Activism & Solidarity

Anna May Wong and transnational Chinese resistance

What can a low-budget 1940s B-film tell us about the global Second World War and the overlooked role women played in transnational resistance? In this article, I aim to ‘recover’ one of these films, Lady from Chungking (1942, dir. William Nigh) as a case study in a larger project that rethinks the highly visible role of multilingual women – in this case, actor Anna May Wong (1905-1961) – in transnational Chinese resistance and cultural diplomacy.

Lady from Chungking film poster. Image source: IMDB

Anna May Wong is widely recognised as one of the foremost transnational film stars of the first half of the twentieth century and her life and work have been covered in several studies, most recently in Yunte Huang’s book Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History (2023). A third-generation Chinese American born in Los Angeles, her career took her to other parts of the United States, to Europe, China, and Australia and spanned from silent cinema to television. Multilingualism was also a feature of her globetrotting life: according to one of her biographies by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, in addition to her native English, Wong could speak Cantonese, Mandarin, German, French, Italian, and other European languages. Whilst some of her better-known films, such as Piccadilly (1929, dir. E. A. Dupont), Daughter of the Dragon (1931, dir. Lloyd Corrigan), or Shanghai Express (1932, dir. Josef von Sternberg), have attracted considerable scholarly attention, the B-movies she starred in during the Second World War have been relatively neglected as sources for studying the Second World War from a global perspective in general, and pro-Chinese cultural resistance in particular.

Anna May Wong by unknown photographer, film publicity still, 1939. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London.

By the 1940s, Anna May Wong’s film career counted more than two decades and had reached its peak. Since the early 1930s, when Japan’s invasion of China began, she had been heavily involved in acting as an informal cultural ambassador for China, including through a highly publicised tour of the country in 1936. She played leading roles in fundraising events to support the Chinese war effort and assistance to Chinese refugees, including, among others, activities organised by the United China Relief (to whom she donated her Lady from Chungking salary). The war in China wasn’t a distant affair for Anna May Wong: she had family members living in the war-torn country, with some of her close relatives experiencing the Battle of Shanghai and fleeing to then neutral Hong Kong. Wong’s activities for ‘China’s cause’ also included public lectures, plays with resistance themes and tours in and beyond the United States, including one in Australia in 1939. To a considerable extent, Wong, embodied a vision of a sophisticated and global China to a range of audiences in her border-crossing life, one that straddled not just geographical borders but also gender, class, and racial boundaries. Although her ‘patriotic’ commitment in support of Chinese resistance was unequivocal, it was her talent and fluidity as, in the words of Yiman Wang, a ‘diasporic performer’ and her constant challenge to narrowly defined boundaries, that made her so effective in engaging with a wide range of publics. As Wang illustratively put it in a recent article: her position was ‘quintessentially interstitial, trans, and defiant of fixed American and Chinese identities’.

News of Anna May Wong’s activities in Australia in 1939, identifying her as a ‘Chinese film actress’. Daily News (Sydney), 19 July 1939. Image source: National Library of Australia

In the film Lady from Chungking, iterations of a bordercrossing dimension, noted elsewhere by Wang, are of paramount importance. The film is an artefact of the period when the Second World War became unequivocally global. China’s War of Resistance against Japan was integrated into a wider conflict and brought to the Chinese central government powerful international allies (indeed, China became formally one of the Allies). This film is a clear example of pro-Chinese resistance American productions in the post-Pearl Harbour 1940s, a period that saw a growing number of Hollywood films set in Asia and increased work opportunities for Chinese American actors. In the case of Wong, Lady from Chungking can be seen as part of a diptych of explicitly pro-resistance films she starred in produced by the small studio Producers Releasing Corporation, the other being Bombs over Burma (1942, dir. Joseph H. Lewis). Both films provide interesting representations of a global conflict unfolding in China by the use of characters representing different nationalities (Chinese, American, Japanese, British, Russian, Portuguese, German, etc.) interacting on screen. While neither film was a particularly smashing success, they did have a considerable reach and were exhibited outside of the United States. For example, news from as late as 1947 show them being screened in Australian cinemas.

