Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in the various avenues of learning to be plumbed in pursuit of a teaching credential and accompanying Master’s degree in cross-cultural education. During that period I have become familiar with a small percentage of the vast multitude of multiculturally oriented children’s literature available to young readers, much of which explores the roots of folkloric tradition for various ethnic groups and how those traditions reflect upon and can be applied to life in the modern world for members of these groups. The relevance for the literature’s primary audience, those in the fourth to sixth grades, couldn’t be more obvious. Much of the intent of introducing children to aspects of their heritage in picture and chapter books devoted to tradition and generational consistency of values is to challenge the idea of America as a melting pot-- that is, a culture created from the globular sum of the dissolution of specific cultural touchstones, beliefs and practices-- in order to replace it with something more like a great salad bar of ethnicity, where each element that demarcates and defines an ethnic or racial culture contributes to the whole new culture, as it is perceived by participants and observers, without losing the unique flavor of each practice or sets of values as they are experienced or understood on their own.
The current trend in education toward leading children to embrace, examine and exult in the intricacies of their cultural heritage is, unlike so many others I can think of which seem to have the weight of educational bureaucracy behind them, a good one. And some of the best children’s books deal pointedly with ethnic mythology and history, pointing the way toward parallels between the subjects of the books and the lives of those reading about them in the classroom. But few have taken advantage of the opportunity to bridge the gap for today’s pop culture savvy young readers between ethnic history, societal reflections of that ethnicity, and how it applies to current values in media culture, to the degree that author Paula Yoo and illustrator Lin Wang seize in their new biography of the first Asian-American movie star, entitled Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story. It is a picture book of exemplary beauty, subtlety and insight that tells the story of an ambitious young girl in pursuit of stardom who deflects the demeaning elements of racial portraiture that were the inescapable reality of life as an actress of identifiable ethnicity in the early days of Hollywood, only to come to realize the importance of immersion in the culture of her origins and bringing to its depiction in films a measure of respect and authenticity where before there was only bigotry and thoughtless stereotyping.
Of course, keeping in mind the age group which composes Yoo and Wang’s target audience—roughly those readers from 9 to 12 years old—one doesn’t come to Shining Star with the expectation of the typical intricacies of biographical presentation. Yoo has taken the bedrock significance of Wong’s life for descendants of first-generation Asian-Americans and artfully distilled from it the main theme that is of concern to her as an author— the tension between Wong’s desire for a career as an actress and the realities of how the Chinese were routinely depicted in the films she wanted to be in, and even the films she would eventually star in. There is a clarity of purpose about Yoo’s approach that makes Wong’s struggle a supremely expressive one for the lessons she wants to impart to her audience, and she does so while telling the story in a lively, page-turning style. The book opens up on a situation and an image—one of many created by Wang in paintings that evoke the dynamism and delicate beauty of the posters that would one day be used to advertise Wong’s movies—that will grab young readers with its audacity and surprise. Young Anna May is seen tied to a railroad track, seemingly in danger of losing her life under the wheels of an oncoming train. She is soon rescued, however, not by a dashing young hero who cuts her loose in the nick of time, but instead by the intrusive reality of her life working in her father’s steam laundry bursting through and overtaking what we soon realize has been a daydream.
Anna spends much of her free time at the movies watching scenarios like the damsel-in-distress scene playing out in serial melodramas. One day, while walking home in downtown Los Angeles, she stumbles upon a movie set and becomes fixated upon the process of moviemaking, a fixation that will give her life focus and direction beyond the walls of her father’s hard-scrabble business. And despite her father’s objections, she continues visiting sets and one day, a tall, teenaged Anna May is hired by the director of The Red Lantern (1919) as an extra, the first paying job of what would become a long professional career.
Yoo allows the reader to share in the excitement of Wong’s breakthrough, but she also craftily sets up a key ethical crisis soon after. Two years of extra work and an increasingly high profile among the Hollywood set leads to her first major part, cast as Lon Chaney’s wife in Bits of Life (1921). Wang’s two-page painting beautifully illustrates the dilemma Yoo introduces in her text—Anna May watching with disdain as Chaney dons his elaborate ”yellowface” makeup design, which includes the taping of his eyelids to better approximate (or exaggerate) almond-shaped Asian eyes and the application of powder, literally yellow powder, to his skin to complete the “transformation.” Yoo also recounts how Wong was not allowed a moment to kiss her “husband” onscreen because of prevailing Hollywood mores forbidding such interracial activity.
As Anna May wins more roles, most of which force her to take on the prevalent stereotypes of the day as defining characteristics of those roles, the image of her watching Chaney from across the dressing room begins to acquire a more painful resonance in the story. Eventually, the actress bristles against playing into such stereotyping and makes her way to Europe to star in British and German films. It is here, during her self-imposed separation from Hollywood, that she finally achieves the full-fledged stardom she once dreamed of working in her father’s laundry, a result of her participation in the British hit drama Piccadilly (1929). Now a movie star and a fashion icon for young girls of the day, the actress would enjoy several years of fame in Europe, including a scene-stealing role in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) in which she all but pulls the rug out from underneath established icon Marlene Dietrich.
