Review: William Nigh’s “Lady from Chungking,” Starring Anna May Wong

Rick Vallin and Anna May Wong in
Rick Vallin and Anna May Wong in "Lady from Chungking"

Anna May Wong, dubbed “the best dressed woman in the world,” made the most of the few opportunities available to her as a Chinese-American actress in Hollywood during the 1920s and 30s, starring in films including The Toll of the Sea and Daughter of the Dragon. But often her best was not enough. In 1937, Wong was passed over for her dream role as O-Lan in The Good Earth, the film adaptation of the Nobel prize-winning book. Luise Rainer, a white actress, was given the role instead, and went on to win Best Actress for the role. 1 Five years later, a disillusioned Wong found a rare starring role in the low-budget Lady from Chungking, one of her final films.

Set in China during WWII, Lady from Chungking follows Chinese guerillas as they plot against the occupying Japanese forces. When two American pilots, Rodney (Rick Vallin) and Pat (Paul Bryar), are shot down and captured, the group plans to rescue them. Wong stars as Kwan Mei, the leader of the Chinese fighters. Atypically, all the Chinese roles were played by Chinese actors, but the Japanese General Kaimara was played by white and terribly miscast actor Harold Huber. The film also features Frankenstein star Mae Clarke, who shines as Lavara, a cynical American singer who has never been to the States. But aside from Wong and Clarke’s performances, the film is unremarkable and benefits from running merely 68 minutes.

Lady from Chungking was part of Wong’s two picture deal with the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Both films, Bombs Over Burma and then Lady from Chungking, were clearly post-Pearl Harbor Anti-Japanese war propaganda. In the latter, when General Kaimara pulls a gun on POW Rodney, Rodney shoots back with, “Remember Pearl Harbor, General? Wait until I turn my back.” Kwan Mei asks for Lavara’s help, telling her, “Your life and my life mean nothing. It’s the future generation that counts now.”

While Chinese roles were finally filled by Chinese actors, the film is replete with stereotypes and racial slurs. American pilot Pat tells Kwan Mei about his pet name for a girl back home: “I called her lotus blossom on the account of she liked chop suey.” General Kaimara and the other Japanese characters constantly call the Chinese characters “coolies.” And while the Chinese representation is better in the film than most other Hollywood productions at the time, it was likely only because the war-time climate, which called for Anti-Japanese propaganda.

The film suffers from its B movie status and its low budget shows, especially when compared to Paramount’s 1932 film Shanghai Express, in which Wong more than held her own across from Marlene Dietrich. Wong had a much smaller part as a Chinese prostitute in Shanghai Express, but the film is of a much higher quality and is one of her most memorable roles. It is a shame that only a B movie like Lady From Chungking gave Wong the opportunity to drive the narrative, combat cultural stereotypes, and give the kind of rousing speeches women—especially Asian American women—never get to deliver.

Wong was dedicated to accurately and positively representing Chinese-Americans—she even donated her pay for both PRC films to the China War Relief Fund—but often she only got the opportunity to do so in these types of B-movies.2 After Lady From Chungking, Wong would star in only two more films and in 1951 she starred in “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong,” the first television show starring an Asian American woman—but the show would be cancelled after only one season.3 Ultimately Wong was a star bound by the racism of the society she was born and raised in. An undeniable screen presence, she was never quite allowed to fulfill her potential during the stifling era in which she worked.

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References   [ + ]

1, 3. “Anna May Wong – Biography,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed November 27, 2017, http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/208736%7C13744/Anna-May-Wong/
2. Brian Taves, “Joseph H. Lewis, Anna May Wong, and Bombs Over Burma,” The Films of Joseph H. Lewis, 120.