Anna May Wong (with Katie Gee Salisbury, author of Not Your China Doll)

We’re joined today by Katie Gee Salisbury, author of the new Anna May Wong biography Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong. Katie helps guide us through a discussion of Anna May Wong’s life from childhood through Hollywood and European stardom, her trip to China, and her final comeback era.

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Vulgar History Podcast

Anna May Wong (with Katie Gee Salisbury, author of Not Your China Doll)

March 13, 2024

Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. I’m your host Ann Foster and today, it’s a first for this podcast actually. Yeah, I think it is. We’re revisiting someone who we’ve talked about in an author interview earlier and I am just so interested in this person (and I think you all are too) that I had to give her a full episode. We’re talking about the iconic Anna May Wong. Last year I interviewed an author whose name is Yunte Huang, who wrote a book, a biography of her last year, Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History. So, after I posted that episode last year and I was sharing on Instagram lots of pictures of Anna May Wong, I was asking American listeners, “If you get an Anna May Wong quarter, think of her and maybe send it to me,” and someone did. I have my own Anna May Wong quarter now which is in a place of honour in my home. But I was just so into Anna May Wong and her whole deal after reading that book and talking with him.

And then a new biography of Anna May Wong is coming out and I was like, “Fantastic, there can never be too many biographies of Anna May Wong.” Her life is so interesting, and I think different people bring a different lens onto the biography. So, I was so excited to have the author of this new biography which is called Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong. The author is Katie Gee Salisbury who is such a huge fan of Anna May Wong and has been for such a long time. Actually, when I was learning about Anna May Wong last year for the first time, that’s where I encountered her book and also her Instagram account where she posts pictures of Anna May Wong. Her Instagram is @AnnaMayWongBook.

So anyway, I was just like, I need to talk more about Anna May Wong and Katie happily agreed to come on this podcast and talk about her with me and I’m so excited to just really dive into Anna May Wong’s whole deal, her whole life, how she was such a ground-breaker in so many different ways. It was such a delight to talk to Katie about her, I hope you enjoy. And then we’re going to also put her on the Scandalicious Scale, Anna May Wong is officially a Vulgar History girlie. Anyway, we get into it so enjoy this conversation with Katie Gee Salisbury.


Ann: So, I’m joined today by Katie Gee Salisbury, author of the new book, Not Your China Doll. Actually, can you tell me what the subtitle is of the book?

Katie: Yes, it’s The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong.

Ann: First of all, how did you come up with that title? That’s a great title.

Katie: [laughs] Yeah, so you know, I came up with the title while I was still writing the book proposal, so it was before it was even a book. Basically, it’s a riff off of I Am Not Your Negro which is the Raoul Peck documentary of James Baldwin and it’s also something James Baldwin himself had said. I was looking for something that reframed the stereotypes and the narrative around Anna May Wong’s life and so I wanted something that had a little bit of a defiant edge to it that kind of turned things around. “Not Your China Doll,” it came to me, and it stuck.

I’m not the only one to ever think of this phrase. Actually, during the pandemic, it popped up here and there at Asian hate rallies, you know, stop anti-Asian hate rallies. I would see people with protest signs that said, “I’m not your china doll,” and I was like, oh my god, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say about Anna May Wong but I think it’s in some sense, a universal experience for Asian-American women, that they’ve all been objectified and, you know, been made to feel like a china doll at times. So, I think that’s a really interesting connection to Anna May Wong’s story, that it’s in some sense a universal experience for certain women.

Ann: And that’s where your book really… You say, I think in the forward of the book, something like, “A hundred different people would write a hundred different biographies of Anna May Wong,” and this is the one that you wrote. Part of what is special about your book is you talk about your connection with her. Can you talk about that?

Katie: Yes. So, I am mixed race, I’m half Chinese, I grew up in Los Angeles, my Chinese American family has been in the US for about five generations. And I actually first learned about Anna May Wong when I was doing a college internship at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. My first day there, the curator was giving me a tour of the museum, there was an exhibition of photographs of Chinatown in Los Angeles throughout the years and there was this one photograph that just, as soon as I saw it, impacted me. I was like, “Woah. There’s this woman in it. Who is that woman in the 1930s? She looks really glamorous.”

So, I asked the curator and she said, “Well, that woman’s name is Anna May Wong, and she was a famous movie star,” and I just couldn’t believe that there was a famous, internationally famous Chinese American movie star in the 1920s and ‘30s and no one had ever told me about her! [chuckles] So, I went home and was like, “Hey mom, have you heard of this person?” And she’s like, “Oh yeah, her name sounds familiar, I don’t know that much about her.” And it was the early days of the internet so, of course, I went on and was trawling through all the images of her and I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this person existed, how come no one knows about her? We have to do something about this.” So, it kind of put me on a mission and 20 years later, actually, this year is 20 years from when I did that internship. So, 20 years later, I finally have a book about her.

Ann: And in those 20 years… Okay so, me coming at this as someone who, I’d heard of Anna May Wong, I think, I don’t even know how, just vaguely, I’d seen pictures. And then I saw a screening of The Thief of Bagdad, which was her first major movie, it was a silent movie screening in an old theatre and there was an orchestra performing. I’m like, ” I’ll go to this event.”

Katie: Oh amazing!

Ann: And she was in this, and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s Anna May Wong?” Seeing her in action I was like, woah! Her charisma and her star power! That always sat with me and that was, I don’t know, 10 years ago, but then as her profile has been sort of increasing, like Gemma Chan dressed as her I think to the Met Gala one time and I was like, “Oh my god! I see what she’s doing! She’s on a quarter. In those 20 years from you not hearing of her to now she’s on the American quarter.

Katie: [laughs] Yeah, I know, it’s been really incredible especially the last couple of years to have been working on a book while all of these amazing things are happening. Now, when I tell people about her, of course not everyone has still heard of her, but people will be like, “Oh yeah, she sounds familiar,” or “I didn’t know that she was on the quarter,” or, “I saw the Barbie.” So, there’s definitely much more of a level of recognition. So, we’re getting closer to what I think she deserves.

Ann: I think it’s so interesting, I don’t often talk about 20th-century people on this show, I’m often looking at longer ago. But there have been several people I’ve talked about on this podcast who were so famous in their day and then just like, everyone forgot about them, and I’m like, “But they were so famous!” And she was so famous in her time.

Katie: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, she had songs written about her. She was so famous in Europe and then when she went to China as well, the same thing. It’s incredible the way human memory works that it can disappear that quickly as soon as the person is gone. That just tells you that who is telling stories, who is telling history, really matters and if we don’t take care of these stories and of these important people in our communities, they really disappear from public memory. And I think that is… That’s the flip side of what she experienced in life, the challenges she had as an Asian-American actress are the same challenges she has in death because if there’s no one there to remind people about her legacy, then we forget her.

Ann: So, that’s why I’m so excited there are books about her like your wonderful book that’s just coming out; I think this episode is coming out the same week it’s being published. And so, where I’ve invited you on this show specifically is to just dig into it, let’s talk about her story and how amazing and singular she was. We’ll go through it but just, she had the experience of hers, part of it is similar to other people who were actors in the silent movie era and then kind of struggling to make it afterwards, but then she had the added addition of being an Asian American woman and what does that mean? So, it’s so interesting, it’s such a fascinating story and we’re just going to walk through it. So, first of all, can you explain her family and where she was born and what her childhood was?

Katie: So, Anna May Wong was born in 1905 in Los Angeles. She was the daughter of her two Chinese parents who were both born in California. So, her grandparents, who I don’t believe she ever met, were the people who immigrated from southern China to the US, likely around the gold rush. Her father was born in a mining town in northern California, so he grew up during the wild west days when the railroad was being built, when there were a lot of miners who were still trying to find the dream of making it rich. So, her family is really part of the history of California and of the West.

By the time she was born in 1905, Los Angeles was just starting to burgeon as a city, it wasn’t quite there yet. It was this dusty outpost and I think it was very felicitous that she was born at that time because, you know, she’s kind of in the downtown Los Angeles area, right at the centre of the city and that, in 1910, is when the first studios from the East started to come out to Los Angeles and set up shop. So, she’s a little girl, helping out at her father’s laundry… This still really is true for a lot of immigrant businesses, the family, everyone is involved in it; when you come home from school, you’re helping out at the business. That was certainly true for Anna and her sister and other siblings who came along later. They would help deliver loads of laundry, so while she was out and about doing things like that, she started to see people making films in the streets.