Soon Anna May is lured back to Hollywood by the announcement of the impending film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and the hope of landing the lead in what would be the film industry’s most positive depiction to date of the Chinese people and their struggles. However, the male lead having already been cast (Paul Muni, as Chinese farmer Wang Lung), the actress loses the part to Luise Rainer, cast as O-Lan over Wong in part because of those same restrictions against on-screen interracial interaction of an affectionate or sexual nature that have dogged her since the Lon Chaney film. In frustration, she decides that in order to help fight against the stereotyping of Asians in the movies, she must not only refuse to play any further such roles, but she must also reconnect with the values and culture of her father’s native land, and with him she returns to China, where she begins embracing and absorbing Chinese culture, philosophy, fashion, language learning and other aspects of everyday life in the country of her origin. She absorbs stories her father tells her of his struggles to survive and make a life for his family in America, and his hopes for her as a child of both America and China, and emboldened by this newfound connection with her roots and her family Anna May returns to Hollywood to embark on a lifelong career composed of roles and films that actively rejected the virulent stereotyping and bigotry that were a hallmark of the roles she willingly took on as her career began. Now Anna May Wong, the star, would devote her life to positive depiction of Asians, donating her own money to causes such as helping the Chinese people in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and paving the way for generations of Asian-American actors and actresses who would suffer their own struggles and indignities to be sure, but who would owe an enormous debt to her pioneering efforts on their behalf.
As befitting a story told to young readers whose very purpose is that same kind of emboldening, enriched engagement with aspects of Chinese culture of which they may not be fully aware, Yoo chooses to end her text on this note of triumph. But unlike some authors of children’s literature who tend to want to put the happiest face on their subject, Yoo leaves the final page for a biographical overview of the years between 1937 and Wong’s death in 1961, years in which Wong was often excoriated by a suddenly more sensitive press (Caucasian as well as Asian) for her role in perpetuating the twin stereotypes of Asian femininity, the passively delicate flower and the dragon lady, even while such stereotyping, despite Wong’s efforts, hadn’t exactly vanished in a smoke puff of political correctness. It will be a bit of a relief for Yoo’s young audience to read that in recent years Anna May Wong’s reputation has begun a long, slow journey toward rehabilitation and she has been more frequently recognized more for what she helped make possible than the indignities in which she was often forced to participate. The author ultimately relates with great empathy her subject’s anguish at being “suspended between worlds” without ever betraying any of her own sense of anger on Wong’s behalf.
Shining Star is a standout for its age-appropriate readers and for a more mature audience as well, not only because it is beautifully mounted and anchored by Wang’s lovely paintings, and expertly paced and accented by Yoo’s considerable gifts as a storyteller—she is exceptionally talented at enveloping her readers with a sense of inclusiveness, a stake in the import of Wong’s life, without ever condescending to them in language or tone. Yoo has also made her source material remarkably accessible, thus facilitating the reader’s potential interest in following up on this biography with more sophisticated takes on Wong’s life and influence. This may be a more frequent occurrence than my limited exposure to children’s literature is able to recognize, but Yoo’s quite extensive and comprehensive bibliography, found in the book’s final pages, seems extraordinary to me. No less than five sources on Anna May Wong, the history of the Chinese in America, and Asians in media culture, all critical and biographical works of intelligence and repute, are cited with full bibliographical notations. I can easily imagine a sixth-grade reader, inspired by the introduction Yoo has afforded here, taking on one or more of these books and beginning a real eye-opening journey. But Yoo also cites the movies she saw to prepare for the writing of Shining Star-- the aforementioned Piccadilly as well as A Study in Scarlet (Edwin L. Marin; 1933) and Lady from Chungking (William Nigh; 1942), as well as acknowledging a panel discussion on Wong held at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre featuring moderator B. Ruby Rich, actresses Jacqueline Kim and Nancy Kwan, and authors Karen Leong and Graham Russell Gao Hodges.
What a wonderful fountain of information to not only ground Yoo’s credibility in her grasp of the facts and the sociopolitical reality of Wong’s career, but also to inspire young readers to make their own connections between Wong’s experience, that of their own favorite Asian actors or filmmakers (or any other ethnicity they might care to investigate), and perhaps their own experiences with racism and bigotry in their daily lives. One can happily imagine many young eyes being opened to the history of the struggles of any number of people in such an ostensibly glamorous profession as the movies through their exposure to the finely drawn biography that Paula Yoo and Lin Wang have fashioned in their frank, intelligent and fascinating book for young readers, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story.
MATTERS FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION:
Here are Paula Yoo’s bibliographical sources:
Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961) by Anthony B. Chan
Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russel Gao Hodges
The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism by Karen J. Leong
Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, STage, Radio and Television Work by Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane
The Chinese in America: A Narrative History by Iris Chang
You can also buy Piccadilly here or rent it on Netflix.
Jama Rattigan’s review of Shining Star is loaded with wonderful examples of Lin Wang’s evocative painted illustrations.
Richard Corliss offers an appreciation of Anna May Wong in Time magazine.
And Paula Yoo herself talks about her book and Anna May Wong in this interview: