Anna May Wong — A Chinese Puzzle (1925) 🇬🇧

Anna May Wong — A Chinese Puzzle (1925) |

February 12, 2024

I first met Anna May Wong about a year ago. She was lending her Oriental beauty, as the poets say, to Douglas Fairbanks’ [Douglas Fairbanks Sr.] production of “The Thief of Bagdad.” I had dropped in at the studio to have a chat with Doug’s leading woman, Julanne Johnston, and, the dressing-room door being open, Anna May walked right in. She nodded briefly in my direction.

Then she spoke. “Say, Julanne,” she remarked, “ I got this coat at a bargain sale downtown and, gee, I don’t know now whether I like it or not. You know how it is with anything you get at a sale. Afterward, you’re apt to think it looks like something the cat dragged in.”

She revolved slowly in the centre of the small room, a slim, smartly clad figure. Julanne assured her she liked the coat and presently, seemingly more satisfied in regard to her recent purchase, she departed in the general direction of Bagdad.

Julanne smiled. “She surprised you, didn’t she? But here’s a peculiar fact about Anna May Wong,” she said. “By the time you’ve talked with her for five minutes you forget that she is Chinese.”

Improbable as this sounds, it is absolutely true. Anna May Wong, among Americans, is so thoroughly one of us that her Oriental background drops completely away.

Does she, chameleon like, become as thoroughly Chinese when among her own people? Are her Americanisms merely part of a clever pose? That she is an exceptionally clever actress one cannot doubt. She may merely wander through a corner of the picture, but she’d register a hit, every time. Witness the delightful flashes of her in Lilies of the Field. Which is the real Anna May Wong? The Chinese maiden or the American one? I sought her out not long ago, endeavouring to find an answer.

She had just returned from a sojourn among the peaks of the Canadian Rockies, where, with Thomas Meighan, Estelle Taylor and other famous Players-Lasky talent, she did her bit toward giving The Alaskan to a waiting film world.

She was, she declared, when we became settled in her dressing-room, feeling low.

“Maybe the altitude up there affected me,” she said ; “but say, do you ever wonder what Life’s all about, anyway?”

I agreed that occasionally I did.

“Sometimes it hardly seems worth while to go on living,” she continued, moodily regarding the toe of her smart white kid slipper.

“Why worry?” I remarked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Anna May sighed restlessly.

“I’m pretty tall for a Chinese girl, you know,” she added. “ It always seems to hand a director a shock when he sees me for the first time. They all have the idea I should be about four feet tall. I guess most of them don’t know that the people from the North of China aren’t small.”

Anna’s parents came from there. She was born, though, in Los Angeles.

“But not in Chinatown,” she told me. “ I never lived down there. My father has a laundry. I’m not ashamed of that. He sold it once, but bought it back again. He said he’d die inside a year if he didn’t have something to occupy his mind, so he might as well have his laundry, I guess.”

“Do your parents dislike having you work in the studios?”

“Oh, they didn’t like it at first,” said Anna May. “But my father has given up trying to rule me, now. A Chinese man does absolutely rule his family, you know. Sometimes I wonder how my mother can stand it to ‘yes’ my father all the time. Believe me — nothing like that for me !

“Funny — the way I got into pictures. I’d always been crazy about them, ever since I was a little kid. Used to go to movie shows every chance I got. My father told my teachers to punish me every time they caught me doing it, but that didn’t stop me. I remember following a Ruth Roland serial once. I guess I got whipped after each instalment.

“One day a friend took me out to one of the studios. Marshall Neilan was making Dinty. He asked me to come to work the next day. Can you beat it?” queried Anna. “It was just like a story. I’ve worked in pictures ever since.”

“You’re happiest in the studio environment, among Americans?” I asked her.

“I — I couldn’t give up my work, to live the life of an average Chinese woman, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “I couldn’t be happy married to a man who’d make me do that. Not long ago I visited some Chinese friends in San Francisco. Say, the women didn’t do anything but sit around and talk about their husbands and babies, and their housework. I couldn’t live such a narrow life.”

I was satisfied. Anna May Wong is as American as she appears to be. Keen, ambitious and abreast of the times.

H. C.

Anna May Wong — A Chinese Puzzle (1925) |

Left: Anna May in The Thief of Bagdad.

Below: With Tom Meighan [Thomas Meighan] and company in The Alaskan.

Anna’s mother treasures this baby picture of her.

Anna May Wong — A Chinese Puzzle (1925) |

She’s all Oriental when in her native background, but with Americans she becomes one of them immediately.

Anna May declares she will never give up her work and live the life of an ordinary Chinese woman.

Collection: Picturegoer Magazine, February 1925