Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Piccadilly Revisited - Anna May Wong

Tonight and tomorrow at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House there's Piccadilly Revisited, a "film, dance, music and drama celebration" of the life of Anna May Wong (1905-61). AMW was the first Chinese woman to become a star (of sorts) in Hollywood, playing  with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Marlene Dietrich.  Her finest film, though, is Piccadilly (1929), filmed in London.(cheaper on amazon than ebay) The film's wonderfully shot, atmospheric angles and mysterious scenes of 1920's Limehouse, and uses several very good Chinese actors, besides AMW herself. Many Hollywood films used whites like Walter Oland  made up to look Chinese.

Although it depicts Chinese as inscrutable stereotypes, it deals with race relationships, and in a much less airbrushed sentimental way than Hollywood.  AMW must die because she breaks the rules, but at least the movie acknowledges that such things happen and that there's prejudice. Until the late1920's interracial marriage was illegal in some parts of the US.  Mass deportations in Mexico, no civic rights in Canada, and even China was under extraterritorial control until 1943. That's the background.

Anna May Wong was third generation ABC (American born Chinese) not FOB (fresh off boat), ethnically Chinese (although extremely tall) but acculturated American. There were quite a number of Chinese in the California film industry even then (before Keye Luke, James Wong Howe etc) In fact, the very first Chinese-American movie was made by a woman, Marion Wong (no relation)  in 1916, self financed, and using her family as actors.  The first Chinese movie was made in Hong Kong in 1909, but Chinese and American movie circles were completely separate worlds. Could be different planets. In fact, more Chinese movies than western, just as Bollywood is bigger than Hollywood..

Nowadays, there are tens of thousands of Chinese who've known only the west. There's a rude term, "bananas" (peel off the yellow skin, white inside) but that trivializes a very genuine need for these new generations to redefine their unique identity. That's why Anna May Wong fascinates modern  ABC's and BBC's (British born Chinese). She's the pioneer, who faced these challenges long ago. She's also drop dead gorgeous.  Hence the AMW cult, lots of  books, films, and "celebrations" of what she means to a whole new generation of Chinese who've grown up in the west.

To Chinese born and raised in China, though, she's strangely western and alien. That's not Chinese dancing at all in the clip, from a Chinese perspective it's an obscene travesty. That's why the "Chinaman" in the clip looks embarrassed. You can almost hear Chinese people scream that she's letting the side down with this undignified playing to caricature. When AMW visited China in 1936 there were plenty of Chinese "New Women" of many kinds, not only actresses but writers, artists, teachers and businesswomen, much more sophisticated than AMW. She wasn't relevant to the Chinese identity, indeed, she represented a kind of colonialism, since the locals were pretty good at doing modern themselves without outside help.  Plenty of Chinese icons. AMW didn't fit in, and went back to the US, her destiny to be "white" but not quite.

There always will be more Chinese Chinese than hybrids,  Eurasians and westernized Chinese. But cultural adaption is an issue and needs to be understood. So alien as AMW may seem to Chinese Chinese, she's relevant there too. Ultimately, though,. we need to appreciate just how innovative and "modern" China really was in those days, despite the wars and sufferings.  ABC's and others should be studying China, and Chinese moderns, not AMW. The South China mentality is enterprising, innovative, adaptive but misunderstood because the North dominates. They key to the future I think, is understanding this most vibrant region (which is where most "bananas" ancestors come from): Read  Hong Kong in Chinese History for starters..

Below is a rare clip from Toll of the Sea, a very early film starring Anna May Wong (1922) made before the Thief of Bagdad (1924) made her famous. The director was one of AMW's boyfriends, which is why it shows a Chinese woman in a sympathetic light : far less racist than Madama Butterfly. There were hundreds of real life situations like this, and many were genuine relationships, not scams like the one Puccini depicted. (though he didn't know). There are lots of other early Chinese and Chinese-American films, which I might post as and when I can, look at labels on right and please keep coming back. Watch the full movie  download on this site of Street Angel and read the analysis.. In the long term Zhou Xuan is a much better icon of the modern Chinese woman than AMW.(though she ended up insane).  Please see my other post on  Anna May Wong Piccadilly HERE  Later I'll be doing a lot more on Li lili a "real" Chinese icon..

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