You didn’t get licenses to film on location and a lot of studios thought, Chinatown is like free environment, free background, we don’t have to put up a set, we just show up, shoot in the dark alleyways and get that atmospheric look. So, as the story goes, as she has told, her own memoir in the movie magazines, she became known as the “curious Chinese child” because she was always hanging out around movie sets, asking people what was going on, studying the stars. She tells this great story about the first time she sees one of these actresses doing a scene on the street. It’s Mae Murray and she’s dressed in rags and looks, you know, terrible, all raggedy, not what she thinks a movie star should look like. And she didn’t understand that she was dressed that way for the film but that was her first moment of thinking, “Well, I could do that. I could look better than her. I could look better on screen.” So, from that very early moment she’s decided, “I want to do that.”

She was in the right place at the right time so by the time she’s in her early teens, so that takes us up to after 1915. 1915 is an important year because Birth of a Nation comes out and for cinematic reasons, obviously, it’s kind of this racist spectacle that revives the KKK but within cinema history, it’s this really important moment because it’s the first time you really have some critical recognition that film could be an art. It’s not just a fad. I try to compare it sometimes, it’s hard for us to imagine film not being considered an art or something serious but back then, it was this new thing, and no one really knew what was going to happen to it, if it was just going to disappear. It’s kind of like TikTok, right? We see people making TikTok videos and we think it’s really stupid and ridiculous and like, this can’t last. But then it gets elevated to this high art with all the camera techniques that D.W. Griffith uses.

So, by that time, after that film comes out, Anna May Wong is 11, 12 and that’s when she’s starting to get a little bit more serious about wanting to be in the films. So, she’s still helping out at her father’s laundry. By this time, she’s had some kind of formative experiences, she tells the story of how her sister and her were originally going to the California school, local school with other white children, other American children but one day they get taunted by them, they’re chased home being called racial slurs, their pigtails and pulled and by the time they get home they’re hysterical and crying and they don’t understand like, “What did we do wrong?” And their dad has to explain to them at this young age that, you know, that is part of the experience of being Chinese in America is that sometimes you will be treated this way, but you should be proud of your heritage. After that, they’re switched to the Chinese Mission School where they’re with other Chinese children but being taught by these white missionary women.

And then after their normal American school, they’re supposed to go to Chinese school which is also kind of funny. I didn’t grow up going to Chinese school because my mom… So, my family has also been in the US for several generations, so my mom doesn’t speak Chinese. I didn’t go to Chinese school, but I grew up in a very Asian community, so all my classmates went to Chinese school on Saturdays and complained about it endlessly and how they hated it. So, it’s really funny to see how Anna May Wong went through the same thing 100 years ago and she hated going to Chinese school. She often skipped it to go to the movies and if her teacher found out he would give her a whipping and then when she got home, her father would give her a whipping and her father would say, I think it’s so funny, “If you’re going to skip school why don’t you skip American school because I don’t have to pay for that. I pay for the Chinese school so don’t skip that school.” Anyway, she was already a very strong-willed, stubborn girl. She’s independent-minded, she didn’t want to do girly things. She talks about how she liked to play baseball with the boys and marbles, and she didn’t want to be in the sewing circle which disgusted her, she couldn’t stand it. [chuckles]

So, she has a very strong personality from a very young age but again, going back to when she sees people making movies in the streets and knows, “That’s for me. That’s what I want to do.” So, she kind of sets her mind to that and by 1919, that’s kind of the first big film she gets in as an extra is The Red Lantern with Alla Nazimova. She thinks it’s going to be her big break, she’s only 14 at the time, she’s going to be one of these lantern carriers. Before she goes to the set, she curls her hair and tries to put makeup on and she arrives and they’re like, “What did you do to yourself?” and they had to redo everything.

Anyway, she’s in the film and after it comes out, she’s scrimped and saved her lunch money and tips from delivering laundry for a week so she can go to the movies with her friends. They sit in the balcony at the theatre and after the film was over, one turns to her like, “Was that you? Which person was you?” And she tries to tell them, “I think I was the last one carrying the lantern,” but she honestly doesn’t know. That’s her first movie experience, she’s like, “I don’t really know which person I am in the film but I’m in it, somewhere.” But I think that really just lit a fire under her to keep going.

Ann: Can I just say, you mentioned the fortuitousness that she happened to be living in a place where movies were just starting to be made at a time when movies were just starting to be made. Also, when I did my last episode about Anna May Wong, I was looking up every photo, there’s that @AnnaMayWongFans, you know them, on Instagram. So, I was looking at so many pictures of her and I’m like, “Who has ever been so photogenic?” [Katie laughs] I think I said repeatedly, “Anna May Wong invented having your picture taken.” But she was coming out just when movies were starting and I mean, thank god because she’s so captivating on film. You can’t take your eyes off of her, the dimensions of her face and everything.

Talk about, there’s that movie, the next, I don’t know if it was her next one, but they wanted to do some testing of lighting techniques and they’re like, “We need an Asian person so we can test these lighting techniques,” and she was the person who was hired to be the person in that and then she… I don’t know, her career is so connected with the invention of film, not just as an art but just like, she was made to be captured on film. It’s unreal how suited to that she is just physically.

Katie: Right, yeah. I mean, she was a pioneer, she was part of the beginning of cinema, and you can see that throughout her entire career because she jumps from medium to medium to medium. She starts in silents. The next important film in her career really, she is an extra, she has some parts in a number of films, she meets Marshall Neilan who is a young director who was actually known as Mary Pickford’s favourite director, and they kind of have some relationship. I mean, she’s underage at that point; she later always said nice things about him, so I assume that it was an amicable relationship, but she gets involved with Marshall Neilan. That helps her in a way because he’s friends with Mary Pickford and friends with all the in people, all the big people in Hollywood.

So, this leads to her getting cast in this film, The Toll of the Sea in 1922. It’s a really interesting film because, unlike most Hollywood productions, this one is actually being funded and made by Technicolor, and Technicolor, their prerogative is, “We want to showcase our new colour film,” because they’re really trying to break into, they want people to use their film and they’d developed this whole process. So, they had made a previous film that really went nowhere and the way that the film had been processed during that time wasn’t going to be practical. So, this was their second try, and they hire Frances Marion (highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood at the time) they come up with the idea to do a Madame Butterfly story, which is not original at all, Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge have already starred in Madame Butterfly stories. But the idea is that they would then be able to bring in these beautiful, detailed Chinese costumes, they’d have all this lush colour in the environment because of the decorations and the embroidery and all of these things they could bring in.

Part of that is because they want to show off the colour and the authenticity and the realism, instead of casting white actors in yellowface, which was pretty standard, they end up casting Anna May Wong and other Asian actors to be in this film. So, she’s playing a version of Madame Butterfly, it’s set in China instead of Japan and she has this American lover who basically knocks her up and then leaves and comes back and says, “Here, meet my American wife,” and now she’s kind of this shamed woman who has a mixed-race child who she gives up and gives back to you know, her so-called husband.

Anna May Wong is 17 years old at this time, this is her first lead role and people start to realize her talents, her abilities because she can cry on cue and in this film, I mean, she’s crying almost constantly but it’s so moving. And even for a story that is as stereotypical and overdone, she put her own original spin on it and really gave this kind of virtuoso performance. So, when it came out, it impressed people on a level that no one had expected, and the film actually ended up doing really well despite it not being a typical Hollywood production and that’s what gets her noticed by Douglas Fairbanks. But just to go back to The Toll of the Sea for a second, she’s in the second Technicolor film ever made and the only one that’s ever really watched on a wide scale so that’s a really important moment in cinema history but also in her career because Douglas Fairbanks notices her because he was doing research. He wanted to do a colour film but wasn’t ready yet, but he was very impressed by her performance and that’s how he decides to cast her as the “Mongol slave” in The Thief of Bagdad.

Ann: And that’s also, I was mentioning how photogenic she is and everything, which is a major part of how she succeeded in getting roles and getting attention, but her talent is so… that’s also so important. You really describe that so well in your book when you’re describing her performances in the films. But I remember as a child, she was at home and you said she could cry on cue and she was at home practicing these things, in front of the mirror, acting. And this is a time, there’s not, you know, The Actor’s Studio, [Katie laughs] there’s not, “Go and get your MFA in performance,” she’s just inventing how to be an actress and it turns out that her instincts of how to do that were correct and she had this talent for this skill that was just a new skill that was needed: movie acting. Again, it’s just the right place at the right time. It’s so incredible that, yeah, she got noticed… I don’t know, it’s like, 100 years earlier, that skill wouldn’t have been useful.

