In late July, Shanghai-based film production company Fundamental Films announced that a biopic of legendary Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong is in the works, slated for release in China within the next few years. This announcement has generated a lot of attention within the film community, with many voicing concerns about the details of the production and how they will reflect upon Wong, whose struggles with stereotyping and prejudice ultimately led to the downfall of her career.
Anna May Wong was born in Los Angeles in 1905. Her family had resided in California since 1855, and she grew up in a diverse neighborhood alongside Mexican and Eastern European families that had settled in Los Angeles. Curious about the new picture industry growing around her neighborhood, she received her first film role as an extra at age 14 and was noticed by Hollywood when she played opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Though critics saw her talent and potential, her parts were restricted due to U.S. anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented onscreen romance between two actors of different races. As the only Asian-American leading man at the time was Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong could never advance in her career and she was relegated to stereotypical Chinese roles. Often, though, even those roles were few and far between for her. “There seems little for me in Hollywood,” she said,” because rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”
Tired of the prejudiced attitudes of the American film industry, Wong moved to Europe, where she acted on both stage and screen and became a European sensation. Hollywood filmmakers spotted her and expressed a renewed interest in what she had to offer, so she moved back to the United States and, to her dismay, found herself cast once again in stereotypical Chinese roles. When passed up by Luise Rainer, a German, for the role of a Chinese villager in The Good Earth, she finally quit Hollywood in frustration.
The biopic is called Dragon Lady, a reference to Anna May Wong’s role in The Thief of Baghdad. The film’s title has been a point of contention among those concerned about the project, saying that it unfairly perpetuates the Asian stereotype that plagued Wong throughout her career. In addition, for the coveted role of Anna May Wong, Fundamental Films has chosen Fan Bingbing, a Chinese actress and singer. At the outset, I was upset that Anna May Wong’s story features a Chinese actress playing an American role. Upon further research, I found that this is a Chinese production, and a Chinese-language production perhaps requires a native Chinese actress, rather than the Asian-American actress that might be better suited to portray Wong’s identity and life story.
My biggest point of contention with the project lies not with Fundamental Films, but with the American film industry for not telling her story here. The fact that Anna May Wong’s story is being told in China before it is told in the United States is, to me, a disappointment. This is an American story, about an American woman who suffered under our laws and faced the brutality of American prejudice. Her story should be told here, by the same Hollywood that so ostracized and isolated her, before it is told anywhere else.
Hollywood owes her that.