Anna May Wong (黃柳霜) — East Meets West (1938) 🇺🇸

Anna May Wong |

January 07, 2022

Anna May Wong, back on the screen after an absence of several years, discusses her native land.

by Louise Leung

“Bombs over Shanghai” have brought Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s only Chinese-American star, back to the films.

The world’s preoccupation with the Oriental war led inevitably to a cycle of Chinese pictures — and in Hollywood, “Chinese” and Anna May are practically synonymous.

And so, after an absence of many years, Miss Wong is back again. But it is a different Anna May who has returned. During the time she was away she studied, she traveled, she learned to live. She forgot acting other people’s lives for a while — and took time to find herself.

Some women realize themselves in marriage, others in motherhood, still others in a career. But for Anna May it has been none of these. She found herself in China, her country and her people.

The change is well reflected in her attitude toward Daughter of Shanghai, first of a series of pictures she is making for Paramount under a long term contract. The story deals with an expose of the alien-smuggling racket. Anna May, in the role of a San Francisco-born Chinese girl, uncovers the ring with the aid of Philip Ahn, distinguished Korean actor, who, incidentally, was a schoolmate of Anna May’s in a Los Angeles junior high school.

“I like my part in this picture better than any I’ve had before,” she said. “Not because it gives me better acting opportunities nor because the character has exceptional appeal. It’s just because this picture gives the Chinese a break — we have the sympathetic parts for a change! To me that means a great deal.”

We were sitting in her Hollywood apartment on a late Sunday afternoon. The last of the sun glinted on a Chinese tapestry that covered one wall and picked out the colored bindings of books — most of them about China — ranged on a teak wood table.

I thought of the first time I had seen Anna May — a big wide-eyed kid who offered to curl my hair at a Chinese Girl Reserves meeting. There had been many Anna Mays since then — the indomitable extra who went knocking at Hollywood’s gates; the fledgling actress who determinedly worked her way from seat-warming in casting offices to adorning the screen as its “lotus girl” in such pictures as China Bound, Shanghai Express, and Chinese Parrot; the finished artiste who played the gangster’s moll in On the Spot; and finally, the polished London-accented star, toast of European capitals.

“Soon after I got to China last year, after that first round of parties that were disappointingly just like parties in Paris or London or Hollywood, I felt tranquil and at peace,” she began. “You know I had never been to China, but somehow it seemed that I had always been homesick for it.

“A rhythm in the life there harmonized with something in me that had been out of tune. I was no longer restless. It’s hard to explain — our Chinese expression ‘being in harmony with heaven and earth’ — is the essence of it.

“I made the trip not to see as much as I could of China, but to feel as much as I could. The experience surpassed all my expectations. I wanted to find out if my interpretations of China were truly Chinese.

“I always had a weakness for Chinese art,” she said, her eyes on a Ming vase that bloomed with fragrant tube roses, “but I thought it was exaggerated. I found that it wasn’t. The trees look like they do in a Chinese painting. Even the ruins are alive in Peiping, not dead like the ruins in Rome. If I could ever leave my work, I’d choose Peiping for my home.

Her first visit to her ancestral home, Toishan, in Kwantung province, was a fascinating experience.

Relatives from the entire village came to admire their famous kinswoman. She had to drink tea with all of them, and since everyone surnamed “Wong” was her “cousin,” she thought she would drink all the tea in China before she was through.

“Many of the women could not believe I really existed. They had seen me on the screen but they thought I was simply a picture invented by a machine!

“I’ll never forget the banquet they gave for me. There were 43 courses, and to be polite I had to eat liberally of all of them.”

In Nanking she was guest of honor at a huge reception, attended by leading government officials. “They made speeches that lasted for four hours, but instead of the usual stereotyped ‘welcome to our city’ speeches, they all took turns berating me for the roles I had played.

“Since I didn’t speak Mandarin then, I had to answer in English. I told them that when a person is trying to get established in a profession, he can’t choose parts. He has to take what is offered. I said I had come to China to learn, and that I hoped I would be able to interpret our country in a better light. It all ended with their apologizing to me!

“Of course,” she laughed, “when Warner Oland went to China, he was simply lauded to the skies. No one thought of bringing up his evil past as a Chinese villain in such pictures as Daughter of the Dragon. Seriously though, I can understand why the government officials are so earnest about this censorship idea — not because they are hyper-sensitive, but because they are self-conscious and want people to see their best side, not their worst.”

Anna May has discarded her entire American wardrobe, which once won her the designers’ vote as the world’s best-dressed woman. Her closet is hung now with rows of Chinese gowns, slit high on the sides to reveal lace or pleated pantalettes. These latter are an invention of her own, combining the old with the new in Chinese fashions. Fans and parasols match her gowns. She rarely wears a hat, and uses capes to keep the flowing line.

Her tailor was loaned her by Mrs. Wellington Koo, wife of the ambassador.

“I used him so much, and recommended him to so many of my friends who liked what he had done for me, that Mrs. Koo had to find herself another tailor. A Chinese gown, with its simple lines, looks quite easy to make, but it takes an expert to keep it from hanging like a Mother Hubbard.”

The tailor was amazed when she brought him a piece of old fabric she had found in a Peiping shop and directed him to make her a gown from it. “It’s goo lo (old fashioned)!” he exclaimed. “No one wears such stuff.”

But Anna May insisted, and soon style-conscious Chinese women were copying her, using the beautiful old designs and fabrics they had previously scorned for the Western ones.

She has no permanent wave, “because Nature meant my hair to be straight,” and wears her long hair drawn back in a knot from her heart-shaped face, with bangs across the forehead.

Her father and several brothers and sisters went to China in 1934 and were still in Hongkong; she was much worried over them. Her sister, Mary, who appeared with her in Daughter of the Dragon, was in Shanghai and Anna May has had no word from her since the bombing.

In China persons in the acting profession are socially not acceptable. The fact that Anna May, in a foreign country, had established an unchallenged position as a foremost actress, could not be ignored and she was welcomed everywhere, officially and by social leaders.

“There’s no glamor about acting in China,” she said. “It’s all hard work. I visited the school of Chinese drama where anyone who wishes to act must go in training from the ages of 14 to 20. A two-months’ trial is given, and if the candidate shows ability, he is allowed to remain. Perhaps if there was such a training school in Hollywood, we wouldn’t have so many actors!

She had always studied, I knew. If anyone can claim to be self-made, she can. Her educational advantages were few, but she made up for the lack and rose far above academic limitations. Between scenes on The Thief of Bagdad, for example, she had a tutor drill her in the fine points of English grammar. Now she speaks German fluently (result of starring in German films), French, two Chinese dialects. She has more than the education of the average college graduate — she has culture as well as book-learning. As for her plan for the future? One thing is certain — it will be something interesting, and it will be something that employs her western training as well as her inherited Oriental culture.

Mamie Louise Leung, author of this story, is well known on the Pacific coast as a newspaper feature writer, having worked on big papers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Here she is having luncheon with Anna May Wong in the Paramount commissary.

Collection: Hollywood MagazineJanuary 1938