notes on the dead from the living
On a hot summer afternoon in Los Angeles this past August—the kind of day where you can feel the crisp California sunshine searing right into your skin—I decided to make a detour. I was leaving Doheny Memorial Library at USC, where I had spent the morning and afternoon looking through clippings and photos of Anna May Wong from the Los Angeles Examiner archives, and I had a little bit of time to kill before a drinks date with a writer friend in East Hollywood. I got in my car and set the GPS on my phone to the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, Anna May Wong’s final resting place.
I had often thought about going to pay my respects to the woman I have devoted so much time and psychic energy to. I’d heard stories about obsessed fans who arrived weekly to sweep and take care of her gravestone. I imagined, similarly, arriving with a bouquet of flowers, incense, and a platter of fruit as an offering to her honored spirit. But I hadn’t planned ahead and didn’t have time to stop and pick something up. Better to visit her than not at all, I reasoned, and swallowed the fact that I’d have to show up empty-handed.
When I pulled into the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, I was greeted by a hillside of parched, yellowed grass and a slew of dead palm trees, many with their tops cut off, their 25-foot tall trunks left to sway nakedly in the breeze. I knocked on the main office door and a woman kindly returned with a map and circled the location of AMW’s gravesite. Following her directions, I drove up one of the narrow roads that weaves through the plots. Some of the tombstones stuck out of the ground at odd angles and were visibly deteriorating with broken bits of stone laying on the grass nearby.
The cemetery had undoubtedly seen better days. Opened in 1884, Angelus Rosedale was one of the earliest cemeteries in Los Angeles and the final home for many of the city’s pioneers and elite families. Whatever its former glory, Rosedale today is a far cry from the carefully manicured lawns of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where stars like Rudolph Valentino, Judy Garland, and Douglas Fairbanks are all buried. And I am loath to compare it to the lush, rolling hills of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, the burial grounds to some of New York City’s richest and most famous citizens.
People and places that go forgotten are often neglected because of the nature of the societies that bore them. If a society values and prioritizes the young and beautiful (the white and wealthy, the politically savvy and powerful, and so on), those who were once young and beautiful quickly fade from the public eye when new ranks arrive to replace them. It doesn’t help that Los Angeles, as the French intellectual Bernard Henri Levy once said, is often seen as “a city without a history.”
Up until the mid-1960s in America, segregation ruled death, as it did life. Rosedale, importantly, was the first cemetery in L.A. to welcome burials regardless of the deceased person’s race or religion. In contrast, Hollywood Forever Cemetery remained racially segregated until 1959. Is it a coincidence that Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar for her role in Gone with the Wind, Anna May Wong, and Marshall Neilan, Mary Pickford’s favorite director who died a penniless drunk, all ended up in the same place in death? I don’t know. But reading through the cemetery’s Yelp reviews certainly isn’t reassuring. (Marshall Neilan, btw, gave AMW her first break in the film Dinty (1920) and the two were romantically involved for a hot second.)
I drove as close as I could get to the row of graves, parked, and got out. I muddled around a bit and then I spotted it. The burgundy headstone I had seen pictures of online so many times with a flowering shrub growing behind it. The grave was different from the others—petite yet stately, modest but tasteful. I hadn’t expected this visit to be emotional and it caught me off guard. I kept my sunglasses on because the tears started flowing almost immediately.
Friends have asked me whether I think I’ll ever get sick of writing about AMW. Nothing could be further from my mind. I’ve been thinking about her since I first learned about her at age 19. The idea that I would write a book about her has lived in my head for more than a decade. I accepted it as a matter of course, to the point where I assumed friends and family already knew my plans, despite the fact that I’d never uttered them out loud!
Writing the book proposal, finding an agent, and selling the book to a publisher was difficult and felicitous and a huge milestone. But I barely savored the moment. I had made this thing real and the most daunting task was still ahead of me—actually researching and writing the book, paying my respects on the page.
