Anna May Wong: Background information when reading Delayed Rays of a Star

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Delayed Rays of a Star

by Amanda Lee Koe

Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe X
Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2020, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book

Anna May Wong

This article relates to Delayed Rays of a Star

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Black and white publicity still of Anna May WongAnna May Wong was a Chinese-American film star who worked in the entertainment industry from the 1920s to the 1960s. As a person of color, she experienced limitations in the roles she was able to play throughout her career due to discrimination and typecasting. Many recognize her today as an overlooked icon.

Wong was born in 1905 to Chinese-American parents in Los Angeles. She began her career in Alla Nazimova's 1919 film The Red Lantern, where she played an extra. She would go on to snag the lead in the 1922 silent film The Toll of the Sea, an adaptation of Madame Butterfly that was the first general release film in two-color Technicolor.

Within the industry, Wong had to contend with numerous obstacles due to her Chinese heritage, including anti-miscegenation laws that made it illegal for her to kiss a male co-star of a different race. Due to the overwhelmingly white casts of American movies at the time, this directly prevented her from starring as the female lead in films with a typical romance angle. In addition, "yellowface," or white actors playing Asian characters, was quite common. This meant that film production companies might easily choose white actors to play Asian characters over an actual Asian actor like Wong. As a result of all of this, when Wong did land roles, they often fell into Orientalist stereotypes, such as that of the villainous "dragon lady."

Nevertheless, Wong enjoyed a somewhat successful film career in Europe, including a role in Piccadilly, released in 1929, which would be her last silent film. She later returned to the U.S., where she had a supporting part in the 1932 film Shanghai Express alongside Marlene Dietrich. A fictionalized version of the filming of this movie appears in Amanda Lee Koe's Delayed Rays of a Star, which also explores unconfirmed rumors that Dietrich and Wong had an affair.

One of the greatest blows to Wong's career was MGM's refusal to consider her for the role of O-Lan, a Chinese character in the film adaptation of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. The role instead went to a German actress, Luise Rainer. MGM offered Wong a less central part in the film, but she turned it down.

Unfortunately, one of Wong's most interesting projects is one that's lost to the public forever. In 1951, she starred as the lead in a television show called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. Not only did Wong play an art gallery owner who solves murders, which at least sounds like a contrast to her earlier typecast roles, but the title character carried Wong's own Chinese name. The film featuring the show's ten episodes was destroyed in the midst of a dispute over its storage.

Today, Wong has achieved greater recognition and has served as an inspiration to other artists of Asian descent. In addition to her portrayal in Delayed Rays of a Star, Wong appears in Sally Wen Mao's 2019 poetry collection Oculus, and in the 2020 Ryan Murphy Netflix miniseries Hollywood.

Photo: Anna May Wong, courtesy of Paramount

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Elisabeth Cook

This "beyond the book article" relates to Delayed Rays of a Star. It originally ran in July 2019 and has been updated for the June 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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