Sunday, 16 April 2017

Person of Interest: Anna May Wong (GUMSHOE Trail, Bookhounds, One to One)

I first saw Anna May Wong in the silent British classic Piccadilly, where she plays the doomed love interest of the man who later is accused of her murder.

It's a brilliant performance, and a remarkably fun movie. At its heart it's nothing but a potboiler, set in seedy Soho clubland. Wong plays Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher in the Club kitchens who unexpectedly rockets to stardom thanks to her dancing skills, only to fall in love with the Club's owner, Wilmot. Wilmot's former lover Mabel confronts her rival in Shosho's apartment, and later the next day Shosho is found shot to death. Was it Wilmot, Mabel or someone else who killed the dancing star?

As a movie I highly recommend it first and foremost because it's a good film, and second because it's one of the few times Wong was allowed to act in a sympathetic role. As a Chinese American, she often played villain roles, and the rules of the day prevented her from ever having an on-screen kiss from a white actor, which meant she'd little chance of playing the romantic female lead.

Wong's family arrived in California in the 1850s. Her father was a prosperous laundry owner, and Wong was the second of his seven children, born in 1905 and raised in Los Angeles. It was just the right time; the moving picture business was taking its baby steps, and you couldn't walk two feet in Los Angeles at that time without seeing some poverty row film unit shooting reel for a knockabout comedy or crime drama. Wong soon became hooked on movies, spending lunch money on cinema tickets and following every film shoot she could, practicing the actors' moves when she went home.

Her parents were less than thrilled. Her father wanted her to marry a good Cantonese man and help with the family business, but Wong wanted to be a film star, and even as early as 9 years old she begged directors working in her neighborhood for film parts. Soon she was a jobbing extra, landing her first role in 1919's The Red Lantern.

By 1921 she'd dropped out of high school to pursue the dream, allowing herself ten years to make it big, or bust out.  In 1922 she landed her first film lead role, and never looked back.

However she never really fit in either. She wanted to be an American, a jazz baby, a flapper. She talked the talk and danced up a storm, but to her white contemporaries she would always be Chinese. That limited the roles she'd be offered, and it only got worse as the decade went on. Early cinema was an unregulated wonderland, but in the aftermath of the Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal Hollywood became more prudish - outwardly, anyway. This meant, among other things, not even the slightest hint of miscegenation. This cost Wong several lead parts, demoting her to gangster's moll or Dragon Lady instead.

If an Asian role was the lead, it wouldn't go to Wong; it would go to a white actress, as happened later in the 1930s with Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. Wong was bitterly disappointed to see the meaty star role go to someone who could legally kiss white lead Paul Muni, who was playing Asian character Wang Lung. Instead Wong, the only actual Asian in the cast, was offered the part of Lotus - the only unsympathetic role in a plot stuffed with Asian characters.

Incidentally for those of you shaking their head and muttering, 'God, they were so racist back then,' bear in mind that far too little has changed in the years since. We're still talking about whitewashing today, almost a century later. Asian actors working in Western film and television still have to fit a certain stereotype if they want to get parts. The only real difference is the stereotype has changed.

"We're the information givers," said Yale School of Acting graduate Pun Bandu in a 2017 article. "We're the geeks. We're the prostitutes. We're so tired of seeing ourselves in these roles."

Meanwhile back in the 1920s things weren't any better for Wong on the other side of the ocean. Chinese audiences resented her American behavior, and seethed at her public persona. Affairs with white men, like director Tod Browning - and he thirty nine years old to her tender sixteen? This wasn't the behavior of a good Chinese girl.

Frustrated at the lack of opportunity in her native California she upped sticks in the middle 1920s and went to Europe seeking her fortune. She did well in Germany with Schmutziges Geld and Pavement Butterfly, rubbing elbows with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. When she went across the water to England she starred on stage with Lawrence Olivier, and made Piccadilly, her last silent drama. Her first talkie was a British film, The Flame of Love (also known as Road to Dishonor) in which she finally got to kiss a white man on screen - only to have the scene cut for non-British audiences.

When Hollywood started poaching European talent in the early 1930s Wong came back to Los Angeles, only to find that things hadn't changed all that much while she'd been away. After playing a couple Dragon Lady roles she went back to Europe, only to find herself drawn to Los Angeles again at the prospect of a role in the 1937 adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer-winning novel about life in China prior to the Great War.

That ended in disappointment for Wong, who went to China on an extended tour only to discover that her Chinese critics were no more favorable than the American variety. To the Chinese Wong was a disgrace, a sexually charged scandal on legs. Friends with Dietrich? Then Wong must be a lesbian. Linked with older men? Then she must be a prostitute. The real problem was she was too American for Chinese audiences, and they let her know it. She eventually won over the Chinese press, but it was hard going - not that Wong was intimidated by hard going.

The war intervened, and Wong found herself in a string of patriotic B-pictures, always a heroine bashing the Japanese. She devoted herself, when not working, to war relief, sending as much money and support as possible to benefit Chinese refugees.

Later, the war over, Wong invested in real estate, and lived quietly with her surviving family. She had a minor post-war film role, in the 1949 noir B-picture Impact, and the lead in a TV detective series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was cancelled after a single season and sadly no longer exists in any format. She appeared in some documentary work and some TV roles in the 1950s, but no leads and no film work. Her last film appearance was in 1960's Portrait in Black in which she plays the maid, Tawny. She got a star on the Boardwalk in 1960, and died of a heart attack in 1961, at the age of 56.

So let's talk about gamification.

As a walk-on NPC Wong could appear in Call of Cthulhu, Trail, or any of the 1930s era settings. As she travels extensively she could as easily be part of a Dreamhounds game as Bookhounds, or be encountered en route to some exotic location, say on a cruise liner or a very famous train. She's equally at home in modest as well as luxurious circumstances, and speaks many languages.

Her main attraction to the Keeper is that she knows almost everyone, in the States and abroad. She's on first name terms with a wide variety of people, from media moguls and film directors to dancers, composers, stage managers, restauranteurs, and many more. She can be a very useful link between the player characters and the local Chinese community, which might not otherwise open its doors to interfering investigator types. She can introduce them to artists, directors, powerful men. She's hobnobbed with everyone from the Los Angeles elite to the rising stars of Hitler's Germany. She's worked with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as innumerable forgotten B-actors and directors. You name it, she's done it, or been there and loved every minute.

Perhaps the most obvious setting for her to appear in is the One-to-One Dex Raymond adventures, set in 1930s Los Angeles. Wong could drift in and out of Dex's life, always on her way somewhere else hoping for her big role, always frustrated at her lack of opportunities.

There's nothing to indicate any occult or outrĂ© connections, but she took great pride in her Chinese origins and would be very knowledgeable about anything to do with Chinese history, particularly its theatrical traditions.

As a One-to-One Source her skills favor performance, language, dance and high society. She can open many doors for other people, even doors that would remain frustratingly closed to her. However she's also got a strong business sense, which means she could be helpful in Bargain tests, and her extensive knowledge of Chinese culture and history gives her some Art History or History bonuses when dealing with Chinese culture.

For that matter there are few who know the film business quite like she does; she was there, on the spot, when it was being born. Any scuttlebutt or juicy bit of gossip relating to times long past - who was sleeping with who, who made shady deals to get financing, who worked in Poverty Row but likes to pretend they didn't now they've made it - is grist to her mill.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

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