Eileen Cheng-yin Chow - Associate Professor of Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies, Harvard University
From the first moment that Huang Liushuang (better known as Anna May Wong) landed in Shanghai in February 1936, she found herself in a maelstrom of controversy. By the time of this first visit to her ancestral homeland, Wong was already a bona-fide movie star: even cast as the bit part of “Mongol Slave” in Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 blockbuster hit “Thief of Baghdad,” she had stolen the show.
Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star in Hollywood, appearing in many films with Asian themes, though usually as slave girl or Chinese femme fatale. Upon her first arrival in China (she was a third-generation Chinese American born in LA), contemporary news magazines, pictorials, and newspapers went into a frenzied competition to cover her visit. The headlines were often contradictory; she was reviled as often as she was revered, mostly due to the roles she had played in Hollywood films, roles that local critics had deemed “humiliating to the Chinese race.” Yet she was indisputably the “first Chinese international movie star,” and as such, a credit to China.
Professor Eileen Cheng-yin Chow’s project is an investigation in that particular transpacific crossing: she looks at intersecting discourses of film markets, national cinemas, and ethnic self- representation embodied in the curious career of Anna May Wong. Furthermore, Wong was an intriguing case not only of Hollywood-China crossings (the topic of a larger book project) but also of a history of transatlantic stardom; her career in Europe in the early 1930s, as Tim Bergfelder has argued, was a test case for the possibilities and limitations of the “Film Europe” project of providing alternative markets in the face of Hollywood dominance. The particular historical trajectory of Wong’s career—in that ethnicity becomes a very interesting ‘technological’ challenge, from Technicolor to sound cinema to television—is also rich with implications.