Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words. Directed by Yunah Hong. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 56 minutes.

Reviewed by Carole Gerster

Re-presented Representations of Asian American Women

Viewing Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words as One of Three Documentaries

Yunah Hong’s Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words aligns well with two other documentaries. Together, the three films provide a rich overview of how Asian American women have been marginalized in mainstream visual media and how they have objected and intervened. Both Hong’s Anna May Wong and Elaine M. Kim’s Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded are 2011 sequels to Deborah Gee’s 1988 Slaying the Dragon, which surveys stereotypical representations of Asian and Asian American women in film and television from silent cinema to broadcast news.1 Kim updates Gee’s film and extends to independent and internet video interventions by Asian American women. Hong offers an in-depth look at the pioneering acting career of Anna May Wong (1905-61), Hollywood’s first Chinese American female film star (in the 1920s and 1930s), who is featured in Gee’s film. This film trilogy offers students an ongoing history of mainstream representations of Asian American women, a variety of ways to understand and critique these representations, and a number of innovative ways to re-present Asian American women from their own perspectives.

Viewing Anna May Wong as a Film Worthy of Study on Its Own

Anna May Wong is also effective in the classroom as a stand-alone film. This biographical documentary exposes the racism and sexism that limited the roles Wong could play, describes how she chose to play them, and includes her objections to them. Hong’s film includes the expected archival photos, excerpts of Wong’s film performances, and interviews with actors, film scholars, and even Wong’s biographer. But Hong unexpectedly replaces conventional voice-over narration with the presence of a young Asian American actor who plays Wong and repeats Wong’s ideas in Wong’s own words throughout the film.

In chronicling the life and career of this Hollywood and internationally famous third-generation Chinese American actor, Hong exposes the major obstacles that Wong faced both on-screen and off. One significant obstacle was the behind-the-scenes racial discrimination that relegated Wong to supporting roles. Whites were, almost exclusively, given leading roles. The operating assumption that only white Hollywood stars were bankable enough to carry a film—with their supposed unique ability to appeal to audiences of all races—made, and still makes, supporting roles a mainstay for racial-minority actors. Hong’s film shows how Wong had to prove her acting skills when cast as the companion of or foil to a white lead, as in her role as the companion of Shanghai Lily, played by Marlene Dietrich, in Shanghai Express (1932).2 Via film excerpts and interviews, Hong reveals how Wong was able to showcase her talents in Shanghai Express with her ability to “hold her own” against and even “upstage” this leading white actress.

Hong’s film exposes another major obstacle that Wong encountered because she was Asian and female, which also still exists today.3 In belonging to two subordinated groups, Wong faced the double bind of intersecting race and gender stereotyping. This meant she was regularly cast in roles defined by their relationships with white men, such as when she played the subservient Lotus Blossom in The Toll of the Sea (1922), the exotic Mongol slave girl in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and the diabolical Dragon Lady in Daughter of the Dragon (1931).4 Hong also reveals how this race and gender typecasting meant that Wong was, as are many Asian American women today, limited to leading roles with strict narrative restrictions. For Wong, this included playing the rejected love interest of a white male lead, as in Toll of the Sea (1922) wherein her character commits suicide when he abandons her for a white woman, and playing the impossible love interest of a white male lead, as in the London-made Piccadilly (1929) wherein her character is killed before their romance can mature.5 Wong’s characters were destined to die in order to allow the white characters and the viewing audience to forget her and to see mixed-race relationships as inevitable disasters. According to Hong’s film, however, Wong took advantage of her tragic role in Toll of the Sea by using (as one interviewed actor describes it) her ability to express myriad emotions in her facial expressions as her character contemplates suicide, which made her supposedly forgettable role unforgettable. Hong also documents how the industry practice (of depicting failed interracial relationships) became policy, by showing the actual policy as it was later written in the Motion Picture Production Code (of 1930-68), which forbade any positive depictions of miscegenation.

