Tale of 2 Chinese female film stars
During the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese characters in many of Hollywood films were portrayed as physically weak and morally corrupt
GAO YUNXIANG was a student of history working on her dissertation when she met Graham Hodges in a Shanghai library, where he was researching the life of Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong.
The two went out for coffee, but Gao remembers being less than impressed whenever Hodges steered the conversation toward Wong.
Free lectures take place from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Tokioka Room, Moore Hall 319, University of Hawaii. Call 956-8891.
Anna May Wong: Graham Gao Hodges speaks about "Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend," Jan. 31
Li Lilli: Gao Yunxiang speaks on "Reframing the Athletic Movie Star During China's National Crisis, 1931-1945," Feb. 1
"He told me about another person, about an athletic movie star named Li Lilli. I had never heard of either of them and didn't pay much attention."
What Gao didn't realize was that in mentioning Li Lilli, Graham had given her a subject for her dissertation.
Gao and Graham, now married, will be in town next week for a couple of talks about the two stars -- one vilified, one esteemed -- who served as mirrors of their respective cultures.
HODGES, a professor of history at Colgate University and currently the Distinguished Fulbright Professor of History at Peking University, learned of Wong during a 1999 trip to London, when he discovered a signed photo of her in a memorabilia shop. He put a project about New York cabdrivers on hold to work on the 2005 biography "Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend."
"It brought me to a whole new world of Chinese-American history and a complex and fascinating person who had to deal with racism and early-20th-century attitudes toward the Chinese," he said in a mix of telephone and e-mail interviews from Beijing. He was delivering a series of talks aimed at rehabilitating the star's image in China, where she was reviled for taking roles thought demeaning to the Chinese.
Wong was born Huang Liu Tsong in 1905 and grew up in L.A.'s Chinatown, where she began appearing in silent films at the age of 9. Her exotic looks and talent made her a star with the release of 1922's "The Toll of the Sea," playing the doomed love interest of an American in China.
It was a role she would repeat often. Ethnic stereotyping meant the only roles open to her were those of villain, vamp or victim. Chinese exclusion laws -- which remained in effect in California until 1948 -- prevented her from kissing or marrying a Caucasian man on film or in real life, and kept her from taking any leading-lady roles. So, when Paul Muni donned yellow-face to play the lead in Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Good Earth," the female lead went to another Caucasian, Louise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for her performance.
Wong's films did not go unnoticed in China, where the government was concerned about the reputation of Chinese people around the world. Nationalists viewed Wong as a disgrace and forced her to abort a trip to her ancestral village.
Her options were to turn down demeaning roles, thereby ending her career, or take them while trying to effect change from within the industry.
During World War II, with Japan at war with China, Wong worked for China relief agencies but could not redeem her image. She was snubbed by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek during a propaganda tour of America in 1942 and 1943, an embarrassment to Americans as well. As a result, Hodges said, "Her memory has been washed away."
"ANNA MAY Wong's troubles were closely related to Li Lilli's rise," said Gao. During the 1920s and 1930s, foreign films, especially Hollywood movies, dominated China's film market. Chinese characters in many of those films were portrayed as physically weak and morally corrupt. Chinese men were usually opium addicts, gamblers, servants or thieves, while women were servants or prostitutes.
"Fighting the negative images of the nation in 'films insulting to Chinese/China' became the central task for the nationalists," Gao said. "They were well aware of Anna May Wong and needed a poster girl to counter her bad image."
Li came to represent the "athletic movie star" of a strong new nation.
"Tiyu Huanghou (Tiyu Empress or Queen of Sports)" was the first film, in 1935, designed to showcase Li's athletic skills. It was about a school devoted to training female athletes "to save the nation through tiyu (modern sports)." When the school's director tries to persuade Li's character to participate in a track race, he says, "you need to think about the glory of the whole school, the whole city, and the whole nation, which all rest on your participation."
Other Li films included "Huoshan Qingxie (Revenge by the Volcano)," focusing on dancing skills, and "Dao Ziran Qu (Going to the Nature)," incorporating reformed martial arts.
Li's characters were also designed to reflect wholesomeness through idealized rural figures. Characters she played were clean-cut, wore little makeup and dressed in unstylish, homemade clothes.
"Whenever you see magazines of the time, they always featured Anna May Wong and Li Lilli side by side," Gao said. "The stories about Anna May were always negative, while Li Lilli was described as being patriotic."
Gao corresponded with Li and attempted to visit her but was only able to speak to her husband when Li was too sick to receive company. She died in 2005 at age 90. Wong died at home in Los Angeles in 1961 at age 56.
At one point Li met cinematographer James Wong Howe, a cousin of Wong's who planned to introduce Li to Hollywood. "Because of the war, she didn't have the chance to do that," Gao said. Aware of Hollywood's need to portray Japanese enemies, "(Li) thought the idea of playing Japanese women was not good for her reputation."
ALTHOUGH HER decision was made more than 60 years ago, last year's release of "Memoirs of a Geisha" would indicate similar constraints apply to contemporary Chinese actresses. The film was criticized in the United States and Japan for employing Chinese actresses in the roles of Japanese geisha, and banned in China.
Even so, Gao said artists in China have never given up testing censorship limits.
"Government can never fully control artistic endeavors," she said. "Artists, including actors, can express themselves in ways that governments cannot always see. I think there is a difference today between the vitality of the Chinese film industry, which produces many serious and meaningful films, and what the government wants."
In studying Wong's career, Hodges said that although he has always loved films, he now understands how important they are in constructing individuals' world views. Although he doesn't believe film is as accurate as books, "because they are mass media, they have a far larger, more immediate impact on the people."
Contemporary films suggest that Asian Americans still have a long way to go in achieving cultural parity in the West. The most prominent "blind" casting of an Asian-American woman went to Ming-Na Wen as Wesley Snipes' wife in 1997's "One Night Stand" and Sandra Oh as a wine aficionado in 2004's "Sideways." Otherwise, Asians still tend to be cast by martial arts ability or to round out an ensemble for the appearance of diversity.
Hodges said he continues to look for materials about Wong, but is concentrating on rehabilitating her image in China and is looking for a publisher for a Chinese translation of his book. He's also working with producers trying to sell an adaptation of his book to Hollywood.
"I speak frequently about Anna May to Chinese audiences, last night for example, and last month in Guangzhou, Shantou and Nanjing. Older Chinese are still suspicious of her, but younger ones, especially young women about 18 to 22, are very eager to learn about her. Women are very interested in her ability to brave negative stereotypes to portray her visions of China.
"As for moving on, I have the new book on New York City cabdrivers coming out in March, plus another book in the fall, but Anna May is never far from my heart or mind."