Welcome to Wonder Rooms, a collaborative archival and data collection project that looks at the fissures in traditional museum structures by turning MoMI’s long-running exhibit Behind the Screen into a site of testimony and witness.

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This is a new media artwork by Mala Kumar, commissioned by Museum of the Moving Image through generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts (Media Arts Program).

Anna May Wong, c. 1938


Near the Hayakawa photograh, you will see a portrait of Anna May Wong, a pioneering Chinese-American actress whose career was marked by her struggle against getting typecast in her career, orbiting between stereotypical “Dragon Lady” and demure “Butterfly” roles, going so far as to be deemed "too Chinese to play a Chinese.”

The opportunity for more positive and nuanced roles for Asian-Americans came in the 1930s following a growing American sympathy for China in its struggles with Japanese imperialism. Wong fought to land the role of O-lan, the lead female character in MGM's film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth. The role instead went to German actress Luise Rainer, who went on to win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

As Margaret Cho writes, “Imagine. Knowing that you were unable to play the part because you were the right race at the wrong time. When Paul Muni was cast as the male lead [in The Good Earth] – that is when the hope died. She knew that since the male and female leads were to be lovers, in fact, married, that there wasn’t a chance in Hollywood hell that she would win the role. Miscegenation was a misdemeanor, even perhaps a felony, punished to the full extent of the law. Yellowface was not. Yellowface was the safe route. Yellowface was the politically correct answer. Imagine.”

Tags: Film, Actor, Exclusion Act, Orientalism

Additional Notes

"Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?" - Anna May Wong, quote from 1933 interview for Film Weekly entitled "I Protest"

Further reading

Cho, Margaret. “Imagine.” Margaret Cho’s website. December 14, 2004.