Katie: Very true, and she might not have known that acting was a career unless she had been taken to the theatre whereas, you know, in 1910s Los Angeles, she can just step out her door and see people making films in the streets. So yeah, it’s very felicitous, a lot of the actors at that time were coming from… Mary Pickford became the breadwinner in her family, her father had abandoned the family, and she started acting in the theatre but then realized she could make more money in films. So, a lot of the people in Hollywood at that time were coming from working-class backgrounds, they were all making it up as they were going.

Ann: Exactly. It’s such a new thing and you talk a bit about her backstory. It was never really hidden. She’s the child of a family that owned a laundry, but other peoples’ backgrounds were hidden because they wanted to make movie stars seem glamorous. Nepo baby was not a thing. [Katie laughs] Everyone was just kind of like a grifter mixed with sort of like, everyone in Hollywood has a random background. It’s a scrappy place. Again, I have to wrap my head around now what’s seen as this expensive, wealthy, fancy place but then it was just kind of, everyone inventing it as they go, and she was right there with them figuring it out.

Katie: Right, absolutely. And learning how to tell the story about who she was. Of course, it did set her apart to be Chinese because she could play up certain aspects of that part of her identity, it made her more memorable as a type, but of course, there is the flip side to being a type, you get pigeon-holed in it. Yes, so she’s in The Toll of the Sea and she gets cast in The Thief of Bagdad. As you mentioned when you saw the film, that’s the incredible thing, people who don’t even watch old films or silent films, when they see her movies, they’re so moved by her performances. Her talent is just so visible on screen, especially, I think in her silent films because that’s how she started, you had to be a little more exaggerated in your performances because everything is visual. There’s no sound, there’s very few cue cards about what’s going on.

So yes, The Thief of Bagdad, she gets this role which seems like a very minor role but she’s basically the evil, the double agent who is supposed to be serving the princess but is really working for the Mongol prince who wants to marry her and take over her kingdom. So, she’s feeding him information. There’s this famous scene where Douglas Fairbanks is playing the thief, he’s this vagabond character who is sneaking into the palace just to steal and rob them of some of their riches and make a profit off of it but then he falls in love with the princess when he sees her sleeping and Anna May Wong is there because she’s like her lady in waiting. So, he basically holds her at knifepoint to stop from being caught by the palace guards. So, it’s a very, kind of, slapstick, comical scene where he puts the knife to her back, then he puts her into a corner and then puts these pillows to prop up the knife when she’s stuck there and she doesn’t realize that he’s left and by the time she realizes, he’s running out the door and climbing down the palace walls. But it was just… I think it was just comic relief, but it was also her performance, her facial expressions are just so great in that scene, and her surprise at realizing he’s gone, it just left such an impression on everyone who saw that film.

And that film, because of who Douglas Fairbanks was – he was the king of Hollywood, he was married to Mary Pickford – his films were these huge blockbusters that were distributed internationally, and he would go on these big tours and he and Mary Pickford would be mobbed wherever they went. So, you knew that when you were in one of his films that millions and millions of people around the world were going to see it and that’s what happened. She had, starting from that moment in 1924 when that film comes out, she started to have films everywhere, people knew her name, and they wanted to see her in more things. So, that film really launched her Hollywood career, and we start to see her in all these different films in the ‘20s.

The only issue is she’s still being cast as side character supporting roles and sometimes, she’s being billed with the other main actors, but you only see her for a couple of scenes. So, they’re trying to capitalize on her new star power on her name, but the studios and directors and the producers were not really willing to give her the airtime that was commensurate with the desire to see her. So, the latter part of the 1920s becomes a very frustrating experience for Anna May because she’s had this early, seemingly easy success; she just skyrockets to the top, and people clearly can see that she’s talented but now she feels like she’s being hampered by a studio. She’s working a lot but she’s getting these roles where she barely gets to do anything and then oftentimes, she’s killed off, sometimes in the beginning of the film, you see her for a couple of scenes and then she’s dead.

Ann: Can you talk about part of the reason why – I mean, there are various reasons why – but a big reason why she’s not able to get a lead role is because she’s not able to do a love scene with a white person.

Katie: Right. So, this is… I kind of dispute… So, Hollywood would say, “We can’t put you in a leading romantic role because you’ll be opposite a white man and we can’t show miscegenation on screen,” which is, at this time, this is pre-Code so there are no rules so they could actually do whatever they want. And they have plenty of examples, if you go back to 1915, The Cheat with Sessue Hayakawa, that is I mean, there are issues with that film because it’s kind of like a rape fantasy, this handsome Asian man but then he’s domineering and is trying to rape this white woman. But women went crazy over Sessue Hayakawa, this film made him the first Hollywood heartthrob and it’s basically a miscegenation, if you want to use that word, and interracial love affair, maybe not a love affair but interaction. So, there were plenty of things like that that were suggestive of those types of relationships. I mean, you have Valentino, Valentino’s Italian, so technically he’s European but Italians were still considered Latin lovers and then he was playing the Sheik so there is a lot of suggestion around interracial fantasies as this forbidden fruit.

So, it was definitely something that was explored in Hollywood films so this idea that Anna May Wong couldn’t play that type of role because of her race, I think is really an excuse. Because she did it in The Toll of the Sea, right, she had already done it and there was no problem then. So honestly, it was something that they came up with because they just didn’t want to give her the roles and I really think this has to do with whoever was at the top, producers who were making the calls, because there were a lot of directors who she worked with who loved her, who knew she was talented, and they wanted to give her better roles but they were powerless to do so in the studio system at that time. But yes, that’s what she’s told, “We’re just not going to put you in these leading roles because you’re Chinese and you can’t be opposite a white actor.”

So by, you know, 1927, 1928, she’s also become this kind of… Her social life has blossomed. Because she’s this more intelligent, interesting personality, she’s hanging out with a lot of international people who are working in Hollywood so she’s hanging out with the Germans, Emil Jannings, she’s hanging out with some British people who are there, and she’s also progressed in her love affairs. So, she met Charles Rosher who is British by birth but had been in Hollywood for quite a while, he’s a cinematographer. He’s also a very exciting personality, he had filmed the Mexican Revolution with Pancho Villa, he was in the midst of the war, and he gets captured and almost dies so he has these exciting stories and he’s just returned from spending a year in Germany where he was setting the Weimar filming techniques.

So, she meets him, and they start an affair and he’s also probably bringing her into some of these more sophisticated circles. So, she meets all these interesting people and one of them, Karl Vollmöller, is this playwright, socialite guy who comes back and forth between Germany and Hollywood and he basically writes a story for her and that turns into a deal with UFA, which is the premiere film studio in Germany and they’re like, “Well, why don’t you come to Germany and make a film for us?” So, by 1928, she’s completely ready to do that because she’s fed up with the way she’s being treated in Hollywood and she’s like, “Well, I have this offer to star in a film, they’ve written it specifically for me. Why shouldn’t I do that?” Some people tell her “You shouldn’t go, it’s such a huge risk. If you go, you’ll come back, and no one will know who you are.” But you know, given the circumstances she’s like, I’m ready to go. So, she’s only 23 at that point but she decides to do the film and her older sister Lulu goes with her and so they set off, they travel to New York first and then they set sail for Germany. Of course, she doesn’t speak a word of German.

Ann: I was going to say. Just to note, she did not speak German.

Katie: [laughs] And the farthest she’d ever been up to that point was Canada. So, that’s a huge… I mean, can you imagine at 23? And you’re sailing there so it’s going to take you about a week to even arrive so the anticipation of arriving someplace… She and her sister Lulu, they arrive in Hamburg, and they have to get on a train to Berlin and they have to figure out how to find their train so they’re just listening, waiting until they hear people say “Berlin” and they just follow them in that direction and get on their train.

It ends up being the experience of a lifetime, everyone is very excited to work with her because, at that time, European cinema was starting to, they had the strategy, they were working together… So, there was British International Pictures and UFA working together. The idea was to create films that would not only be distributed throughout Europe but also could be distributed back to the US. They wanted to compete with Hollywood, essentially. So, they thought, “Maybe we should start importing some Hollywood stars and let’s see if that works.” So, Anna May Wong was a part of that strategy.

Ann: I want to also mention – and this was I think from pretty early on in her career – she was a movie star, people liked seeing her in films, obviously, some of the critics were like, “It’s too bad there’s not more Anna May Wong in this film because people wanted to see her.” But she was also a celebrity in the sense of, “Here she is modelling the latest flapper fashions.” She became known as sort of this fashion star as well, like a celebrity in that way as well. Can you talk a bit about that aspect of her?

Katie: Yes. I mean, from the earliest days of her fame, she was modelling furs, she was modelling different dresses. Sometimes she would model with cars as well, [chuckles] there are a couple of photos of her doing that. But she also had sometimes looks that were created for her that were combining both the Flapper styles of the day but having a little bit of an Asian flare to them. That was something that she ended up maintaining in her wardrobe style throughout her career was to always have some element of Chinese design, whether it was embroidery or flowers or the colours, and then she even started to have her clothing embroidered with her Chinese name, which was a really lovely touch. So, she’d have it on a dress or her handbag or her hat and so it was a very distinctive thing that she did. But she also just had an impeccable sense of style. I mean, it’s hard to… You either have that or you don’t, and she definitely had it. And then add to that the fact that she looked amazing in almost everything she put on.

Ann: I’m thinking, yeah, it’s like Zendaya. Put her in anything and it’s like, “That’s amazing.” Put those clothes on anyone else you’re like, “You look like a circus clown.” [Katie laughs] Just so people understand, if you look up pictures of Anna May Wong, she looks amazing constantly.

Katie: Yes. And the way she naturally poses herself. She’s so good with her arms and her hands, that really is a feature of the portraits of her, a lot of times there’s something with her hands or her arms and if anyone else tried to do those poses, we would look absolutely ridiculous, but she always looks amazing. When I went to college, there was this joke about one girl who had a photo of herself with her arm over her head where you could see her armpit. I mean, Anna May Wong, how many photos of her are like that? There are so many where her arms are raised but you never complain about it, she looks amazing.

Ann: That’s the thing, again, when I was looking at pictures of her last year, I kept saying, facetiously but also honestly, “Anna May Wong invented having your picture taken,” because it was a new thing also, glamour photos. She couldn’t look at Vogue magazine and copy the poses she’s seeing. How is she thinking of these things? She just inherently knows, her and her working relationships with photographers, she looks great.

I want to mention too, we’re still in the ‘20s, we’re about to get into the ‘30s but while we’re in the ‘20s, I thought this was such a funny story and it was in your book, that she was an American-raised person, she’s from California, that’s how she speaks. And she was in silent films and people were like, “Oh, she’s this exotic person.” And there’s a thing where she comes in, it’s an interview with someone else, was it The Thief of Bagdad? I forget. Anyway, she just blows in and she’s wearing this amazing outfit and she’s like, “Well, hey there! Isn’t the Charleston just the bees’ knees?” and they’re like, “Oh my god, she’s a flapper?” And she’s such a flapper. She is the flapper. And people just did not expect that of her. Because there’s the Chinese, the way that she looks and the way that she’s treated as an Asian person that’s different but she’s so American and that startles people, I think.

Katie: Exactly. People can’t get over it. There’s this great line from one of the reporters she becomes friendly with, Myrtle Gebhart, where she has this long, flowery description of how “Her skin is like porcelain,” and this and that, and she’s “like a Yuan Chen poem that stepped out of the page,” and she’s like, “and then she opened her mouth and ruined it all,” because she realizes, she’s just like her, she’s another flapper, she’s a young woman, she’s up on all the slang and all the cool things. And I think that that’s something that Anna May Wong really leaned into during that period of her life, probably because people thought she was foreign, they thought she was so Chinese, she was subverting their expectations by being even more extra flapper. “I’m going to show them, I can outdo them. I’m more fluent in this culture than they are.” And of course, that changed later, in time, as she realized that the flapper persona was a little bit of an act and wasn’t truly who she was, so she starts to go back to her roots and relax and be a little bit more of herself at a certain point in the ‘20s.

Ann: But this is something else where I’m thinking, you see that, today. Again, I keep thinking of movie stars today but somebody who has a persona and they’re like, “This is how I’m going to stand out,” and their PR team is like, “Really lean into the fact that you’re…” whatever, whatever… PR wasn’t invented! [Katie laughs] I guess it was for Mary Pickford but she’s just inventing this herself and her instincts are all exactly what people now try to do. She just had the savvy, and she could look around and see, “How am I going to make myself stand out? The contrast of how I look and how people see me and perceive me with my behaviour, that gets more attention, people find that interesting.” Her instincts were just so spot on and so contemporary and so modern and that just blows me away.

Katie: Yeah. I totally agree with that. It’s funny too because sometimes we forget just how modern she was because during that time, I mean, it was a new thing to be an independent working woman.

Ann: Yes! Yes, yes, yes. And that’s such a strong throughline in her story and also the way you tell it in your book is that, in the one sense, to be an independent woman was not the norm in, like, American culture. But then also in Chinese culture, her father was like, “Why aren’t you getting married? What is your life?” [Katie laughs] Her mother was worried that her soul was being stolen by having her picture taken and stuff. What she was doing, to me, thank you for reminding me, I’m like, “Yeah she’s a movie star, it’s glamorous it’s great.” But it’s like no, this was weird and new, and her family was like, “What are you doing? This is not the way that anyone lives!” It feels so contemporary, so it doesn’t feel weird to me but to so many people around her it was just like, “What?!” [chuckles]

Katie: Yeah, and I think for a lot of Asian Americans it’s still a very common theme. It’s like the filial piety, you’re supposed to do what your parents want you to do because you feel like you owe them for whatever they have sacrificed to raise you, to give you a better life and there are always these expectations from Asian parents that you’re going to do the traditional thing, have a good paying job, or get married, and have children and raise a family. So, she’s not doing any of that. She is bringing home a lot of money, so her dad is like, “Okay, well that part is good. We like the money, but I don’t really want this for you long term, I don’t see you doing this. You should get married and have a family.” So, I think for a lot of people there are still a lot of those expectations, granted they’re a little different but going into a creative field, for example, is not something your Asian parent usually wants to hear about. [laughs]

Ann: So, she goes to Europe. She has success in Germany, she learns German, and she’s able to get these starring roles. So, talk a bit about Piccadilly, for instance.

Katie: So, she’s made two films in Germany and then she goes to London the summer of, I believe it’s 1928, so again, another film that has been written specifically for her. Granted, these films still play into certain stereotypes, but she’s allowed, she’s the star of these films and she’s given so much time on screen and there’s a lot of complexity in the way that she plays these characters. So, Piccadilly is about a Chinese woman who is working in the kitchen, washing dishes at a nightclub in Piccadilly Circus and she gets discovered. She’s dancing in the scullery, the room where they wash the dishes, and everyone is wracked with her beauty and her grace. So, she gets discovered and becomes one of the dancers at the nightclub and very quickly surpasses or supplants the other dancer, Mabel, who was played by Gilda Gray. Gilda Gray was, you know, famous for the shimmy, she invented the shimmy, and famously got paid a lot of money to make films in Hollywood and then was brought over to the UK to be in this film.

So, technically, Gilda Gray was billed as the star of this film, but all the critics knew that it was Anna May Wong and they said, “Whoever let Gilda Gray do this film was not thinking,” [laughs] because she doesn’t look great. She played the part very well because that was, I mean, the film almost was like art imitating life because in a way, Anna May Wong became this incredibly famous person because of the film. She plays Shosho, who gets this dance scene, it’s a very strange dance, it’s hardly a dance, but it’s so mesmerizing in the film and also to the people who watch the film. She’s meant to mesmerize the people in the story of the film but then everyone who watches the film is also mesmerized by her. So, it blows up in London after this, she’s in the magazines almost every week, she’s modelling Chinese shawls, and everyone wants something with embroidery, or a Chinese flair and she’s constantly mobbed by the paparazzi.

So, it really made her a huge star in England and people back home are starting to hear about her success in Europe and are starting to see her in a new light. There’s this one letter she gets– Or she has her response to an offer to do a film in Hollywood, she writes a response and she has it published in the papers back home. Going back to her savviness, she knew how to use the media to her advantage. So, she has this letter printed that says, “Thank you so much for this offer but I don’t think I’ll be home by Christmas. I’m busy here, I just made this film, and it has a great reception and now I’m going to be starring in this play on the West End,” et cetera et cetera. So, her career really blossoms and as I just mentioned, it leads her to do her first play, her first live theatre experience on the West End.

Ann: And that’s again, where her voice takes people by surprise.

Katie: Yes. Up to that time, no one has heard her voice because these are all silent films. So, she’s playing a part in what was I think was a 12th-century play from China that’s been adapted– it was first translated from Chinese into German and then from German into English so they’re doing this production, it’s called A Circle of Chalk. There’s one other Chinese actor, Rose Quong, who plays a role in it, but besides the two of them, everyone else is white in yellowface, which is just the way that things were at that time and people didn’t blink an eye at that.