Hong exposes a final major obstacle—whitewashing—that Wong could not overcome, and that continues today as a white privilege practice that increases roles for white actors by limiting roles for racial minorities. In the case of Asian Americans, whitewashing meant, and still means, that white actors are allowed to play roles written for Asian and Asian American characters, but Asian Americans are not allowed to play roles written for white characters. This Hollywood practice devastated Wong when she lobbied for but did not get the role of the sympathetic Chinese wife in the film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1937).6 Wong said this was the role she had been preparing for all her life and that, since she was an established Chinese American film star, the role of a Chinese woman should have been hers. Instead, when a white actor was chosen to play the role of the Chinese husband (in yellow face), the role of the wife automatically went to a white woman. By then, the production code was fully enforced, so MGM would not allow the husband and wife roles to be played by a white man and an Asian woman, even though they would both be playing Chinese characters. The film was nominated for best picture, and the white female actor, Luise Rainer (in yellow face), won the academy award for best actress.7

Within this racist and sexist milieu, Wong often protested against the film roles she was given, even traveling to Europe several times hoping to secure better parts. And the young Asian American actor who appears throughout the film repeats Wong’s complaint—“I got so weary of the parts I had to play”—and Wong’s desire to play significant roles, such as mothers. Voicing Wong’s critiques and desires (as the film’s title announces) “in her own words,” offers a kind of autobiographical self-representation. But, more important, the young Asian American actor, in her representation of Wong, literally gives new voice to the continuing struggle for inclusion first faced by her famous predecessor.

1 Slaying the Dragon, dir. Deborah Gee (New York: Women Make Movies), 58 minutes; Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded, dir. Elaine H. Kim (New York: Women Make Movies), 30 minutes, see Jennifer Ho’s review of Slaying the Dragon, Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded, and Re:Orientations in this issue of Films for the Feminist Classroom (9, no. 1 [2018]).

2 Shanghai Express, dir. Josef von Sternberg (Hollywood: Paramount, 1932), 80 minutes.

3 Currently, revelations and protests (initiated by #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo) expose and condemn industry-wide racism and sexism both onscreen and behind the scenes. These movements have created public pressure for US film and television industries to relinquish their institutionalized white-male-centric dominance and bias by vastly increasing race and gender diversity in all areas of media production and representation.

4 The Toll of the Sea, dir. Chester M. Franklin (New York: Metro Pictures, 1923), 54 minutes; The Thief of Bagdad, dir. Raoul Walsh (Beverly Hills: United Artists, 1924), 140 minutes; Daughter of the Dragon, dir. Lloyd Corrigan (Hollywood: Paramount, 1931), 70 or 79 minutes.

5 Toll of the Sea, dir. Franklin; Picadilly, dir. E.A. Dupont (New York City: Sono Art-World Pictures, 1929), 92 minutes.

6 The Good Earth, dir. Sidney Franklin (Beverly Hills: Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1937), 138 minutes.

7 To inform the viewing public to alert film and television industries that racist and sexist inequities must end, at the 2019 Golden Globes Awards show cohosts Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh had an opening bit in which Samberg read a couple of Oh’s lines, then quickly stopped himself and apologetically noted that he had “whitewashed” her role. Later in the show, Oh’s Best Female Actor award for her role as Eve in the BBC America and Netflix television series Killing Eve, a role that was originally written for a white woman, showed that increased representation progress is possible. However, racial representation issues are often complex, and students may want to discuss whether or not a racial minority actor playing a role written for a white person means having to erase their own culture identity in order to act white, and, if so, whether this reversal of whitewashing should be considered real progress for any racial minority actor.

Dr. Carole Gerster ( has taught undergraduate film courses at the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, as well as graduate film studies workshops and National Endowment for the Humanities summer institutes on representations of race, ethnicity, class in American film. Her book is Teaching Ethic Diversity with Film, and she is currently writing a book on Paul Haggis’s 2006 Academy Award Best Picture Crash as a prescient representation of the racial issues facing contemporary America.