters Program, female Asian American representation got a boost. The following year, it had a pop culture moment when Mattel released the Anna May Wong Barbie, wearing a red dragon dress, in its Inspiring Women series. But who is Anna May Wong and what made her an icon?

Born in a Chinese laundry in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, Wong rose to become Old Hollywood’s most famous Chinese American actor. Her performances captivated global audiences, but Wong faced serious challenges in an industry plagued by racism and sexism.

“America falls in love with Anna May Wong, but that romance is taboo and there are real costs that come from Anna May wanting to have and hold onto this love,” says Yunte Huang, whose biography on Wong draws from hundreds of her letters and other records. His portrait offers new insight into her rare talent and ambition as well as the historical milieu in which she lived.

“After all, she lived at a time when a Chinese actor would be deemed ‘too Chinese’ to play such a role — a cultural absurdity plaguing both Hollywood and Main Street USA,” Huang writes.

Her signature bangs, almond eyes and “willowy figure wrapped in a silky qipao (cheongsam),” as Huang writes, are mainstays of her iconic image. In 1938, she was immortalized on the cover of Look magazine with the headline, “The World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl.”

But Wong’s story is not just about glamour and fame. Huang, a poet, Guggenheim Fellow and a distinguished professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, traces her journey from Weimar Berlin to decadent, pre-war Shanghai, and captures American film in its infancy. Along the way, Wong encounters other remarkable people, including the philosopher Walter Benjamin and the actor Marlene Dietrich.

“Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History” (Liveright, 2023) is Huang’s third book in a trilogy of Asian American icons, including books on Siamese twins Chang and Eng and on Charlie Chan, both of which were National Book Critics Circle Award finalists. It has taken Huang 15 years to complete this series, telling what he describes as the epic journey of Asian Americans in the nation’s tumultuous history.

Daughter of Shanghai movie poster

She performed in 60 films

“There was so much in that context that we can’t understand, but what we do see is that her iconicity survived decades,” says film scholar and filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu, dean of the Division of Arts and distinguished professor of film and digital media at UC Santa Cruz, during a conversation with Huang at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Iconicity, she goes on to explain, is a term of reverence, used for a person who achieves so much in their lifetime that they attain “a kind of godlike status where we worship them because of what they were able to achieve.”

In her lifetime (1905–1961), Wong performed in 60 films, including the very first movie made in Technicolor. But in the decades since her death, she has been the topic of biographies, novels, films, TV series, magazine articles, videos and publications from film, media, literature, feminist and Asian American studies.

Today we would call her a maximalist. She was known for having the longest nails in Hollywood, author Anne Anlin Cheng writes in “Ornamentalism.” “This was not fake. She cultivated these nails. Every time she took on a job, she was like, ‘Do I have to cut my nails?’” says Parreñas Shimizu. But, at the same time, she notes, Wong also had risque costumes and other accoutrements of racial femininity, “deploying her heritage in this way.”

In her letters, Huang finds evidence that Wong knew what she was doing, sometimes telling friends, for instance, that she had to sacrifice her nails for a character, such as for “Daughter of Shanghai,” in which the director made her cut her nails for the part of a doctor. Huang relates the control over Wong’s body to what he’s learned from the Chinese community about suffering.

“Speaking of female beauty and pain, nothing is more torturous and painful than having your feet bound for the pleasure of the male gaze,” says Huang, whose grandmother had bound feet. “I came to Anna May Wong’s story through these personal, historical and cultural understandings and experiences.”

Anna May Wong triptych

Left: On the set of “The Toll of the Sea” in 1922. Middle: Publicity photo taken on November 17, 1937 to promote her upcoming film “Daughter of Shanghai,” which was released the following month. Right: A film still for “Limehouse Blues” (1934), featuring a reinterpretation of the Chinese cheongsam designed by Travis Banton.

She traveled the world

Despite everything, Wong achieved “a glamorous splendor.” But she set her bar higher than most. She defied fashion conventions and set new trends. But she faced real material constraints in what she could and couldn’t do — cultural, political, even legal barriers. The motion picture industry’s Hays code, laws and policies from the Chinese Exclusion Act, and additional laws prohibiting interracial relationships stifled her career (she couldn’t play a romantic lead with a white counterpart) and love life (she could be arrested!).

She was most likely queer (also considered deviant and illegal at the time) and Dietrich and actor Dolores del Río were rumored among her lovers. “I have very little social life — am very lonely,” she sighs in a 1924 interview with the South China Morning Post. She signed her headshots, “Orientally yours.” Was she being demure or defiant? Or was she saying, “I’m bound by this racial feminization so I’m going to put it in your face,” as Parreñas Shimizu suggests. “And she also was so skilled at critiquing the parts she had to play. In the book by Cheng, she basically says, ‘The injury of Anna May Wong is aestheticized into such beauty.’

“Isn’t that crazy?” Parreñas Shimizu says to Huang and everyone listening. “Your injury is aestheticized? Your harm is represented as a pleasure for viewers? How painful that people enjoy inflicting your dehumanization on screen.” But the humiliation wasn’t just on screen. Wong traveled the world — Berlin, Paris, London, China, the Philippines — and ushered in a new brand of global cosmopolitanism. But she wielded an uncommon status because of her celebrity, one that couldn’t protect her from being pulled away from her travel companions at a train stop on the Canada border. There, she was made to travel hundreds of miles alone to cross the border at a designated Chinese entry point. “I think it’s one thing people don’t understand,” Huang says. “When you struggle to cross borders, the trauma — the haunting nightmare — that fear haunts you throughout your life. No matter what paper you carry, the wall is always there.”

photo of Yunte HuangProfessor Yunte Huang

He became a professor

Originally from China, Huang speaks here with insight from his own experience, which he does in all his biographies. “He has written a quartet of Asian American biographies if we include his own peripatetic life story, exquisitely and often humorously woven into the histories of these iconic Asian Americans,” suggests Constance Penley, professor of film and media studies and co-director of the Carsey-Wolf Center for Film, Television and New Media at UC Santa Barbara, who recently spoke with Huang at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center.

It’s a “contemplative mode” of writing, Huang says in an interview for this article, that he first learned in the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo, where he completed his doctorate, from an anthropologist trained in Zuni narrative. “Every story comes with a telling,” he says. “You have the content but there needs to be a storyteller. There’s a scene of telling: Who told that story? So it’s not just the information like, ‘Anna May Wong was denied entry at a club in Shanghai.’ Yes, fine. But how do we know that? How did we get to this?”

Still there’s at least one more layer. Huang became a writer because he had a brother. His father wanted to be a writer but couldn’t be one. Instead he became a doctor, like his father, and his father before him. As a father himself, he obligated one son to become a doctor and encouraged the other, Huang, to study English. History matters, too. Growing up in China, where the Chinese government controlled all media, influenced Huang’s understanding of narrative truth. English, he says, he learned from Voice of America.

“You learn to be critical and not to take anything for granted. Somehow it has to be loose, it can’t just be tightly woven and definitive. Coherence is overrated,” he says, then rephrases: “Actually, coherence is dangerous.”


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