She was the first Asian-American actress to gain star status in the Golden Age of Hollywood's silent film era. Building on that success, she became the first Asian American to have her own television show.
But while Anna May Wong charmed fans with her disarming sensuality, becoming the epitome of the exotic, controlling "Dragon Lady" on screen, she struggled in real life against racism and the laws that discriminated against the Chinese.
Now a new documentary film on her life has been made that draws upon extensive interviews with Wong's family, fellow artists, childhood friends and rare film footage. UCLA's Asian American Studies Center will present the film, "Anna May Wong — Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times and Legend," at a Jan. 19 event at the Fowler Museum. Reservations are now filled. Taking part will be emcee Tritia Toyota, a former television journalist who is now a UCLA lecturer in Asian American studies, and award-winning actress Nancy Kwan, who narrated the documentary. Kwan, who is also being honored, will participate in a post-screening panel discussion with Elaine Mae Woo, who wrote, directed and produced the documentary, and other special guests.
"Anna May Wong was a trailblazer, and arguably achieved a level of national and global fame and notoriety that no other Asian American actor has attained ever since," said Don Nakanishi, professor and director of the Asian American Studies Center. "The fact that she became a 'star' during the racially restrictive pre-World War II period makes her accomplishments even more remarkable. There is much to learn from her professional and personal experiences."
From humble beginnings in a Chinese laundry, Wong went on to star in Technicolor's "Toll of the Sea" (1922), Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924), E.A. Dupont's "Piccadilly" (1929) and Josef von Sternberg's "Shanghai Express" (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, among many of the 80-plus films she made.
In paying homage to Wong, the event will also be an opportunity to honor Kwan for her role as a leading icon in Asian-American media and film, as well as for her pioneering work in advancing the presence of Asian Americans in Hollywood. Kwan made her acting debut in "The World of Suzie Wong" (1960), for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Actress category by the Hollywood Foreign Press. She also appeared in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (1961), the first major western film with an all-Asian cast.
The event is also being held to draw attention to the center's UCLA Chinese American Studies Campaign Initiative (CASCI), which was recently launched in support of research, teaching, and community partnerships in Chinese American studies.
"This campaign, which is dedicated to establishing endowments in support of scholarships, research grants, academic chairs, library and publications funds, and community partnerships, will insure that Chinese American studies continues to thrive at UCLA and to remain the top program in the nation," said Nakanishi.
The next screening of "Anna May Wong — Frosted Yellow Willows" will be at the University of Texas - Austin on Jan. 29. On Feb. 8 the documentary will then be in London, England for the U.K. premiere at the National Portrait Gallery and on Feb. 9 at the British Film Institute - Southbank to start their weekend "Anna May Wong Tribute." The film has been invited to the SFIAFF 2008 (San Francisco) in March. Presently, there are no other screenings planned in the Los Angeles area.