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'The Brightest Star' tells Anna May Wong's life story from her imagined perspective

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American actor to ever achieve Hollywood stardom, but that glittering fame came at a price. Stereotypes and tropes about Asian women gave her access to movie roles, but they also imprisoned her. Moviegoers recognized Anna May Wong as the dragon lady, the opium dealer and so often the sex worker.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHANGHAI EXPRESS")

LOUISE CLOSSER HALE: (As Mrs. Haggerty) I'm sure you're very respectable, madam.

ANNA MAY WONG: (As Hui Fei) I must confess, I don't quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boarding house.

CHANG: Never fully American, never fully Chinese, never fully seen by Hollywood - in the new book, "The Brightest Star," Gail Tsukiyama reimagines the internal life of Anna May Wong and offers a fictionalized account of the actor's thoughts and emotions as she navigated an industry that insisted on flattening her. Gail Tsukiyama joins us now. Welcome.

GAIL TSUKIYAMA: Thank you. It's lovely to be here.

CHANG: Lovely to have you. So even though you've written historical fiction before, this was your first time writing from the perspective of a real person - right? Like...

TSUKIYAMA: Yes.

CHANG: ...How did you inhabit a real person in history and imagine their internal voice?

TSUKIYAMA: It was frightening...

(LAUGHTER)

TSUKIYAMA: ...For me.

CHANG: I can imagine.

TSUKIYAMA: You know, I mean, every book is different. Trying to figure out - you know, this is not a character of my imagination. This is a real person who lived. I want to keep her legacy. I want to do it right. And how am I going to do this? A great help, finally, was getting her letters and reading them over and over. And she had written to her good friends, Carl Van Vechten...

CHANG: Yeah.

TSUKIYAMA: ...And his wife Fania. And I knew as soon as I could feel her voice that it would be a story that would come from her voice.

CHANG: Absolutely. You portray this bind that Anna May Wong was in. She was not Chinese enough to some people in her life, too Chinese in many other ways to Hollywood. You know, she was celebrated for her beauty and her acting ability, but what remained elusive to her as a Chinese woman was being cast in the lead role of a movie. Back then, what Hollywood opted for was putting a leading white actor in yellowface (ph). Can you just explain the rationale for that - this idea that someone could be too Chinese to play a Chinese character?

TSUKIYAMA: Isn't it incredible to think about that now?

CHANG: Yeah.

TSUKIYAMA: You know, I - as I was writing...

CHANG: I mean, so deeply...

TSUKIYAMA: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Offensive in 2023, but this happened all the time.

TSUKIYAMA: But, you know, if you think about it, Ailsa, Tilda Swinton in the Marvel movie...

CHANG: Yes. Yes.

TSUKIYAMA: ...And they had put her in yellowface. And that was - what? - five years ago?

CHANG: Exactly.

TSUKIYAMA: You know, it's mind-boggling. But, you know, there's one scene when she sees her first white actress in yellowface. And she thinks from a distance that it's a Chinese actress - Anna May Wong, and she's 9 years old. And she's on a film set, and she's thinking, oh, my God, there's a Chinese actress there. You know, her dream was coming true. And as the woman approaches her, she realizes it's not...

CHANG: That's no Chinese woman.

TSUKIYAMA: That's no Chinese - she's got a black, coarse wig on. Her eyes are pulled up. You know, her face is all white with pink blush cheeks, a really ruby red lipstick. You know, it was a monster to her in the end, and she never forgot that, you know? So she accepts it later because she knows that this is how Hollywood at that time got people to go to the movies - that they saw that it was somebody famous. It was a white actress who was famous who was playing the Chinese star.

CHANG: Well, also, I mean, there were certain rules in place. Anti-miscegenation laws...

TSUKIYAMA: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

CHANG: ...Banned interracial marriage in California. There was also the Hays Code, which were these morality standards that Hollywood self-imposed. These rules also prevented Anna May Wong from being cast as a leading lady alongside a white actor, let alone kissing a white actor on screen, right?

TSUKIYAMA: Yeah, well, you know, there was that line, you know, she could never be a leading lady 'cause she could never kiss a leading man.

CHANG: Yep.

TSUKIYAMA: You know, and yeah, and that was something that she had lived with and fought against but could never break that barrier.

CHANG: Yeah.

TSUKIYAMA: You know, so then she had gone to Europe hoping that she could find the freedom there.

CHANG: But, you know, what was truly admirable, at least in the version that your novel puts forth, is that despite getting pressure from so many different directions, Anna May Wong resisted complete assimilation. I was struck by how she literally wore her Chineseness on her sleeve. Like, she wore so many qipaos, the traditional high-collared, fitted Chinese dress, or she would mix Western and Chinese styles in her outfits. And yet, throughout much of her career, people in China were not thrilled with her as a representative for their country either. Can you explain that piece of it - why people in China were unhappy with the Anna May Wong on screen?

TSUKIYAMA: We're talking about the conservative aspect of the Chinese. There were a lot of liberal Chinese that felt she was a good actress. I mean, in her first film, "The Toll Of The Sea," which - 17 years old, her first lead role, and it would only be of - one of two lead roles that she would ever get in her lifetime as an actress. But in that film, it was a story based on the Puccini opera "Madame Butterfly." She played a woman - a young girl who's seduced by a white man that she saves who's drowning and falls in love with him and ends up having his child. And he leaves her and goes back to America. And China, I think at that moment, thought maybe they had somebody here.

And what had happened is from that role, she wanted to continue playing the kind of actress with depth. She was given roles that were lesser. She was either the fragile butterfly or the dragon woman, or she had to expose too much skin. And the Chinese began this backlash of - she is not representing us the way we want to be seen, you know? She's...

CHANG: Right - because the Chinese were seeing how a Chinese woman in America was being seen by Americans.

TSUKIYAMA: Exactly.

CHANG: I mean, your whole novel speaks to this idea of being the first, right? Like, you're telling of Anna May Wong's story reminds us that sometimes being the first comes with tremendous costs because sometimes being the first means simply being too early.

TSUKIYAMA: Yes. But, you know, being the first also lays the groundwork for the others to follow. And I don't think that Anna May Wong at that point thought that she was paving the way for anyone else. She just wanted to be a movie star. She just wanted to be a leading lady, you know, to make a good movie. And she was never given the opportunity in which she wanted until, I would say, in America - until "Shanghai Express" came.

CHANG: Yeah.

TSUKIYAMA: I don't think she would have ever known, you know, down the line how she's being put as an example now until probably in 1961 - was it? - when Anna May Wong received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I think that's when she started to realize, I did make an impression. But, you know, it has taken this long, and it's not until now that someone like Michelle Yeoh has won the first Oscar.

CHANG: Well, after working more than 40 years in film, when you...

TSUKIYAMA: I know.

CHANG: ...Watched Michelle Yeoh receive that award, did part of you think immediately to Anna May Wong?

TSUKIYAMA: Yes.

CHANG: It still feels like it's a new, developing thing to watch...

TSUKIYAMA: Yes. Yeah.

CHANG: ...Asian actors receive their due in Hollywood.

TSUKIYAMA: Well, you know, I think the question will be this - Michelle Yeoh has won - now won an Oscar. Will Michelle Yeoh be a leading lady in the next movie?

CHANG: We shall see.

TSUKIYAMA: Yes.

CHANG: Gail Tsukiyama's new book is called "The Brightest Star." Thank you so much for this. It was so enjoyable to speak with you.

TSUKIYAMA: Thank you, Ailsa. It was lovely. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE HOLIDAY, TEDDY WILSON SONG, "THESE FOOLISH THINGS (REMIND ME OF YOU)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.