So, they’re in this play and all the critics are basically shocked to hear her voice. Apparently, she doesn’t sound Chinese to them, I don’t know what Chinese was supposed to sound like to them, but she sounds like an American and she has this twang and she’s very slangy sounding and they can’t stand it. It’s just like, who is this person? They can’t get over the way she sounds. So, all the reviews are criticizing her accent which, I mean, she deals with it very diplomatically. She gets a speaking coach so that she can have a more British accent, she goes to this luncheon and tries to massage the situation and then and as a kind of tongue-in-cheek joke, she says, “Now I will say something in a language none of you can understand,” and says something in Cantonese. So, it was a disappointment in that the play closed very early, people did not like it. There were various reasons why there were problems with it, but it was hard, I think, for her to be the star and then criticized for being, supposedly, not Chinese enough.

Ann: And that’s such a tension that she faces throughout her career; she looks a certain way and sounds a certain way and then she acts a certain way. People are expecting things of her where she’s just like, “This is me!” American of Chinese descent and everyone is just like, “But how can…? No, you can’t be both.” I guess, we’re moving into the era of talking films and she does make that shift, which not every silent actor did, a lot of careers just ended when talking films came in, people couldn’t adapt because the acting style became a bit less broad. You had to change your style and some people just couldn’t do that. Some people’s voices were just too squeaky or whatever but she, perhaps because of this experience in England and she had the voice coach so when talking films were starting, her voice actually… She’s worked on this already, she’s ready to start talking.

Katie: Right. So, she basically trained herself in, kind of, that transatlantic accent that you always hear in the movies, and it’s always made me curious what she sounded like before then because we don’t have recordings of that and she just kept the accent, she always spoke that way after that. But yeah, she makes the transition. She actually makes her first talking film in Europe. It’s her last film through the partnership with BIP and UFA, she made the film three times because back then they hadn’t, [chuckles] they didn’t have dubbing, they didn’t have subtitles, so she makes the film in English, then in German, then in French, which is kind of incredible. Who does that?

Ann: So, it would be like, you’d act out the scene then, “Okay, cut. Now do it again in German. Okay, cut. Now do it again in French.” That sort of thing?

Katie: Not even that because they had different actors in the productions. So, [laughs] she made it first in England, then I think the other films she went to France and Germany to make.

Ann: So, she literally did the film three times. Oh wow.

Katie: She literally did it three times and the German critics said that her German was too good, it was almost like an uncanny valley experience where they’re like, “This doesn’t make sense.” [laughs] So, you just can’t win. That’s what it feels like for her.

But anyway, she makes her first talking film then she says she’s ready to go back to the US, so she comes back to the US. She was on her way back to LA; she has to sail from London to New York. In New York they’re doing a version of this Edgar Wallace play that had already opened in London called On the Spot, it’s this play that is supposed to be set in gangland Chicago and the gang leader has a Chinese mistress and the producer catches her as she’s leaving the boat and says, “Will you be in the play?” She agrees so she ends up staying in New York and opening it on Broadway like, two weeks later from when she arrived. It becomes a huge hit, it’s a big success so she is in New York for almost six months before she finally returns to Los Angeles in 1931.

By that time, Paramount has signed her to a two-film contract. The first film is Daughter of the Dragon which is a Fu Manchu story. She’s playing the daughter of Fu Manchu but they’re basically trying to give her her big starring role, her big moment. Of course, they’re doing it a little bit differently than Europe had done it, right? Within this Fu Manchu universe, you have to play the evil character, you have to be in this very stereotypical story. They spent a lot of money on it right, they gave her these… Travis Banton designs these incredible costumes for her; there are so many costume changes in that film. That’s one of the great things about that film, she just looks incredible in every scene and then they get Sessue Hayakawa to come over to play the detective, the good guy, whereas Warner Oland is playing Fu Manchu in yellowface and he’s playing Anna May Wong’s father. So, all of the effort and the resources are there but the story itself is just so… I don’t know, so schlocky and pulpy and stereotypical and completely unrealistic. The script itself, the lines that she has to say are pretty ridiculous, she’s basically lusting after the blood of this British family that she’s going to kill.

So, it doesn’t actually do that well at the box office, which I think from the perspective of the producers is like, “Oh, she just doesn’t do well here, she doesn’t sell. She’s not box office,” but really, I think it was the treatment, it was the film, the story, everything that they did, it was just wrong. It was wrong for people, it just wasn’t good, in my opinion. So anyway, she does that film, she continues to do On the Spot, by that time it has come, she does a production of it in Los Angeles and in San Francisco and then she’s offered a role with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express.

This is a really interesting moment in her career as well because she’s previously met Marlene when she was in Europe, they met at the Reimann Arts School ball in 1930, this kind of raucous, Carnevale-type party and they have this famous photo of them there, it’s her, Marlene and Leni Riefenstahl, who then later goes on to be Hitler’s director. But at the time that that photo was taken, Anna May Wong was the most famous person among them. Leni and Marlene were famous in Berlin, but they weren’t known in the US, and it was Josef von Sternberg who does a film with Marlene Dietrich, technically the first sound film made in Germany, The Blue Angel, and from that film, which no one has seen in the US, he basically gets Paramount to give Marlene a deal and bring her to Hollywood. So, by the time that they’ve met again, in Hollywood now, to do this film, Shanghai Express they’ve kind of reversed roles. Now Marlene is this huge star, she’s been made by Paramount, she’s the big catch and Anna May Wong is going to play a supporting role to her.

Ann: And they have a gigantic pay disparity, but I think Anna May Wong often did between her and the white actors in her films.

Katie: Yes, I mean huge pay disparity. Marlene was getting paid so much money, she got paid more than Josef von Sternberg to do that film, so it was this crazy thing. But yes, Anna May Wong was getting paid way less but that was true also of Daughter of the Dragon which was her starring vehicle and she made less than Sessue Hayakawa and Warner Oland, way less. So, unfortunately, pay disparity followed her throughout her entire career. But yeah, with Shanghai Express, it was a supporting role… I mean, it’s a great film. My only complaint about that film is there’s just not enough Anna May Wong in it but she’s incredible in it and you can really see how she excelled under Josef von Sternberg’s direction; he got the performance that he needed from her. Sometimes you need that, you need to be challenged and also nurtured by someone who sees your talent and understands how to utilize it.

So, a lot of people think that Marlene and Anna May Wong had an affair, a romantic affair. It’s been rumoured. I mean, Marlene, of course, was bisexual, she had relationships with men and women, that’s pretty well documented. But I personally, I mean I was curious about this, if it was true, I definitely wanted to find some evidence of it and from everything that I’ve seen there’s just nothing there. They weren’t even very close friends, there’s no mention of them ever hanging out with each other in any other setting. Anna May Wong was very social, so people who were friends with her, you knew about it because they were at her Chinese New Year dinner, they were out and about at lunch in Hollywood, things like that, and there’s no mention of them ever being together outside of work. And then I was able to get in touch with Marlene’s daughter, who is still alive, and she was on set at Shanghai Express as a 7-year-old and she also wrote a kind of, tell-all biography of her mother so she was very aware of everything that was going on with her life. So, I asked her, “Do you think she had an affair? Because that’s something people talk about a lot.” And she said, “Absolutely not. They were friends but they were not lovers.”

So, what I tried to do in the book is kind of reframe that narrative as well because I think they were much more friendly rivals in a way because they were both seen as these exotic femme fatales, they were competing for the same roles, but Anna May Wong didn’t have a director like Josef von Sternberg in her corner. There’s this one anecdote that comes from another biography that when Marlene was screening an early version of Shanghai Express, she invited a friend to come with her into the screening room and he made the mistake of saying, “Wow, that Chinese actress, she’s really wonderful,” and after he said that, then the screening room went silent, [laughs] it was very chilly. So, I think there was definitely a sense of competition between the two.

Ann: And I’m glad that you… Who knows the personal lives of various people but yeah, that’s sort of the lore of Anna May Wong, and I mean, you did all the research you could to try and figure out what was going on and we’ll never truly know. But it seems like she was professional when she was on set.

So, you get into detail in your book about everything but basically, Hollywood not being great to her, part three. [Katie laughs] And she decides to go to China.

Katie: Yes, so she’s had a number of years of being in and out of Hollywood because she’s just, again, the same treatment over and over again. She doesn’t get cast in The Good Earth, instead of sticking around while that’s going on she says, “You know what? If Americans want to see China, then I’ll show them real China. I’m going to China and I’m going to take the cameras with me and I’m going to write about it and I’m going to have an incredible time and that will be my own counter narrative to this whole idea that The Good Earth is what China is.”

