Rice Cakes & Candied Kumquats
how Anna May Wong celebrated the Lunar New Year
Happy Lunar New Year, dear readers! Or as we say in Cantonese, gong hay fat choy! The Year of the Tiger is upon us, and what better time to discuss a holiday that was near and dear to Anna May Wong’s heart.
Lunar New Year is the most important day in the Chinese calendar as it marks the start of the new year and another trip around the sun following the Winter Solstice. For Chinese Americans, it has always been a special holiday of our own, when families come together to enjoy bountiful meals, pass out red envelopes, and generally make merry to celebrate the coming year.
One of Anna May’s favorite pastimes was inviting her Hollywood colleagues and media friends to join her for a meal in Chinatown. “When Anna May Wong is in town, we all go with her to Chinatown, where the Chinese chefs go to no end of trouble to prepare special Chinese dishes,” wrote reporter and friend Grace Wilcox in her column for the Detroit Free Press.
Come Lunar New Year, Anna May went all out. For LNY 1927, she and friends Moon Kwan and Jimmie Wong Howe hosted a lively dinner party in Chinatown. Harry Carr, a Hollywood beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said it was a night he would not soon forget. Before long, Anna May Wong’s Chinese New Year dinners became a regular event among the Hollywood set, and gossip columnists loved to cover it.
“A picture of Hollywood’s epicurean delights would not be complete without mention . . . of the fifteen-course dinners right in the heart of Chinatown, with Anna May Wong as hostess, telling you some of the beautiful, mystical lore of her forbears, while soft-soled, slight figures in loose black-cotton jackets and trousers place before you poetic little rice cakes and candied ginger—not to speak of edible bird’s nests.” (Picture Play, October 1927)
We know from newspaper accounts that her guest list included directors, writers, artists, and even former lovers, like cinematographer Charles Rosher (who, the reporter noted, distinguished himself by his skillful use of chopsticks—wonder who taught him that?). Jue Quon Tai (aka the other Anna May Wong) and her husband, director Harry Lachman, also make an appearance at one of these dinners, with “Mrs. Lachman telling us how it is a traditional usage in China to carry one’s own chopsticks—the origin being, if there was poison served, the ivory turned black.”
E. A. Dupont, who directed AMW in the British hit film Piccadilly, attended the same LNY dinner with his wife, actress Srete Scherk, along with artist Willy Pogany, who gleefully taught the other guests how to say “Happy New Year” in Hungarian: “Boldog uj evep!”
AMW’s guests got a thrill out of these dinners. Not only were they fun, effervescent affairs where the smart and fashionable got to converse and mingle, but they were also the rare opportunity to eat a proper Chinese meal in an authentic setting with their lovely Chinese American friend as hostess. For some of AMW’s guests, this was likely their first brush with Chinese culture and cuisine.
Of course, there were plenty of people in the 1920s who thought it quaint to go slumming in the “crooked alleyways” of Chinatown. Flappers practically made a sport out of it—Chinatown was an outré, forbidden place and being seen there fit right in with their iconoclastic worldview. But Anna May’s LNY parties were never meant to be that kind of voyeuristic tour.
“To tell the truth, I’m Chinese by race and I love Chinese people and things,” she told her friend Rob Wagner. “I love our traditions and even our ancient religion. I think there is poetry in our plural gods of the North Wind, the West Wind and the like.”
AMW was proud of her heritage, and she genuinely delighted in sharing it with others. In doing so, she found a way to continue Chinese traditions in a uniquely American way, just as so many of us have done with the traditional feasts and holidays and superstitions that our families brought with them to this country.
Thinking about how AMW invented new Chinese American traditions of her own makes me recall the way my mixed family celebrated LNY when I was growing up. Each year my mom would open up her cedar wood chest and pull out her silk Chinese jacket to wear for the occasion. I would put on my red cheongsam and heart-shaped jade necklace. Together, our family would drive down to the Empress Pavilion in L.A.’s Chinatown and eat dim sum with my grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Sometimes we would bring friends with us or my Irish grandparents, too.
As glamorous as Anna May’s Lunar New Year parties must have been, part of me wonders what it would have been like to sit around the table with the Wong clan at 241 Figueroa Street and see how the family observed the holiday in the comfort of their own home, when the gossip columnists weren’t taking notes. What dishes did they prepare for the meal? Which one was AMW’s favorite? What were the stories they reminisced about? The relatives long forgotten? And most importantly, who told the best jokes?
An account from Rob Wagner, a screenwriter and family friend who knew AMW since she was a girl when she used to deliver clean laundry to his house, is probably the closest we’ll ever get to peeking inside one of the family dinners. When AMW was on set for The Devil Dancer, she ran into Wagner again and invited him over for dinner. He recalls:
What a greeting I received from the patriarchal Wong and the dear little other of his six upstanding children! . . . They welcomed me with the warmth of heart that the Chinese genuinely feel toward us Americans.
Such a dinner! Not a familiar thing! No bread, butter, pepper or salt—no need for them. Strange vegetables, water chestnuts, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, roast pork, rice, chutney, delicate tea, candied cumquots. Mme. Wong insisted I be permitted a fork, for which I was grateful as I should have had hard sledding with the chopsticks. I wondered while I was eating—everything was so well seasoned and delicious—why we went to the French for so many of our dishes.
Following dinner—cigarettes. Chinese wine and Chinese music on the Victrola. The latter utterly beyond me—greatly to the amusement of my hosts.
He ends his recollection of this charming evening with this final paragraph:
I left at nine o’clock, and as I passed out through the laundry to pay my final respects to Wong pere, there were the four ‘cousins’ industriously ironing away—they had been at it since 6 a.m. with occasional siestas—and there was joy in their industry, made more joyous by the strains of those strange music records. As I drove away, Anna May waved me goodbye from the doorway, a doorway in which she fitted perfectly, for behind it lay a family spirit that accounts for much that is fine in her splendid race. (Screenland, January 1928)
Support Our Chinatowns
Since the pandemic began, Lunar New Year celebrations have had to adapt to the mercurial set of circumstances we now live in. The impact of COVID-19 hit Chinatowns and other Asian businesses before the virus even landed in the U.S. Because COVID-19 was first discovered in China, many people believed they could catch it simply by being around Chinese people or by patronizing Asian-owned businesses. The best way to combat this falsehood is by supporting Asian American businesses and helping to make sure they stick around for another Lunar New Year. Celebrate the holiday this year at a local Asian-owned restaurant or order take-out from your favorite joint if you feel more comfortable eating at home.
Another great way to support the community is by making donations directly to local grassroots groups like Heart of Dinner and the Chinatown Service Center. You can even send dollars to Chinatown and snag some pretty cool art for your wall at the same time—I just donated in exchange for this handsome print of the arch in L.A.’s Chinatown by artist Leanne Gan. The proceeds from all of her prints go towards charitable community causes; for example, my donation will go towards the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development in Los Angeles. You can check out her prints and causes on her Instagram page.