Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hollywood's Forgotten Asian Star

It seems somehow fitting that the world premiere of Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words took place not at a Los Angeles event but rather many thousands of miles away in South Korea as part of the 2010 Pusan International Film Festival. Though the focus of Yunah Hong's 57-minute Digi Beta documentary is the original Chinese American screen star of Hollywood, who changed her name from Wong Liu-tsong during the silent era and made a loud impact, her career eventually wound up taking some unsavory and perhaps even racist turns. The L.A. native passed away quietly in Santa Monica in 1961.

Hong knows whereof she documents. The Seoul-born, Brooklyn based filmmaker previously made another chronicle in 2000 entitled Becoming an Actress in New York, which follows aspiring Korean American performers Jina Oh, Esther Chae and Vivian Bang. Though all were graduates of good drama schools and had representation, their attempts to land roles were undermined by the kind of unspoken divides that you would expect. The film still screens occasionally today.

Attended Hollywood High

Not everyone had forgotten Wong prior to the arrival of the new documentary. If you go for example to the actress' IMDB biography page, you will encounter one of the lengthiest and most comprehensive performer profiles to be found anywhere on the site, courtesy of one Jon C. Hopwood.

The life story of Wong really has everything. The daughter of a Los Angeles Chinatown laundrywoman, she debuted at age 17 in the silent drama The Toll of the Sea. From there, it was on to co-starring roles with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Douglas Fairbanks and a globe-trotting 1930's cabaret act. But the introduction of the Production Code and a failure to land a coveted role in The Good Earth helped drive her to drink.

The only sign today of Wong in Hollywood is a star on the Walk of Fame at the northeast corner of Hollywood and Vine, which was dedicated just 11 months before Wong died. Her Star is one that likely elicits puzzled glances from the daily throngs of tourists, but thankfully, Hong's documentary is set to help change that.

[Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words]


  1. What a great article. It is so important to remember her legacy. I remember when I cast the film "The Joy Luck Club" people thought the actresses were amazing and didn't know where they came from. The irony was that many of those fine actresses had a great body of work, but never had these dimensional kind of roles before.

  2. How interesting about the audience reaction to THE JOY LUCK CLUB.

    Another thing that fascinates me about someone like Wong is the way her story ties into the early history of Hollywood censorship, and lack thereof. It's amazing to think that before the Production Code (MPAA's long ago predecessor) came into being in the 1930s, anything went on screen. Part of what derailed Wong's career is that with the introduction of the Production Code, all of a sudden things like mixed race love scenes were "unsuitable."