Anna May Wong – Not Your China Doll book review

Anna May Wong Not Your China Doll by Katie Gee Salisbury. Review by Anna Chen

Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong (Faber) – by Katie Gee Salisbury

Book review by Anna Chen 11 April 2024

A lively, well-written journey through Anna May Wong’s life and career, if light on the political landscape that shaped her.

Every generation needs its fix of America’s first Chinese screen legend. When my producer and I first proposed a programme about Anna May Wong to the BBC in 2005, it was turned down because “no-one’s heard of her”. Three years later they saw the light and commissioned us to make A Celestial Star in Piccadilly, for BBC Radio 4, broadcast in January 2009.

One chief source was Graham Russell Gao Hodges’ biography, The Laundryman’s Daughter (2004), plus Anthony B Chan’s Perpetually Cool (2007, the hardback now selling for £103!). I enjoyed interviewing Hodges for the programme as he was such an enthusiast eager to bring this cultural phenomenon out of the shadows and into public eye.

My own first awareness of Anna May Wong was as a little child when strange men would bark out of no-where, “Oi, you, Anna May Wong,” accompanied by a thigh-slapping chortle of familiarity.

Mystified, I’d wonder, “How did they know my name’s Anna?”

After all, I wasn’t named after no glittery Hollywood movie star. The origin of my name lay with Anna Louise Strong. She was the American journalist who got on so well with Mao when he was leading the most populous nation in the world out of colonial and feudal subjugation and into its modern era, despite an unfortunate detour by way of the calamitous Cultural Revolution as seen recently on Netflix — rolling eye emoji.

Feeling a mite resentful even as a kid of all the damagingly negative images of Chinese people — that’s when they were even recognised as existing — my first encounter with the screen legend was a TV screening one rainy Sunday of the sublime Shanghai Express.

Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich

Made in 1936 and set in the chaos of warlord-era China where life had little value, the action surrounding two “coasters” and their admirers takes place on the titular train. 

I recognised the star: Marlene Dietrich, the teutonic blonde viz ze deep voice,  who’d relocated from pre-Nazi Germany to become one of the biggest movie icons ever in the 1930s.

But who was this tall Chinese raven-haired beauty easily holding her own in balance with her like yin and yang on the silver screen? No submissive child-women with Minnie Mouse voices here. Anna May Wong and Dietrich out-baritoned each other the way drag queens can only dream of. 

Katie Gee Salisbury explores the making of the movie, dispelling the gossip that Anna May might have had intimate relations with the well-known sybarite and bisexual. Despite the absence of polaroid evidence, I lean the other way … in the debate, that is.

They didn’t call it Hollywood Babylon for nothing. It was the raucous 1920s and 30s and the world was going to hell in a handcart. In Hollywood and its European environs, these were the new gods lusted after by all, libidos set to eleven, fuelled by booze and white powders. Everyone in the upper set was doing it with everything that moved. In aristo Britain, Margaret, Duchess of Argyle even kept her Grade A coke in a salt cellar on the dining room table. So do I believe they might have done it? You betcha! And so what?

Taste in boyfriends

Salisbury stacks up Anna May’s encounters with stars, adding an imaginative take to how those meetings might have gone. Anna May had proven to be a muse for a slew of male creatives. The lyrics of These Foolish Things were said to have been written about her by her one-time lover Eric Maschwitz. Like other paramours, he refused to leave his wife for Anna May, whose taste for men was not the wisest; although this may have had more to do with the dynamics and status of her ethnicity and the unenlightened times.

Director Tod Browning briefly became her boyfriend after casting her as a concubine in his 1923 movie, Drifting, when she was only 18. I’m surprised everyone keeps missing that he was also the director of the horror film, Freaks. “Gooba, gabba, gooba, gabba. One of us, one of us.”

And Anna May was the most beautiful freak of them all.

Politics as backdrop

We know German philosopher Walter Benjamin had a crush on her from his writings about her. I wasn’t sure how much of the detail in the book was research or written with an eye on the screenplay. In classic biopic form, we get a long paragraph of how, sitting on a sofa at a swanky dinner party with him, she let down her hair. Was it a long up-do or a bob? 

