Alice Lee wrote a comment on the Guardian about Anna May Wong and the struggle of Chinese actors/actresses are facing now. Alice Lee’s play Dragon Lady: Being Anna May Wong was on this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

China’s forgotten star

Alice Lee

In 1905, a little Chinese girl, Wong Liu Tsong, was born in America. In the 1930s, she became the first American Chinese film star to achieve international acclaim – as the exquisite Anna May Wong. Although she made over 60 movies and mesmerised audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, she is now largely forgotten. Renowned for stealing scenes from her fellow actors, Wong never ascended to the exalted positions achieved by her fellow actresses Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. More surprising still, most modern Chinese people have never heard of her. I can’t help but wonder: is the reason an innate human tendency to bury sad stories? Or is it because we do not want to stir up a storm by examining the issues and realising how little we have advanced?

Spain’s basketball team recently got themselves in hot water over a traditional racist taunt, one that Wong would have known well. This little Chinese girl growing up in America was the target of many jokes: the slit-eyed gesture, the pulling of her pigtail; even her last name was not spared: “Anna May Wong wrong!” was a typical playground cat-call. Gibes such as these persuaded Wong to believe that her Chinese traits were undesirable and required putting right. She strained her eyes as wide as possible and curled her hair in order to conceal her racial origin.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the scheming Fu Manchu represented the stereotype of the Chinese in the west. Chinese males were depicted as villainous gangsters or cold-blooded murderers. Their female counterparts were seen as demure butterflies or untrustworthy whores. Even with Anna May Wong’s talent and fame, she did not escape this cinematic fate. MGM’s 1937 production of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth was one of the first pictures in Hollywood that portrayed Chinese people in a sympathetic light. Wong tried out for the leading role of the destitute farmer’s wife O-Lan, but it was given to Luise Rainer, an Austrian who went on to win the Oscar for best actress.

Over a century after Wong’s birth, how far have we travelled? These days, Chinese men in the cinematic world are all kung-fu fighters. Chinese women are either too timid to say a word or they drop their panties before you can even say hello. There are more token “orientals” on our TV screens, but when are we going to see the equivalent of a Chinese Mr Darcy or Bridget Jones? Chinese men can be quite romantic and dashing. And it is not uncommon for Chinese women to eat a whole box of chocolates, get drunk and have series of bad dates!

Chinese actors are more than the funny-accented takeaway owner and Chinese actresses deserve to be the lovable girl next door. If we are to witness the first Chinese person to win a Bafta or an Oscar for best actor or best actress, we need the opportunity to play those roles.

East is east, west is west … a century later, certain things have definitely changed for the better. Most westerners are sensitive to racism and the Chinese are much more appreciative of their western counterparts’ humour. However, the lack of a Chinese presence in the western media means that there is still some way to go before the twain can meet.