Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong

Image of Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong
Release Date: 
March 12, 2024
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“Anna May’s is not exactly a rags-to-riches story, but it did start with dirty clothes, laboring as a young girl in her family’s laundry business in Los Angeles. She had loftier ambitions . . .”

We all have heard inspirational “breaking barriers” stories, such as Jackie Robinson breaking the race barrier in Major League Baseball. Perhaps one of the least known is that of Anna May Wong. American-born of Chinese parents, Anna May overcame odds imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act and its progeny, not to mention Hollywood’s Hays Code, to become a bona fide movie star.

But even success stories have their dark sides. Anna May’s career was cut short by a seemingly incessant battle against racism, and her life cut short by the ravages of alcohol and fragile health that accompanied it. In her fascinating new book Not Your China Doll, author Katie Gee Salisbury tells of the rise and fall, with several reinventions in between, of Hollywood’s first Chinese American star.

Anna May’s is not exactly a rags-to-riches story, but it did start with dirty clothes, laboring as a young girl in her family’s laundry business in Los Angeles. She had loftier ambitions, though, beyond starch and hot water. As a young girl, she played hooky from her Chinese lessons so she could watch the strange, fairytale world of moviemaking that had come to Chinatown, and she began to develop fairytale dreams of her own.

Her first break came when she landed a lead role in an unconventional film, The Toll of the Sea. More of an experiment in moviemaking, intended to showcase the potential of color film than it was in storytelling, the objective of the filmmakers “was to sell the technology, not box office tickets, which freed them in a way to cast an unknown actress like Anna May.”

But it was in that film that she captured the eye of actor-producer Douglas Fairbanks. She ventured to Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, at the age of 18, as Fairbanks was preparing to launch his epic The Thief of Bagdad. He cast her in a supporting role, and her career was launched, drawing on her exotic Asian looks and her “singular ability to cry on cue without the aid of glycerin tears. . . .”

From there, her career followed an uneven trajectory, as she constantly had to overcome numerous stumbling blocks. One of the more formidable was the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, named after Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. As the Code itself espoused, its aim was to ensure that no movie made in the United States would “lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

The Code perpetuated much of what was already in practice and, as an added aim, appeared bent on protecting white nationalism. As a woman of Chinese heritage, even though born in the United States, Anna May was shoehorned into villainous roles, often ending with the demise of her character. She was consistently denied leading roles, particularly if they involved a happy-ever-after romance. As the author writes, “In not so many words, happy endings could not be permitted to someone like Anna May Wong, a woman of color.”

Making end runs around the restrictions, Anna May traveled to Europe, where she had more freedom in choosing roles, and she also dabbled in theater and other forms of entertainment, in the first of a series of reinventions of herself. Notwithstanding her total Americanization, and after some initial resistance, she even finally visited China, her ancestral homeland, in anticipation of a potential role in the film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Alas, it was not to be as two actors of European descent were cast in the lead roles: Paul Muni and Luise Rainer. Anna May couldn’t even get a minor role, a massive disappointment to her.

Still, as the author tells the reader, “[S]he learned to never allow others to define her. Instead, she claimed her own identity. She was neither a flapper nor a mythical Chinese maiden. She was simply an American who cherished both her Chinese heritage and her independence as a twentieth-century woman.”

By the time the 1950s rolled around, movie parts had evaporated but Anna May turned to the new kid on the block, television, albeit with limited success. She had once been a star, though never in the superstar category, and now age and drinking, with attendant cirrhosis, had combined to deliver a one-two punch to hopes of yet another reinvention. The effects of the disease had aged her skin and caused her face “to look puffy and jaundiced.”

The decline of her physical beauty, the exotic appeal of China, was devastating to Anna May. “She was no longer the China doll, the temptress, or the siren. Those were the roles she had played for half her career, often unwillingly, and now no one would dare think of casting her in such parts.” The result was a downward spiral: the physical effects of drinking rotted her confidence, leading to reclusiveness, which caused her to drink more. A stint at the rehab and recovery center Sierra Madre Lodge provided temporary respite, but it was followed by a relapse.

Still, with one more fresh start, she seemed headed for yet another reinvention of herself, possibly in line for a part in the film version of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. Alas, it was not to be. Less than two weeks before rehearsals were set to start, she lay down for an afternoon nap and died in her sleep of a heart attack.

“For her final curtain call, she defied expectations yet again. The way to live, she had learned, was knowing what it is to die and to be reborn a thousand times over. When her time came, she did not struggle but passed peacefully, and in the most ordinary way possible, at home in her own bed with her boots still on.”

In 1960, the year before her death, Anna May’s star was affixed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, making her, along with Sessue Hayakawa, her co-star in Daughter of the Dragon, the first two Asian stars on the Walk. It’s a shame she had but a short time to enjoy the honor. She had worked hard enough for it.