So, she set sail for China in 1936, her first time going back to China, her only visit and she’s there for 10 months and it becomes this life changing experience for her. One, she doesn’t expect that anyone is going to know who she is there, which is not the case at all. When she arrives in Shanghai, she’s completely mobbed by people. And then she also has some contentious experiences as well; when she tries to go to Hong Kong, there’s a misunderstanding and it ends in this, kind of, crowd that’s there to see her becoming an angry mob and shouting like, “Down with Wong Liu Tsong,” her Chinese name, “This ungrateful person, she comes here and snubs us.” So, there are some contentious experiences there. She also has this banquet with the nationalist government in Nanjing and they kind of spend an hour criticizing her about the roles that she’s taken and “Why have you portrayed China in this light?” And she’s like, “Well, I don’t know if you know how Hollywood works but I didn’t really get to choose my roles.”

But she takes all of this in stride. I think, to her credit, she really listens to the things that people say and she starts to have a deeper understanding of how important her role is as an actress and that it’s not just her career, she’s representing people. Whether she likes it or not, it’s an impossible position to be in. How could she represent Asian Americans, China, and centuries, thousands of years of history? How could she be the only one to represent China? But that’s basically what people are telling her. “If you portray us negatively then everyone thinks that all Asian women are like that.”

So, she takes this to heart. She has this 10-month experience in China, and by the time she comes back to the US, she’s ready to criticize Hollywood very publicly and she does so, and she says, “Hollywood doesn’t want to cast Chinese actors to play Chinese roles, they will cast anyone else other than Chinese actors.” And I think the thing that’s really compelling about this is not only does she say it publicly, but it doesn’t result in her being blacklisted. You would think Hollywood would say, “Forget her, we’re not dealing with this person. They just complain and accuse us of all these things.” Instead, what she’s able to do is broker a new deal for herself with Paramount in the late 1930s. She was friends with Warner Oland, who by that time was playing Charlie Chan very successfully for Fox and making them a lot of money. She said, “Why don’t you put me in a detective-type series? I could be the female version of Charlie Chan and that way, I get to be the heroine, I’m the good guy, I solve these cases.”

So, that’s basically what happens at Paramount. They don’t call her “The girl Charlie Chan,” but she ends up getting a series of roles where she’s playing a heroine and solving these thrillers and getting to be the good guy in the end and because these films are B movies, so they’re not getting the same level of resources some of the other films she’s done have but because of that, she has more flexibility, she has more influence and control over the scripts, over the stories. So, the first film she makes when she comes back is Daughter of Shanghai in 1937, she gets her childhood friend Philip Ahn cast as the male lead and together they make history, they become the first Asian-American actors to play a leading romantic couple in the sound era. What’s even better is at the end of her film, she gets her happy ending, the happy couple ends up together in a car and they’re going to get married.

Ann: She doesn’t die! She doesn’t die for once.

Katie: [laughs] She doesn’t die. And also, all the bad guys are white people. So, she really flips the script, and you know, I don’t think anyone really noticed what she was doing. It was ground-breaking and she made history but I think that’s such a significant part of her story, that she took this bad a situation where she’s not cast in the first sympathetic film to be made about Chinese and instead, she goes to China, does a lot of soul searching, comes back and is very clear about her vision for what she wants the rest of her career to be.

Ann: And I think this is, I’m really happy to talk about this part of her– Obviously, I’m happy to talk about all of this because I love Anna May Wong. But this part of her career, I think as much as she is known today it’s like “1920s… Flapper person… Silent movies,” her story kind of ends with Shanghai Express but she did so much important later on it’s just they were on B movies, the movies maybe aren’t as well-known anymore but when she came back from China, I don’t know, this is just an era of her life that I feel like… When she’s on the quarter it’s like young, glamorous Anna May Wong. Her Barbie is 1920s Anna May Wong. And that was maybe the height of her celebrity, but she didn’t go away. [laughs]

Katie: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, she had incredible staying power. I mean, of course, things got harder as she aged. First of all, she makes this series of films with Paramount at the end of the 1930s and then it’s the war years so that was a hard time for everyone. She has family who has to flee back to the US from China, she basically puts all her efforts toward fundraising for China, she does so much work during the war years. She became like an air raid warden in Santa Monica, she was doing so many different things. She does make two films which are basically propaganda films to support China and she gives all the proceeds of those films back to China aid.

So, by the end of the war, at that point, 1945, she’s 40, and she’s been drinking and smoking for the last 20, however many years, so she’s aging and that makes it very difficult for her to be able to get the types of roles she had previously. Everyone in Hollywood who had been a star earlier on is kind of going through those experiences; they’re aging, their celebrity has faded, and they’re trying to figure out how to recast themselves. So, by the 1950s when television comes along, she again, makes history by becoming the first Asian American to lead a television series. She’s basically, again, generated this idea of being… So, it’s called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which is her Chinese name. She’s playing a woman who runs an art gallery or an international art gallery and she’s basically going around the world solving art crimes. So, spinning off of her detective idea again and it’s like a 13-episode series that she does with DuMont, aired on primetime television.

Ann: Does that exist? Can people watch that? Have you been able to see any of it?

Katie: [sighs] Unfortunately, no. I mean, we don’t know if there are other copies of it out there and lots of us are hoping that one day it turns up but basically, what happened was DuMont went out of business, they went bankrupt and they had some kind of legal issues and whoever had their whole catalogue of shows decided to dump it into the East River in New York. So, that’s the story, all of those shows were lost somewhere in the bottom of the East River. That said, a lot of us are thinking, how can it be that there’s only one copy? There’s got to be something else. So, it might turn up, lots of things are always coming out. I think recently, part of The Crimson City, which was considered a lost film has turned up. So, I mean, there’s hope. I would love to see it. There are very few photos.

Ann: It just sounds like Anna May Wong travelling the world solving art crimes!

Katie: [laughs] I know, right! So, she does that in the ‘50s but at that time, her health is in decline. She‘s suffering from cirrhosis of the liver; because she’s not working, she’s a bit down on herself, she’s probably drinking a lot, so it was a difficult time but at a certain point she starts to snap out of it and is going out for more opportunities in television, she does a lot of character parts in different TV shows and then by 1960, she’s kind of rediscovered by a young producer, Ross Hunter at Universal, whose specialty is actually reviving the careers of early Hollywood stars. So, he casts her in Portrait in Black. She’s playing a maid which is not an ideal role, and it is a little bit hard to see her play such a subservient, kind of insignificant character, but I think she does it, she definitely puts her own spin on it, and I think there’s power in her performance in that film.

Then Ross Hunter acquires the rights to Flower Drum Song, and he wants to make history by having the first all-Asian cast, principal cast, and he casts her in one of the important roles of one of the elders. So, that is basically where her career is right when she passes, she’s several weeks away from beginning rehearsals for Flower Drum Song. You know, it’s sad in that, yes, it’s a missed opportunity but if you put things into her perspective, she was right where she wanted to be. Her career was on an upswing, she was making this comeback which was a really incredible thing to see. She was 56, no one expected her to be around and making movies anymore, most of her peers were not making films at that time and she was going to make history by being in this all-Asian cast. Because she passed, they basically had the actress who played that role on Broadway come in and she was mixed-race, she wasn’t Asian, but they slotted her into that role. So unfortunately, that cast was not, that was the one person, the one character that was not played by an Asian actor, so they lost that status. Otherwise, it would have been… I mean, it was still a ground-breaking film but would have set a record had Anna May Wong been able to be in it.

Ann: Can we talk about, as well… she passed… Like you said, her career was on an upswing, she was about to do this big project, things were going pretty good. But her gravestone I think is interesting because some old Hollywood stars have these… have their English language names on their graves and it’s not shared with somebody else, and she has a different situation.

Katie: Right. So, she’s buried at Angelus Rosedale. It’s actually one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles and the first to be integrated meaning, anyone could be buried there regardless of race or religion, which is not the case with a lot of cemeteries. People don’t realize that cemeteries were also segregated; you’re segregated in life, and you’re segregated in death. So, she was actually buried with her mother and her sister Mary who had previously passed. So, her name is actually not on the gravestone, it’s their Chinese names, I believe. So, you wouldn’t know that she was– I mean, people do know now that she’s buried there but it’s kind of a private, I think the family probably wanted some privacy for her.

You know, for the book, I got to know Anna Wong, who is the niece of Anna May Wong. So, her father Richard Wong was Anna May Wong’s youngest brother, and they became very close, and they lived together probably for 20 plus years at the end of her life and he, in a way, put his own life on hold for her. He didn’t want to put his own life on hold for her, he didn’t want to get married, leave her, abandon her. So, he didn’t get married until after she passed but from the stories I’ve heard from Anna Wong, the niece, they always had people coming to their home with stories about, either wanting to talk to him or claiming they were related to the family. People, fans, but also people who were really obsessed with Anna May Wong, so I think they just really wanted privacy for her to not have to experience that, even though they were also experiencing that.

