For Asian Film Stars, a Hard-Won Triumph 100 Years in the Making
As a mixed Asian kid growing up in the suburbs of Southern California in the 1990s, I was always searching television and movies for people who looked like me. Every glimpse of, say, Margaret Cho doing stand-up or BD Wong on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” felt like an all-too-rare cause for celebration.
So watching the cast and crew of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” sweep this winter’s awards season, during their march toward the upcoming Oscar ceremony, has felt to me and many Asian American friends like an overdue coming-out party.
The standard explanation for why this moment took so long is that back in the day — despite the success of a few trailblazers — there simply weren’t enough Asian artists working in Hollywood who were worthy of the academy’s gilded praise. That explanation, I’ve since realized, is false.
Asian Americans have been a part of Hollywood since its earliest days, making significant contributions despite formidable obstacles, but their names and artistry have been forgotten, overlooked or willfully erased. And it all started with Anna May Wong, the first Asian movie star born in the United States.
I first encountered Ms. Wong when I was a college intern in 2004 and saw a photo of her at the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles. I was awe-struck: How had I never heard of such a significant figure? Who else had been edited out of Hollywood’s back story, and why?
When Ms. Wong was cast in her first leading role at the age of 17, it was something of a fluke. “The Toll of the Sea,” released in 1922, was one of countless “Madama Butterfly“ remakes — a tragic tale of interracial love that ultimately punishes the woman for the couple’s transgressions. What set “Toll” apart were the M.I.T. scientists funding its production, who had pioneered an innovative color film process called Technicolor.
Yellowface — the practice of white actors using makeup and slanting their eyes to appear Asian — was well accepted in Hollywood; Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge, both white, had donned it in their own versions of the “Madama Butterfly” saga, in 1915 and 1918. But Technicolor wasn’t looking for marquee-name movie stars; it was looking for an impressive showcase for what it called its “natural color” technology. The company decided to cast Asian actors in its Asian roles.
Ms. Wong, the daughter of Chinese Americans who ran a laundry in downtown Los Angeles, had grown up watching film crews. She’d worked as an extra since age 13, beginning with “The Red Lantern” in 1919, starring Alla Nazimova. Ms. Wong later won larger parts in bigger movies, making her a natural choice for the lead in “The Toll of the Sea.” She was cast as Lotus Flower, a Chinese girl who falls in love with a shipwrecked white American, played by Kenneth Harlan.
Critics lauded Ms. Wong’s performance. An unsigned rave by a critic in The Times declared, “She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance.”
“Toll” was also a box-office hit, offering proof that an Asian leading lady could draw crowds. Ms. Wong’s success led Douglas Fairbanks to cast her in his 1924 blockbuster “The Thief of Bagdad,” which catapulted her to international stardom.
Ms. Wong wasn’t the only Asian artist working in Hollywood at the time; she was simply the brightest star in a broad constellation. Sessue Hayakawa, a failed naval recruit from Japan who found his way into the Japanese theater scene in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, was cast in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film “The Cheat” in 1915 as a suave ivory trader. Audiences went crazy for this salacious tale, driven by Mr. Hayakawa’s devilish good looks, in a performance that made him a Hollywood heartthrob — six years before Rudolph Valentino thrilled moviegoers in “The Sheik.”
Etta Lee, a mixed Asian actress from Hawaii; Sojin Kamiyama, one of Japan’s pre-eminent actors; and Winnifred Eaton, a mixed Asian novelist-turned-screenwriter, all had significant careers. Moon Kwan, who served as a Chinese consultant on D.W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” from 1919, co-founded the Grandview Film Company to make Chinese-language films for the U.S. market.
