Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong's Rendezvous with American History

Image of Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong's Rendezvous with American History
Release Date: 
August 1, 2023
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“an outstanding work, filled with insights and stories, and written with authority.”

Growing up in the Chinatown of Los Angeles, the attractive Anna May Wong (1905–1961) would play hooky from school to watch film crews shooting movies in her neighborhood. She was obsessed with motion pictures, with the glamour of being an actor, often staging imaginary dramas at home with dolls.

“She wanted to be a star, like those blonde actresses she saw on the silver screen: Pearl White, Alla Nazimova, Mary Pickford, and many other ‘picture personalities’ displayed on lobby cards.”

In his readable Daughter of the Dragon, Yunte Huang traces her “spectacular rise from laundryman’s daughter to global celebrity” as the first Chinese American movie star. He does so against a vivid recreation of the period when Hollywood, while enamored of Chinese exoticism, was rife with anti-Asian racism.

“Even before the arrival of the motion picture, the ‘pigtailed Chinaman,’—usually going by the generic name of ‘Charlie’ and sweating over steam and starch while muttering ‘no tickee, no washee’—had long been a racist trope in America,” writes Huang, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is a professor of English.

“In songs, vaudeville skits, melodramas, comic strips, and pulp fiction. A Chinese laundryman was a staple of such racist caricature.” 

Racist practices and laws, notably the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring Chinese from entering the county, placed sharp limits on Anna May Wong’s career: deemed “too Chinese to play a Chinese,” she lost roles to white actors in yellow face, including the lead spot in The Good Earth. Nonetheless she would become “the icon of Chinese femininity.” In 1927, as such a female Chinese icon, she took part in the dedication of Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the site over the years for many movie premieres.

Tracing Wong’s career in movies (more than 60), vaudeville, stage, and television, Huang shows how she would finally find recognition as an American actor when she joined the exodus to Europe of non-white actors (like Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson), who flourished in the Weimar Republic, where “America was a catchword for whatever was cool and modern.”

Huang’s expansive biography draws on Wong’s diaries and other sources to reveal intimate details of her life; it also offers deep dives into myriad aspects of Asian American life, such as Chinese laundering.

Shortly before her death, at 56, in 1961, Wong was offered a lead role in the screen adoption of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set in Fan Francisco’s Chinatown, Flower Drum Song. “Having missed out on The Good Earth, she would now get another shot at starring in a blockbuster Chinese-themed production.”

It was not to be, writes Huang.

There were eulogies in The New York Times and other leading papers. “None drew attention to the troubling fact that, charming and talented as they said she was, she had been unable to get a meaningful part in any film since 1942.”

Daughter of the Dragon is Huang’s final book in a trilogy on the Asian American story in the making of American culture, which includes the Edgar Award-winning Charlie Chan. It is an outstanding work, filled with insights and stories, and written with authority.