Ann: So, I guess that’s like, yeah, the gravestone is to her as a person, her family was always important to her. People who want to pay tribute to her as the movie star, she’s on the Walk of Fame, is she? I think she is. Yeah, so I feel like that’s where a fan can go to take your selfie and pay your respects.

Katie: Yeah. I mean, you can go to the cemetery as well, it’s open to the public, but it’s a little bit harder to navigate and you have to ask them where the grave is and that type of thing. It’s certainly not Hollywood Forever Cemetery, it’s not in this very glitzy, well-trafficked place.

Ann: In terms of the Walk of Fame, was she the first Asian woman?

Katie: I believe so. It was her and Sessue Hayakawa. So, the stars, the Walk of Fame began in 1960 so the first class of people were all installed at the same time. So, it wasn’t exactly the way it is now where when there’s a new star, they get a whole ceremony because there was like, a whole bunch of stars all at once. But yes, she was the first along with Sessue Hayakawa.

Ann: She was also there because the Walk of Fame is by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and she was there at the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Katie: Yes. So, she had two moments where she was involved with the opening of Grauman’s. So, when they began construction, she was at the steel plant and drilled in the first rivet [laughs] because of course, you know, Sid Grauman, he was a showman, so he knew what would make headlines in the newspaper, so he of course wanted to have a Chinese star come and do that. So, she did that when they began construction and then when they broke ground on the theatre, Anna May Wong was also there with Charlie Chaplin and Norma Talmadge.

Ann: It was a funny coincidence, I was reading that part of your book I think the same day that it was in the news that James Hong, the Asian male actor who was born in the ‘20s, was getting his hands and feet ceremony at that theatre and I was like, “Oh my god, and Anna May Wong was there and he was being born around that same time,” so just the legacy, and he was in Flower Drum Song. It was interesting to see like, the continuation and also, just how not long ago all of this way, Anna May Wong’s whole life.

Katie: Right. I mean, it’s long and it’s not long. It’s this weird thing because it feels like it’s taken so long for Asian Americans to become visible in Hollywood and in mainstream media when you think about the fact that Anna May Wong had been doing this 100 years ago, you’re like, “Why did it take this long? We were already here,” we were here and then we went away for whatever reason.

It was really powerful last year to see Everything Everywhere All at Once win all these awards and be in all these ceremonies. I think it was the SAG Awards, James Hong gave a speech there and it just always stuck with me, he told the story of how his first film was with… oh gosh, I’m going to forget… It was with Clark Gable. He was in a film with Clark Gable, that’s old Hollywood basically, not the earliest Hollywood but pretty classic Hollywood. He said “Yeah, producers used to say, ‘We’re not box office, Asians are not box office,” and he said, “Well, look at us now.” And I think it’s just so incredible to be able to see someone who has seen that within their lifetime and been able to be a part of that transformation.

Ann: Exactly. You mentioned this quote in your book as well but also, I was thinking of it now too, Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once, said when she read the script, it brought her to tears because she’s like, “Finally, a project where I can display all the things I can do.” And she’s been so successful, she’s been in so many things, Michelle Yeoh, but it took her to that point to actually be given a role that…

Katie: Worthy of her talents.

Ann: Exactly, exactly.

Katie: Yeah. Hearing her say those words, it gave me chills because it was like, I feel like that’s what Anna May Wong would say. “Finally, somebody understood that I could do all these things, that I’m also human!”

Ann: So, at the end of these episodes, I have this scale and I gave you a head’s up that we’re going to be doing this, to add Anna May Wong officially to my pantheon of scandalous women who I’ve talked about on this podcast.

So, there are four categories. I think we’re going to have a really good discussion about Significance, but the first category is Scandaliciousness. How scandalous was she seen by… And this was like, because she was an international figure and she lived for quite a while, and the different parts of her life. I think to her father she was very scandalous [both laugh] but then also it’s like, I think all actors were to a certain extent. I don’t know. So, on a scale of 0 to 10, how scandalous would you score her?

Katie: Yeah, so that’s something that I think changed throughout her lifetime. I think if you were to score her when she first started in Hollywood, I think she’d be more scandalous. When she was younger, she had a lot of affairs with people, especially from her parents’ perspective it was scandalous, like “What are you doing? This is crazy.” But later, she mellowed out and became a very… I think she had a very decorous reputation. I mean, she kept a lot of her personal life under wraps. So, Scandaliciousness, I would probably say like, maybe a 6 or a 7?

Ann: I’m going to say 6.5. But yeah, if you add… Yeah, I don’t know. A lot of it was her own actions were scandalous to people who were just like, “An independent woman living on her own?” [Katie laughs] But some of it was like, she didn’t make the choice to wear the bikini that she’s in in The Thief of Bagdad, she wasn’t running around like that that’s just what she’s given to wear.

The next category is Scheminess and that entails, just, a person with a plan who is able to pivot with what life throws at them and to come up with a plan and to be successful and in that context, I think she was very successful.

Katie: Yes, I mean, she was constantly pivoting. Not all the ideas she came to fruition, some things just didn’t work out or there wasn’t enough follow through, but I think in terms of her, yeah, scheminess, her resilience, her ability to always come up with new ideas for herself, I would give her a 9.

Ann: I think for sure. And from her childhood, she was like, “I’m going to skip Chinese school, I’m going to learn how movies work, [Katie laughs] I’m going to make myself so present that they have no choice but to put me in a movie.” She was always very… ambitious but also proactive, I guess is the word.

Katie: Proactive. I mean, yeah, she just was so clear-minded; she knew what she wanted and just went for it.

Ann: With such a confidence and again, I keep bringing it up but in a really contemporary way. Her instincts about how to be a movie star when the concept of a movie star was brand new, we still see people doing that today.

Katie: Right. And she didn’t have a stage mother or a big studio behind her. She didn’t have anyone who was grooming her. She did all of this herself.

Ann: Definitely high scores there. Okay, Significance, I feel like this is a 10 but let’s talk through it.

Katie: [giggles] Yeah. I mean, I think it’s also an automatic 10. She’s the first American-born Asian actor. I mean, the number of firsts in her career, she really was also the first woman of colour to play a leading role in Hollywood, she became the first Asian American to lead a TV series but even before that, her and Philip Ahn made history with Daughter of Shanghai, she was in all these different mediums. If there was one person that Asian American actors look up to today, it’s always Anna May Wong, she was there first. It has to be a 10.

Ann: Definitely. And also, just as Significance, she was so famous in her time, she’s on a quarter, that doesn’t happen to just anybody. [Katie laughs] You have to be very significant.

The fourth category, we call it the Sexism Bonus, which is basically how much did sexism get in her way? So much of what she faced was racism.

Katie: Right. I think the sexism she experienced was through the lens of her race, right? It’s, “Oh, well you’re the china doll,” or “You’re the dragon lady.” I mean, those types… There’s the femme fatale but then she had to play a racialized version of that, an exoticized, an even further exoticized version of that. So, it’s hard to separate the two because her gender was always connected to her race and then when she aged and wasn’t young and beautiful, she couldn’t play those roles anymore, so then she has to play the maid, [laughs] she has to play the hired help. So, it’s a little tricky there.

I think also, because she was so modern and independent-minded, she did break a lot of those barriers as well. She never married and I think it’s important to put that into perspective as well. I think some people want to say, “Oh, how sad she never married because she couldn’t marry anyone because she was Chinese.” Of course, that’s part of the story but it really isn’t because there are plenty of people who went around anti-miscegenation laws, if they were truly in love and wanted to get married. She could have and of course, she had many offers of marriage in her lifetime, and she declined them, and she had lots of affairs. I think she was very happy to be single and oftentimes, people think of single women as spinsters whereas a bachelor is seen to have more agency over his life which is just also, again, a sexist assumption. But I think that she lived her life the way she wanted to. So, on that scale, I would say I don’t know, maybe a 7?

Ann: That makes sense. Like you said, it’s so tied up. Even the fact that the roles that she was so often given to play end with her dying, which is…

Katie: Yes. [laughs] She died a thousand deaths.

Ann: She said that right?

Katie: Yes. She said, “That’s what they should put on my tombstone when I die. ‘She died a thousand deaths.’”

Ann: That’s why it’s just exciting for me that in this TV series that hopefully, maybe one day we can watch, she was just hanging out solving art crimes. Good!

