GENERAL COMMENTARY

A Short History of Chinese-American Women On Screen

26 August 2019

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A Short History of Chinese-American Women On Screen

The Woman Warrior was one of the first places I saw myself represented as a Chinese American woman, one of the few books I had growing up that showed anything like my experience. Onscreen, the images of people who looked like me were even rarer. Below are some of the portrayals that shaped my understanding — for better or for worse — of how Chinese and Chinese American women could be seen in film and on TV.

Anna May Wong

Publicity photo of Anna May Wong/ Wikimedia

I’d heard of Anna May Wong before, but after I read Peter Ho Davies’ fantastic novel “The Fortunes,” one section of which focuses on Wong’s life and career, I wanted to learn everything I could about her. Wong was the first Chinese American (and Asian American) movie star, gorgeous and glamorous and politically outspoken. Even in the 1930s, she sharply critiqued the way Hollywood portrayed Chinese and Chinese Americans only as stereotypical villains, “Dragon Ladies,” or “exotic flowers.”

But Wong’s story also infuriates me. She was passed over for lead roles because anti-miscegenation laws prohibited actors of different races from kissing on screen—and all the leading actors at the time were white. Instead, white actresses portrayed Asian lead characters—famously, Louise Rainer won an Oscar for her yellowface portrayal of the Chinese woman O-Lan in “The Good Earth”—while Wong was relegated to minor roles. I hope someday someone will make a biopic of Wong, with a Chinese American actress in the lead, bringing the life of this hidden star to light.

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Photo credit: Hollywood Reporter

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