The outbreak of World War II opened up supporting roles for actors like Philip Ahn and Keye Luke as villainous Japanese generals. Mr. Luke later won the part of Charlie Chan’s No. 1 Son inFox Studios’ “Charlie Chan” series — led by the Swedish actor Warner Oland as Charlie Chan in yellowface. James Wong Howe started as a janitor sweeping up the camera room at Paramount Pictures in 1917 and eventually worked his way up to become one of the industry’s most innovative cinematographers. In 1956 he became the first Asian American to win an Oscar in any category, for his work on “The Rose Tattoo.”
There is a platitude that has often been repeated in recent years: You can’t be what you can’t see. These Asian pioneers in cinema prove the contrary. They were each firsts in their own right, pushing forward where there were no trails to follow. Yet their legacy has faded so completely from popular history that even a movie-crazed kid like me, looking for role models, had to set out on a years-long journey to discover them.
When I dug deeper into the fate of Ms. Wong, I started to understand why. Even as one of the biggest stars of her era, she continued to be typecast as dragon ladies and China dolls well into the 1920s and 1930s. She always envisioned an alternative future for herself: “Some day someone will write a story demanding a real Chinese girl — then perhaps I’ll have my chance,” she told Screenland magazine in 1928.
That day came when MGM announced plans to adapt Pearl S. Buck’s best-selling book “The Good Earth,” which chronicles the travails of two married Chinese peasant farmers, Wang Lung and O-Lan. Many in Hollywood thought Ms. Wong was a shoo-in for the role of O-Lan, but she was only briefly considered. Once the white actor Paul Muni was cast as Wang Lung, MGM claimed that the restrictive Hays Code — which did not allow actors of different races to appear in romantic or marital relationships onscreen — meant the studio could not cast an Asian actress to play O-Lan.
The part went to the German-born actress Luise Rainer, who played the role in yellowface and won the Oscar for best actress.
The Hays Code has long since been dismantled, but many of the ideas that held back Asians then are still being enforced. Yellowface has more recently been replaced by whitewashing, the practice of casting white actors in parts originally written as Asian, such as Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell”in 2017 and Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” in 2016. The author Kevin Kwan has told the story of how a producer, interested in adapting his novel “Crazy Rich Asians,”told him the Chinese American protagonist would have to be rewritten as white. The film was made with an all-Asian cast and earned over $200 million worldwide.
One of its stars, Michelle Yeoh, an actor who’s been making films for nearly four decades, is a favorite to win this year’s Oscar for best actress for her role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — a film released 100 years after Ms. Wong starred in “Toll of the Sea.” When Ms. Yeoh first read the script, she felt the film offered her the chance to show people “what I’m capable of,” she has recounted. “To be funny, to be real, to be sad. Finally, somebody understood that I can do all these things.” It’s hard not to recall Ms. Wong’s wish for the chance to play O-Lan.
Except in this case, Ms. Yeoh got the role.
We can’t ignore that one of the film’s producers and creators is Asian American. The film was written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a quirky duo previously known for music videos. Mr. Kwan and the longtime producer Jonathan Wang are both Chinese Americans who, along with Mr. Scheinert, understood the potential of telling a story about a middle-aged Chinese immigrant and her family in America. In fact, the role of Evelyn Wang, as they’ve said, was written with Ms. Yeoh in mind.
We’ve come a long way since the meager days of my childhood, when I waited up as a 9-year-old to watch the premiere of Ms. Cho’s sitcom, “All-American Girl,”which wound up being canceled after one season. That little girl, sitting in the glow of the TV, glimpsed what a different world might look like. This weekend, almost 30 years later, I’ll gather with my friends to watch an Oscar telecast with a record number of Asian nominees.
Whether or not Ms. Yeoh and her fellow cast members clean up, one thing has become clear to me: True equity in front of the camera will be achieved only when there are more Asians and Asian Americans behind the camera — writing, directing and producing. Progress is what happens when we get to tell our own stories. The history of Asian Americans in Hollywood should have never been forgotten. But we’re still here, and we’re now a force to be reckoned with.
Katie Gee Salisbury writes the newsletter “Half-Caste Woman.” She is working on a forthcoming biography of Anna May Wong.
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