Wong’s character in Lady from Chungking, Madame Kwan Mei, spends the film crossing between her unground life as a resistance organiser and her undercover life pretending to be a collaborator of the Japanese to gather information from them and assist in the rescue of two American airmen belonging to the Flying Tigers who were shot down behind enemy lines. Furthermore, we can also discern in her character a crossover of some of her previous iconic roles, evident in the way her figure is filmed and dressed, and also in the underlying sensual tension suggested with different characters, both men and another woman. The idea of performance, so crucial to Wong’s persona, is central to the film’s plot, namely her secret activities for the resistance. In the film, she takes on at least two names, and who she appears to be to different characters is constantly shifting. In the end, her character crosses another border: that between life and death. As Kwan Mei is executed by the Japanese, her figure remains visible and standing, superimposed as her dead body falls, continuing her speech rallying her listeners to persevere in their resistance. Personifying China, her character assures: ‘You cannot kill me. You cannot kill China. Not even a million deaths could crush the soul of China, for the soul of China is eternal. When I die, a million will take my place, and nothing can stop them, neither hunger, nor torture, nor the firing squad. We shall live on until the enemy is driven back over scorched land and hurled into the sea. That time will come soon, for the armies of decency and liberty are on the march. China’s destiny is victory.’

Having spent a good deal of her career playing characters who ended up with tragic fates, partly because of the racist discriminatory conventions limiting what non-white actors could do on screen, Anna May Wong’s character in Lady from Chungking subverts that expectation by transcending death itself, and it is with her defying voice that the film ends. Nevertheless, it is easy to discern in the film continuities with some of what Karen J. Leong called the ‘limits of representation’, limits that intersected, in contradictory ways, with Wong’s highly visible career. In Lady from Chungking, those limits are noticeable in the film’s depictions of romance with the white American airmen, that are only explicitly shown with another female character, a white woman with (the viewers’ are told) Russian and American parents (likely a nod to the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union). Still, one notes that, amongst the two, the figure of ultimate moral fortitude in the film is Wong’s. Whilst other characters are depicted in scenes of vulnerability, weakness or ridicule, Madame Kwan Mei is shown as a person of superior ability: she’s the one leading others (usually men), instructing them on how to act. In The China Mystique, Leong posits that the film marked ‘a significant departure from previous depictions of Chinese women in American-made films’. This reflected the changing public attitude towards Chinese in the United States in the context of the wartime alliance between the US and the Republic of China, a shift that would be particularly consequential with the repeal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in late 1943.

Anna May Wong in the final scene of Lady from Chungking (1942)

Despite Anna May Wong’s visible commitment to promoting Chinese resistance and to act, in practice, as an informal cultural ambassador between China and the United States (and beyond, as her activities in Australia attest), Lady from Chungking marked almost an end to her film career – and her overshadowing by other women who emerged as more prominent faces for ‘China’. Perhaps the better known is Song Meiling, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, whose grandiose reception at the Hollywood Bowl in 1943 surrounded by film stars was marked by the shocking lack of invitation of Anna May Wong. Still, Anna May Wong continued to perform off screen the role of a ‘cultural mediator’ and ‘an ambassador and spokesperson for China’. She did that in volunteering activities – such as training as an air raid warden –, in fundraising drives for which she modelled and auctioned dresses, and by becoming a pioneering public promoter of Chinese food in the United States.

Anna May Wong was not the only multilingual woman engaged in wartime cultural diplomacy in support of the Chinese resistance, not even in the realm of film – the forgotten case of producer Li Ling-Ai, for example, was compellingly recovered in Robin Leung’s documentary Finding Kukan (2016). Yet, her high-profile wartime activities, and the films she starred in during the conflict, such as Lady from Chungking, are important cases of transnational Chinese resistance. They deserve a place not simply in studies of Anna May Wong’s extraordinary life and filmography, but also in histories of cultural diplomacy and transnational resistance activism in the global World War Two more broadly.

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