Shanghai-based Fundamental Film is currently developing a biopic about the legendary actress Anna May Wong, the industry's first Chinese-American movie star.
The decision to cast Chinese starlet Fan Bingbing in the main role has raised more than a few eyebrows, however. Many have celebrated the casting of such a major actress in the story of a Chinese-American pioneer, but debate has also raged as others wonder why an actual Chinese-American couldn't get the role.
Bingbing, who now makes an almost obligatory cameo in all Sino-Hollywood joint ventures, speaks passable English; but it's a far cry from the American-born Anna's sophisticated, eloquent, almost mid-Atlantic accent in what was, after all, her first language. Raised speaking Taishanese, she even had difficulties with Mandarin and said that other Chinese dialects sounded as strange to her as Gaelic.
A Chinese news feature on Fan Bingbing's difficulties with the English language
The irony in all this is that Anna May Wong was often hemmed in in her time, limited to the few roles open to Asian American actors at the time. In casting Fan Bingbing as a Chinese-American, one gets the impression that little has changed in Hollywood: Asian American actors are still being overlooked, denied the chance to play even themselves. Instead, their story will be written and produced by white American directors and mainland Chinese financiers and actors. Like the apocryphal Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest that Chaplin himself lost, it looks like even if Wong were still around today she wouldn't be able to get the part.
It may not be as blatantly insulting as "yellowface," when white actors used to be cast to play caricatures of Chinese in Hollywood films, but it is still a form of marginalization to many. In this case, the exclusion of Chinese-Americans from the telling of the Anna May Wong story is, perhaps, more about following the money than blatant Orientalist bigotry. Hollywood and China are growing increasingly close, with films like Dragon Lady relying on Chinese funding and banking on commercial success in the mainland market. Casting a Chinese superstar like Fan Bingbing is a sure-fire way to ensure both.