Dead Cool: Anna May Wong

With the Oscars approaching, Simon Doonan says we should all take a minute to remember leggy, resilient Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star.

02.28.10 10:50 PM ET

The colonics are gurgling. The limos are buffed and gleaming, as are the gym-toned torsos of their soon-to-be occupants. Meryl, Mo'Nique, Morgan, and Mirren have each been tweezed and botox'd. And don't forget the swag! The free frocks have been fitted and foofed. The "gifting suites" have been vacuumed and Windex'd. Yes, the grotesque pamper-athon of excess that is the run-up to the Academy Awards is under way.

Maybe this is a good time to remember a grittier, hard-scrabble Hollywood, a Hollywood where the ass-kissing was minimal and the perks were less than perky. Maybe this is a good time to remember the trials and tribulations of Anna May Wong.

Before you tune in to watch the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7th, why not slither into a satin cheongsam, fire up your opium pipe and remember Anna May Wong, Hollywood's hauntingly beautiful outsider.

If Gong Li and Lucy Liu had a baby, the result might, just might, be as mysteriously captivating as Anna May Wong, the first Asian-American movie star, the most beautiful Chinese vamp ever to hit the silver screen. She had luscious bangs. She had wickedly wiggly eyebrows. She had a wardrobe of slinky black satin cheongsams!! Am I starting to sound like a deranged old movie poof? Google-image her right now and tell me she is not 50 billion times more intriguing than today's red-carpet chippies.

Don't be fooled by the flawless façade: Anna May Wong's life was a blizzard of conflicts and contradictions. She was born Wong Liu Tsong (trans: frosted yellow willows) in L.A.'s Chinatown near a toxic gas plant in the year 1905, at a time when Chinese people were treated like crap and discrimination amounted to a lot more than whitey making jokes about Asian driving capabilities. La Wong's early life reads like the grim cliché plot of a silent movie from the time. Papa Wong really did own a Chinese laundry. His daughter really did earn coins delivering sheets and whatnot.

By the time she was a leggy teen, Frosted was spending every spare moment at "the flickers." Star-struck, she vowed to become the next Pearl White. One problem: She was not white. Undeterred, the intrepid laundress finagled a part in a movie which was being shot in her 'hood. One role led to another. Her first screen credit—with her new yee-ha first name—came in 1921 when she played a character called Toy Sing.

Type-casting anyone?

This was way back when on-screen Asians were played by white folks in drag, and they were always depicted as sleazy, shady and/or groveling. Propelled by her love of the movies and her disinclination to spend the rest of her life washing other people's grody foundation garments, she threw herself into the proffered roles—hooker, slave girl, servant, murderess—thereby earning the reproaches of family, critics, and her fellow-Chinese. Damned if you do…

Despite the lose/lose nature of her situation, Anna May Wong persevered and became an internationally recognized actress appearing in over 50 movies. In 1938, Look magazine declared her to be "the world's most beautiful Chinese girl."

Her most memorable movie role? It has to be her drôle plumy-voiced performance as Hui Fei, Marlene Dietrich's reformed-hooker traveling companion, in Josef Von Sternberg's Shangai Express. Always the prosty, never the protagonist. Her only real shot at a lead role had come the year before when she repeatedly auditioned for The Good Earth. The part of O-Lan eventually went to Luise Rainer (an Austrian!) who, wouldn't you know, won the Oscar for Best Actress.

The cool thing about Anna May Wong was that she boot-strapped it in the face of disappointments and unrelenting anti-Asian prejudice. She was a fighter, a poor gal whose love of the movies propelled her into a complex life of adulation and rejection. Even the Chinese denounced her as a vamp and a flapper. Adding to her marginal status is speculation about her sexual orientation. She never married, but did that necessarily make her a lesbian? Here is all I have to say on the subject: There exists an old snap of AMW flanked by Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl, enjoying a girl's night out in Europe in the late 1920s. Observant readers will note that Marlene is smoking A PIPE! Hell-eaux!

Unsurprisingly, AMW was depression-prone. In 1961, at the age of 56, she succumbed to liver/heart failure brought on by a lifetime fondness for fags and booze.

Before you tune in to watch the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7th, why not slither into a satin cheongsam, fire up your opium pipe, and remember Frosted Yellow Willows, Hollywood's hauntingly beautiful outsider.

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Writer, fashion commentator and window-dresser, Simon Doonan, is known for his provocative "Simon Says" column in the New York Observer. He has written four books: Confessions of a Window Dresser, Wacky Chicks , a memoir titled Nasty and a tongue-in-cheek style guide titled Eccentric Glamour to be published in paperback in mid-April. Nasty is to be re-released as Beautiful People .  A comedy TV series titled Beautiful People , produced by Jon Plowman, will debut on LOGO in May.