Katie: I know, it sounds so fabulous.

Ann: That just seems like more her in her life, more representative of what she is. So, she ends up with a 32.5 which on this scale, anything above 30 is like, A+ score for somebody. I’m looking here… I don’t know, I’ve done so few 20th-century people, I’m trying to find anyone in that area who is like… For instance, Cleopatra has 34.5.

Katie: Oh wow.

Ann: So, Anna May Wong 32.5. She is up there.

Katie: She’s up there.

Ann: Nefertiti, 31.5. She’s between these Egyptian… [laughs]

Katie: [laughs] I love that. 

Ann: She’s right in the middle. It’s perfect.

So, thank you so much for joining me today. I couldn’t think of anyone better to talk to about Anna May Wong. Clearly, this is such a passion of yours. Can you tell people also, you have your newsletter?

Katie: Yes, I write a newsletter called “Half-Caste Woman” that is about Anna May Wong and about the book as well as Asian American representation in general. So, sometimes I do some deep dives into what’s going on today with films and how that relates back to Anna May Wong’s career. So yeah, you can find me there. I also will post updates about the book tour; I’m doing a bunch of events in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to start. I’d love to connect with more fans of Anna May Wong and thank you so much for having me, this was really fun.

Ann: What’s the main hub where people can see your list of events and things like that? A website or Instagram?

Katie: Yeah, I mean you can go to which will have updates on all the events. And then I’m also on Instagram @AnnaMayWongBook where we post more photos of Anna May Wong as well as updates about the book.

Ann: I can never get too many photos. Between you and the Anna May Wong Fans on Instagram, I’m just like, “Ooh, a new picture I haven’t seen that one before!” Because they’re all so good.

Katie: It’s super exciting. I still come across new photos of her all the time. So, it’s really incredible just to… I mean, how many images are there of this woman? Like, thousands. It’s just like an endless treasure trove.

Ann: Again, I’m grateful that she existed in the era of photography so we can see all these pictures because her personality shines through so strongly in all of them.

Katie: Yeah.

Ann: But yeah, thank you again for taking the time to talk to me today and share your love of Anna May Wong.

Katie: Thank you.


So, I do want to emphasize again, the book is called Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong by Katie Gee Salisbury and you can get all the links and all the info including links to her newsletter and her Instagram at and that’s got all the stuff about the events Katie has coming up in various cities. I’m just so excited for a reason for us all to think about Anna May Wong and reconsider her story and just celebrate her all together.

Yeah, so this is Vulgar History. Speaking of books, so this month is Women’s History Month, March is Women’s History Month, a thing that I sometimes forget because in this podcast it’s Women’s History Month every month. But this is specifically Women’s History Month so it’s a nice time for us to be all… Maybe for people who don’t often think about women in history to be thinking about it. One of the ways that we’re celebrating Women’s History Month on this podcast is with the Vulgar History Book Club. So, all this month we’re talking about a book called The Tower by Flora Carr, who was on the podcast last week, interviewing her talking about it.

So, to take part in this book club, The Tower by Flora is a historical fiction novel about Mary, Queen of Scots and her time at Lochleven Castle which is the place where she was kept prisoner for, I think 11 months until she escaped in this iconic heist with the help of Mary Seaton and Yung Willy. It’s a novel all about that stuff and I think it’s so Vulgar History-coded and I’m excited to talk to all of you about it and by talk to you I mean by posting questions and having discussions on Instagram. So, every Wednesday, AKA the day you’re listening to this probably, I’m posting a new discussion question on Instagram about The Tower by Flora Carr and every Saturday, which is the day that patrons are listening to this, I’m posting a discussion question on Patreon as well. It’s different questions in both places.

So, to take part in the book club is entirely free, you can go to, actually just go to and the link is there. The link is also in the show notes. You just have to join with a free membership on Patreon to join those discussions. And then on Instagram obviously just go on Instagram @VulgarHistoryPod and the discussion questions will be there and we’re just talking about The Tower by Flora Carr all month! And I’m excited to get into all of it with you because this book, it was a book that when I… I think I said this in the episode last week, but when I first opened it, there’s a cast of characters and I had to close the book because I was so overwhelmed to see all the names of all the people, like Yung Willy is on there and I was like, “I can’t handle it!” And then you start reading the book and I’m like, “Oh my god, it’s Lindsay!” Everybody is there. Lots to discuss. So, that’s a thing that we’re doing.

Also, speaking of the Patreon… So, doing the Book Club stuff on Patreon is free, there’s a way that you can just join it for a free membership on Patreon. But if you want to be a member of the paid member of the Patreon, same place,, for $1 a month you get early, ad-free access to all episodes of Vulgar History. If you pay $5 or more a month– All these prices are Canadian by the way so convert that into your local currency. For $5 or more a month, you get early, ad-free access to all the regular episodes and also bonus episodes of Vulgarpiece Theatre where we’re talking about costume dramas, we talked about Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the next one coming up later this month, we’re talking about Brotherhood of the Wolf which is like a martial arts movie set during revolutionary France. Then there are also episodes on the Patreon like So This Asshole… where I talk about shitty men from history and yes, it’s there! I had said when I get 500 members of the Patreon I will do So This Asshole a special episode about John Knox and I have and it’s there. So, if you want to listen to that, you can join the Patreon for $5 a month or if you just want to listen to that without becoming a paid Patreon member, you can just buy So This Asshole John Knox or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Vulgarpiece Theatre just for $5 Canadian at

And we’re also proud to be sponsored/brand partners with Common Era Jewellery, this is a jewellery company that is a small business, woman-owned. Torie, who runs the company, is such a fabulous person to be in this partnership with but basically, the whole point of this jewellery line is to take real-life women from history but also mythological figures like Medusa and make them into these beautiful jewellery pendants and rings. For her gold pieces, she uses recycled gold and there are also gold vermeil versions of most of the pieces, which is a more affordable option. Anyway, it’s such a lovely business and the pieces are made in New York City, everyone involved has healthcare and good wages. The packaging is made by a family-owned business in Chicago; when you get your order, it’s in this beautiful box with a beautiful ribbon and everything. And there are people on pieces of this jewellery that we’ve talked about on the podcast like Cleopatra, Agrippina, Boudica, Anne Boleyn, for instance. She also sells beautiful bows, like scrunchies, things like that. Actually, I’m not sure if there are scrunchies but there are definitely fabric bows. And Vulgar History listeners always get 15% off all items from Common Era by going to or using code ‘VULGAR’ at checkout.

If you want to get your Vulgar History merch, merch is available at or if you’re outside the US the shipping is a bit better if you go to our alternate store, Also, I’ll mention that all the books that I talk about on the podcast are on our page, the link to that is also in the show notes as well. If you want to buy a copy of Not Your China Doll, or whatever, and with a little bit of that purchase going to support Vulgar History, just use my Bookshop link in the show notes.

You can get in touch with me using the form at or you can email me directly at or you can just message me on Instagram where I am @VulgarHistoryPod. I’ve mostly retreated from all other social media at present but I’m always on Instagram. Also, if you join the Patreon, if you’re a paid Patreon member at the $5 or more level, there’s a Discord where I’m constantly lurking and hanging out and chatting with people about Vulgar History-coded stuff. Transcripts of recent episodes are available at, thank you to Aveline Malek for providing these transcripts.

Next week, I like doing these little teasers for you because I just want you to know what’s coming up but without telling you too much, just to get everybody hype and excited. I’m always excited about every episode, I wish I could post them all and you could just binge-listen to them all, but we spread them out. Anyway, next week I have a very special episode with a very special guest who I’ve wanted to have on the podcast for such a long time. She is a fellow redheaded history person who you might know from Instagram from her Reels on there. I’m really excited to have this person on next week so just think about who you think that might be. It’s a requested collab that people have suggested. It’s somebody who I’m sometimes mistaken for. Anyway, I did take a picture of me and this person talking to prove that we’re not the same person, we’re two different people.

Anyway, stay tuned next week for a super amazing episode and go and buy and read Not Your China Doll or just look up an Anna May Wong movie. Some of them are streaming in various services. Piccadilly is an incredible choice if you’re going to watch one, Shanghai Express. These are kind of, I don’t know… If you have time, The Thief of Bagdad, it’s like 2.5 hours long but if you just watch the Anna May Wong parts, it’s shorter. She’s so sensational. Even just look up clips of her on, like, YouTube or TikTok or whatever. When you see her in action, she just draws you in, her star power is incredible. Hollywood movies were invented for Anna May Wong to be in them, as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, until next time, keep your pants on and your tits out!

Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.

Transcribed by Aveline Malek at


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