One of the reasons I have wanted to write this book is out of a desire to right the wrongs of the past; to tell the story of Anna May Wong’s life so that people will listen and pay attention this time; to set the record straight. A century later, it’s easy to see that AMW was an incredible woman and a brilliant actress. So when people learn of the challenges she was met with, the doors that slammed in her face simply because she was Asian American, they are quick to label her life a “tragedy.” The real tragedy, though, isn’t the racism or setbacks she experienced in life, but the fact that we have done so little to keep her memory alive. In the end, it’s up to the living to remember the dead.
I struggle to explain the kinship I feel with Anna May Wong, the sense of ownership I feel over her legacy and how she is represented in contemporary media. To me, it seems, they always get it wrong. Of course, I don’t own her story anymore than anyone else does. I only feel that way. But where does that feeling come from? I never met AMW, I was born several decades too late for that, and I’m no blood relation. Our families’ histories share some overlap—my great-grandfather, Sam Ward, came to Los Angeles from Toisan, China, in 1915 and later opened a successful general store in Chinatown—but this obsession goes way beyond that.
As a Pisces, I am prone to believing that we are each called to certain paths and purposes in life, whether we heed the call or not. Ultimately, the universe is vast and infinitely unknowable. There are things we cannot explain. And this is one of them.
Who would have thought I’d one day be making a pilgrimage to a 19th century graveyard in the middle of sprawling Los Angeles and bawling my eyes out at the foot of a stranger’s tombstone? The thing is, Anna May Wong is not a stranger to me. And it was about time I called on her in person. After the tears subsided, I said my piece, snapped a few pictures, got in the car, and then I was off.
Later that evening, back at my parents’ house, I looked through some of the pictures on my phone while idly watching television. Flipping back and forth between a few of the shots, I spied something out of the corner of my eye. There was a rainbow in one of the pictures, and not just any rainbow, but a full halo, a glowing orb hovering in broad daylight above Anna May Wong’s gravestone.
Anna May Wong was a prolific Christmas card sender. To mark the holiday season each year, she mailed cards to family, friends, colleagues, and most importantly, the press. Her cards always had a special pizazz to them and were often written up by the reporters she sent them to.
For Christmas 1931, Alma Whitaker wrote in her column for the Los Angeles Times that AMW’s card that year was “a luxuriously Chinesical black six-fold with a drawing of herself in gold on green and a frisky doe to keep her company.” 1932’s holiday card was “an exquisite etching of a two-masted in full sail.”
In 1934, after spending the year performing her vaudeville show throughout Great Britain and Europe, AMW commissioned an artist to illustrate her recent travels for her annual Christmas card. The sights and sounds of every stop she made were brought to life in ink and paint. In Paris, a little figurine version of AMW stands next to the Eiffel Tower, newly purchased Parisian frocks dangling from her arms; in London, she sings alongside a grand piano at the Embassy Club on Bond Street.
While a digital newsletter is not quite the same thing as receiving a physical Christmas card, signed and sealed, in the mail, I thought I’d take this moment to sum up Half-Caste Woman’s first year as a newsletter.
I kicked things off in January with a story about how it all started: with a photograph. I explored AMW’s father’s profession as a laundryman and the origins of the Chinese laundry, a once common institution in many cities across the U.S. And in light of the anti-miscegenation laws that prevented AMW from kissing her white co-stars on screen, I took a look at the civil war-era campaign to outlaw interracial marriage that gave us the word miscegenation.
I wrote about what it’s like to watch Asian American writers and producers getting to tell Asian American stories, ruminated on the brutal murders at two spas in Atlanta, Georgia and its consequences, and dissected a lowkey racist review written 16 years ago about two books on AMW by an old white man who thinks he knows everything. I went down a rabbit hole trying to figure out who the AMW lookalike at Mary Pickford’s party was and also got majorly sidetracked learning about the fascinating life of Sadakichi Hartmann.
In July, I gave you a somewhat frazzled update on how the real work—the book writing—was going. Thankfully, I’m now five chapters in and hoping to finish a sixth chapter before the end of the year. If nothing else, this newsletter keeps me accountable.
Whether you’ve been reading along since the beginning or signed up for the newsletter recently, I want to take a moment to say thank you, thank you, thank you. For your time and attention and especially for your words of encouragement. I’ve got so much more to share with you about Anna May Wong and the personalities that made up her world, so stay tuned and see you next year!