This Day in History: Anna May Wong's Shanghai Express

By Ned Kelly, January 14, 2020

1 0

On January 14, 1932, a Chinese newspaper ran with the headline “Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China.” The picture in question was Josef von Sternberg's soon-to-be-released Shanghai Express, in which Wong played a self-sacrificing courtesan.

“Her specialty is to expose the conduct of the very low caste of Chinese,” the editorial ran on, citing her turn as “a half-robed Chinese maid in The Thief of Bagdad [sic]. Although she is deficient in artistic portrayal, she has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race.”

As the first Chinese-American movie star, the Chinese press (not to mention Nationalist government) had long been less than favorable to Anna May Wong, believing her on-screen sexuality spread negative stereotypes of Chinese women. China’s intellectuals and liberals, however, were not always so opposed to her, as demonstrated later in 1932 when Peking University awarded Wong an honorary doctorate, the only time an actor had been so honored.

And while reviews of Shanghai Express at the time focused on Marlene Dietrich’s acting and Sternberg’s direction, film historians today judge that Wong’s performance upstaged that of Dietrich (while their sexually charged scenes together have fed rumors about the relationship between the two stars).

Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong looking sultry... and Sapphic?

As the 30s progressed, growing American sympathy for China’s struggle with Japanese Imperialism opened up opportunities for more positive Chinese roles in US films. Since its publication in 1931, Wong had made known her desire to play O-lan in a film version of Pearl Buck’s popular novel The Good Earth.

With MGM making the movie in 1935, Wong sensed her opportunity. But the studio never seriously considered her for the role, the Chinese government advising against it, commenting that “whenever she appears in a movie, the newspapers print her picture with the caption ‘Anna May again loses face for China.’”

According to Wong, she was instead offered the part of Lotus, a deceitful song girl who helps to destroy the family and seduces the family's oldest son. She refused the role, telling MGM, “If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you're asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”

The role of O-lan went to Luise Rainer, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Despondent, Wong spent the next year touring China, visiting her family's ancestral village and studying Chinese culture. MGM’s refusal to consider her for the part, meanwhile, is remembered as one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s.


Click here for more history stories

more news

This Week in History: Down to the Countryside Movement

Chairman Mao proclaims 'We too have two hands, let us not laze about in the city.'

This Day in History: When Muhammad Ali Came to China

Praying in the Great Mosque of Xi'an and sparring with a Brawl on the Bund referee: a look back on the 1985 visit of The Greatest to the Middle Kingdom

This Week in History: Japanese Takeover of the International Settlement

An inside look at the Japanese takeover of Shanghai's International Settlement, which began on December 8, 1941.

This Day in History: China's Deadliest Maritime Disaster

The sinking of SS Kiangya was the world's worst maritime disaster unrelated to military action.

This Day in History: The Discovery of Peking Man

And its mysterious disappearance in World War II...

This Week in History: The Founding of the Shanghai Rugby Club

From the 1860s to the final kick of the International Settlement era.

This Day in History: When Albert Einstein Came to Shanghai

On arrival the Swedish consulate reiterated that he had officially been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

This Day in History: Shanghai's Trams and Trolley Systems

Shanghai's first trolley bus started operations on November 14, 1914.

0 User Comments

In Case You Missed It…

We're on WeChat!

Scan our QR Code at right or follow us at ThatsBeijing for events, guides, giveaways and much more!

7 Days in Beijing With thatsmags.com

Weekly updates to your email inbox every Wednesday

Subscribe

Download previous issues

Never miss an issue of That's Beijing!

Visit the archives

Get the App. Your essential China city companion.