September 2023

Daughter of the Dragon

By Yunte Huang
Review by
This major biography of Anna May Wong, Hollywood's first great Chinese American actress, is a revealing look at her startling talent and the limitations she faced due to racism and cultural biases.
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Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was Hollywood’s first great Chinese American actress. At 15, she had her first starring role in a silent film. Shortly thereafter, she played opposite film legend Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (at 5 feet, 7 inches, she was taller than him). She was a friend, and perhaps a lover, of Marlene Dietrich. A brilliant student of accents and languages, she successfully made the fraught transition from silent film to “talkies” and, later, to television.

As Yunte Huang’s fascinating biography Daughter of the Dragon clearly shows, however, Wong’s career was consistently hampered by racist, sexist and ageist strictures. She embodied the problematic archetypes of submissive Asian women in relationships with powerful white men as well as the devious, sexually powerful Asian women often called dragon ladies. One Hollywood rule, for example, prevented women of color from kissing a white man on screen. This kept Wong from romantic leading roles, for which her talents and beauty seemed so well suited. Stalled by such barriers, Wong went to Germany, learned the language and starred in smash hits like Song. Later, after being passed over for a role in the film version of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth, despite the writer’s desire for the film to star Chinese actors, Wong went to China just to study Chinese drama, with the hopes of bringing this classical form home.

Huang, a professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, offers a rich and complex view of Wong’s life and times. His book is less an intimate, psychological biography than a revealing look at Wong’s experience within the history of the era and its flow of cultural biases. Many chapters, like one on the ghettoized origins of Chinese laundries and Hollywood’s strangely enduring fascination with Los Angeles’ Chinatown, are as illuminating as they are unexpected. Huang offers penetrating descriptions of the making of some of Wong’s most famous movies, bringing to light Wong’s abilities and the prejudices and challenges she faced in trying to succeed. During her stay in China, for example, Wong was feted as a breakthrough star and also berated as an actor who presented shameful Chinese stereotypes. When questioned by local reporters, she noted that as an actor she rarely had the power to choose her parts but could only take what she was offered.

A reader is left thinking that what Anna May Wong was offered was never quite what she was worth. Wong died at 52, perhaps of alcoholism and definitely in financial distress. Of the rules that constrained her career, Huang writes, “these puritanical and overly racist guidelines became a virtual form of foot-binding for Anna May, shackling her career ambitions for the rest of her life.”

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Daughter of the Dragon

Daughter of the Dragon

By Yunte Huang
ISBN 9781631495809

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