The China syndrome

Hollywood loved Anna May Wong, its first and greatest oriental temptress. She wanted out.
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The Independent Culture
W ith the release of Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad, Gong Li has emerged as the most famous Chinese screen actress since Anna May Wong. Coincidentally, the first Chinese actress to achieve Hollywood stardom is being commemorated in a month-long season at the National Film Theatre.

Anna May Wong's career is illustrative of the racism of Hollywood during the so-called Golden Era. Most people are aware of the persistent prejudice against black performers in films, but that against Asians has been less noted. Explaining why she retired from the screen for a long period, Anna May Wong said: "I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain? And so crude a villain - murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilisation that is so many times older than that of the West?"

In 1937, she had hoped to get the part of the tragic O-Lan in MGM's lavish production of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth but was passed over for the Viennese actress Luise Rainer who went on to win an Oscar - a shameless example of Hollywood's preference for using heavily made-up Caucasians in star parts, rather than the real thing. When one critic pointed out to Irving Thalberg, head of production, that no oriental actor had received a leading role in the picture about simple Chinese rice farmers, he retorted: "I'm in the business of creating illusions."

Anna May Wong, was born Wong Lui Tsong (Cantonese for frosted yellow willow) on 3 January 1907, in LA's Chinatown, the daughter of a laundryman. At 16, she was given the part of the Mongol slave in The Thief of Baghdad which starred Douglas Fairbanks.

By the late 1920s, she had managed to replace Myrna Loy as the "exotic, oriental temptress". Inevitably, she was described in fan magazines and newspapers of the time as "the inscrutable and remote oriental enchantress." She had the charisma to transcend the most stereotypical role. Her most celebrated performance was in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express in which she portrayed an American-bred Chinese prostitute with plans of starting anew in marriage. After being raped by a wicked warlord, she stabs him to death, and then herself.

In fact, dying is something she did exceptionally well. She severs an artery in the final scene of Tiger Bay; obligingly commits suicide by taking opium pills in Java Head in order to save her British husband embarrassment upon his return with her to Bristol from Hong Kong, and she dies in Daughter of the Dragon, in which she played the evil Dr Fu Manchu's offspring.

In 1929, Anna May left for Europe, where producers had no qualms about giving her leading and varied roles. In Germany, in films like Show Life and Pavement Butterfly, she became as popular as Louise Brooks. In England, she appeared on screen in Piccadilly as the dishwasher who becomes a cabaret star; on stage she acted with Laurence Olivier in The Chalk Circle and in the Edgar Wallace thriller On the Spot, as well as touring in a vaudeville act.

In 1936, she fulfilled a long cherished dream when she visited the home of her ancestors for the first and only time. In Peking, where she was welcomed by mobs of fans, she studied Mandarin Chinese and bought a vast amount of dresses.

She died of a heart attack on 3 February 1961, mercifully having rejected her mother's warning: "Don't be photographed too much or you'll lose your soul."

n At the NFT, London, SE1 (0171-928 3232) from today