We are told: “As Anna May loosened her hair with her immaculately manicured fingers, stroking and restyling the fringe across her forehead, Benjamin no doubt caught a thrill.” Yet nothing materialises about Benjamin’s tragic end in suicide on the run from Nazis on the France Spain border in 1940.

As with the movie Shanghai Express, politics provide a backdrop against which personal dramas unfold, not the circumstances out of which character and deeper meanings are forged. At times, this gives Anna May’s story an uncanny valley soap-opera feel.

Chances are missed. Madam Chiang Kai-shek, a political powerhouse on the world stage in her own right, is mentioned only once as thanking Anna May by cablegram for her fundraising efforts for China against Japanese occupation. But never is the upper-crust Soong sister’s deep disdain for the declassé actress Wong discussed. Considering that she was the other most famous Chinese woman of the era — later wooed by David Selznick and the Hollywood establishment for “China”, the documentary (eventually dropped) — some investigation and comparison might have raised the game.

Patent king Thomas Edison and Hollywood

Salisbury gives the reason for Hollywood flourishing in Los Angeles as the lovely weather. You might as well listen to Rick (Humphrey Bogart) telling the Nazis that he went to Casablanca for the waters. That Hollywood was founded on the Pacific coast was an accident of sanctuary and escape from patent holder Thomas Edison’s hoodlums, both legal and illegal, who upheld his movie monopoly. Anyone challenging his stranglehold on cinematic technology in sound and vision was roughed up by mobsters and judges.

Budding filmmakers were forced to flee as far away as they could scarper from Edison’s turf on the East coast, to an exotic location whose transit was made easier with the transcontinental railroad all the way out to California. And so the development of technology shapes the culture and the politics out of the ecoomic base, as I am fond of reminding anyone who’ll listen.

Thus California was populated by misfits and outlaws, the perfect milieu for the fledgling cinema industry and one that would be a more natural fit for an outsider like Anna than the stiff, sewn up East coast.

Plus it did have that perfect weather.

The Good Earth

There’s an impressive amount of research and details in the book that tell a good yarn. Written through the lens of a Chinese American woman, the emphasis on identity politics often hits the mark.

Salisbury drily describes the making of MGM blockbuster The Good Earth with Swedish actress Luise Rainer in the lead role in Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about Chinese peasants. Did Rainer devote months to studying for the role? “No,” she answered, “I depend upon my own imagination. Somehow instinctively I assume the right attitude.”

Not unlike Marie Antoinette playing at shepherdess.

And the “right attitude,” of course, was a gobsmacking conformity to the American dream, not the concrete reality of people’s lives, a state of affairs in evidence in the representation of China today.

Salisbury brings Anna May’s story up to date in the epilogue with the rejection of yellowface and progress made in casting Asian actors.

Cultural representation and changing geopolitical agendas

However, in recent years the game has changed. A fundamental manipulation from the top of how China and Chinese are perceived, aided by President Joe Biden’s $500m a year anti-China propaganda bounty on top of Donald Trump’s covert CIA operation devoted to China’s character assassination from 2019, has resulted in the very real tragedy of race hysteria that’s seen Asian women attacked and murdered.

How a book about the Mitochondrial Eve of the Chinese diaspora can be produced that ignores the gigantic elephant perched on the coffee table and fails to explore how cultural representation has deeper ramifications in geopolitical agendas is a disappointment.

On a side-note, we might have reached peak AMW with the issuance of the AMW quarter, now mysteriously withdrawn in the run-up to war with her race. My friend Jack has been on the look-out for one for me since the start and there are none to be had for love nor money. Makes no cents.

Anna May Wong: A Celestial Star in Piccadilly: Anna Chen writes and presents a profile of Hollywood’s first geopolitical superstar on BBC Radio4, 2009

The Good Earth: review of MGM’s blockbuster movie of Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer Prize novel, and how Anna May Wong was denied the role of her career

Yellowface and the erasure of a race

Video: Anna May Wong Must Die! Anna Chen presents extracts (2009)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top