Sorry, Wrong Asian
the curious case of the other Anna May Wong
Junior year of college I spent six months studying abroad at Oxford University. Looking back on that time in my life brings back many wonderful memories. It was a charmed existence. I lived in a house with thirty or so other college students and watched the English garden in our backyard bloom from my window that spring.
During the week, a few staff and faculty members also worked out of the house and managed operations for the program. The woman at the front desk was a grad student in the Chinese department who spoke flawless Mandarin. I felt sheepish conversing with her in putonghua despite having spent the previous six months in China. Strangely, when I popped by to say hello she sometimes called me Christine. Then one day another administrator in the house said, “Hello, Christine!”
At first I was perplexed. I don’t even remember whether I corrected their mistake. Why would they call me Christine? Then it dawned on me. One of my classmates was named Christine and she also happened to be half Asian. But aside from the fact that we both had dark, almost-black hair and relatively fair skin, I didn’t think our faces looked much alike. If anything, Christine looked more typically hapa in my opinion, and she was half Japanese, whereas I was half Chinese (an obvious distinction in my mind).
When I relayed the incident to friends, I soon learned that Christine and I were not the only two “ethnic types” in the house that had been confused. Two of my Black classmates, both of whom wore their hair in braids, had also been referred to by each other’s names in more than one instance. Through a stroke of college kid brilliance, we transformed this particularly British strain of ignorance and lack of exposure to diversity into a joke that I have told for years. We hatched a plan to have one petite Asian friend pose as another petite Asian friend and interact with the staff. The imposter was to reveal her true self once she had been misidentified. The punchline was always the same: “I’m not Shelly, I’m Tammie, you racist!”
Of course, we never acted on this hypothetical bid to avenge what has become a standard, everyday micro-aggression for most Asian Americans and people of color. The “wrong Asian” phenomenon, or what I like to call “alllooksame-ism,” has been around for as long as different groups of people have been coming into contact with each other. Brian X. Chen wrote about it for the New York Times Magazine in a much shared article this past June. Desus and Mero do a hilarious segment on their Showtime talk show where they flip the script and test themselves on how well they can identify (and tell apart) specific white actors. They usually fail miserably.
Now, you might think being the one and only Asian American movie star in 1930s Hollywood would preclude you from this unfortunate experience. Nope. Anna May Wong was frequently mixed up with other minor Asian actresses and socialites. Only the saving grace of her fame was that she wasn’t usually the one being mistaken for someone else; it was all the other Asian American women who were assumed to be her.
Cue a night, not too long ago. I decide to spontaneously search the #AnnaMayWong hashtag on Twitter while web-surfing in bed. The first result is an exuberant photo of Mary Pickford and a gaggle of friends partying at Pickfair. Just the kind of behind-the-scenes Old Hollywood shot someone like me lives for.
Among the revelers is undoubtedly a stylish Asian woman holding a ping-pong paddle, positioned coyly as if it’s meant to cover one of Myrna Loy’s breasts. (Before I commit the same sin I’m criticizing, I suppose I should say I think the woman in white is Myrna Loy; it’s hard to tell from that angle.) Everyone is giddy with laughter as they share some long since forgotten wisecrack. As you can see, #AnnaMayWong is tagged in this post by the official Mary Pickford Foundation account, suggesting the Asian woman must be AMW.
I’ve always wondered whether AMW had been invited to parties at Pickfair, the legendary home of Hollywood’s King and Queen, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Could this woman really be Anna May Wong?
Down the rabbit hole I go.
There are some things wrong with the post, however, right off the bat. The caption dates the photo to 1905, which is a clear mistake. AMW was born in 1905 and Mary Pickford would have been just a girl of thirteen. As someone notes in the comments, Pickfair wasn’t built until 1919.
Instead, I figure the picture must have been taken sometime in the mid-1930s after Doug and Mary separated. Doug is notably missing from the picture, yet it was Doug who AMW knew and admired—he’d cast her in his 1924 blockbuster The Thief of Bagdad, which had launched AMW to international stardom. Would Mary really have invited AMW to one of her parties a decade later? Mary here also looks less like the cherubic ingenue she played for most of her silent film career and more like the mature woman in her forties that she became when she “retired” from making pictures. (Her dabbles in the talkies didn’t do so well at the box office.)
The most confounding aspect of the photo is the Asian woman herself. I know I’ve seen her face before, but I also know instinctively that she can’t be Anna May Wong. When you’ve looked at hundreds of photos of a person, you become acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of their facial features, expressions, and mannerisms. AMW never did her makeup like that with dark kohl-rimmed cat-eyes. And her cheeks are a bit too plump, too defined when she smiles. AMW also never actually bobbed her hair, despite her flapper reputation. Rather, she styled her hair to look like a bob with short layers in front framing her face. If you look closely at photos of AMW, you’ll notice the rest of her long hair is pinned up discreetly in a chignon at the nape of her neck.
So if the woman in the picture isn’t AMW, then who is she?
From a dark corner of the cavernous file cabinet that my mind has become, I dredge up the name Lachman. Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lachman were always floating in and out of the London society pages alongside AMW circa 1933, something I’ve noticed in several clippings. He was a director for Fox and she, well, was his fashionable Chinese wife. AMW and Mrs. Lachman, in fact, were friends, that much I know. I vaguely recall some kind of mix up between the two ladies in a British paper. I flip back through my files, and there she is again—the woman with the deep cat-eyes.
This time she is one of six elegantly dressed men and women in a photograph that appeared in the British magazine The Bystander in February 1933. The caption reads:
An English Actress Abroad
Diana Wynyard’s birthday was celebrated at Hollywood by Harry Lachman, the Fox Film director, throwing a party in her honour. In this group take there Jacques Feyder, French director, Mrs. Harry Lachman and Harry Lachman are standing at the back, while seated, are Diana Wynyard, Maurice Chevalier and Anna May Wong
Several weeks later, The Bystander ran a correction in its April 5th issue:
I owe an apology both to Mrs. Lachman and Anna May Wong, whose names were inadvertently transposed under a group photograph in a recent issue. I also congratulate both ladies in being so like each other—in a photograph at all events.
If, as the correction explains, the magazine simply made an error of labeling the people in the wrong order, then that would mean the Asian woman standing in the back row between two men is Anna May Wong? I might be willing to accept the cat-eye woman as AMW at a passing glance, though somewhat uneasily. But the woman in the back? No way. She’s got no bangs! Even so, I look up a rare photo of AMW from around this time with her bangs swept back, forehead bare, and compare it to this new mystery woman. The eyes, nose, eyebrows, everything is different.
Now I have two wrong Asians on my hands and I feel like I must be going crazy because none of them look like AMW to me yet everyone keeps saying they are!
Part of the problem is the outdated convention of referring to someone as “Mrs. Harry Lachman.” Talk about erasure. In an attempt to claw my way out of the bottomless rabbit hole, I realize I need to figure out what Mrs. Lachman’s real name is. I find it in an article in The Era, another British paper: “Harry Lachman’s beautiful Chinese wife, professionally known as ‘Quon Tai’ . . .”
I get the same result with a quick Google search of Harry Lachman, which leads me to his wife’s Wikipedia page where she is listed under her maiden name, Jue Quon Tai. The photo included in the Wiki entry shows a woman dressed in a traditional Chinese pantsuit and embroidered slippers, sporting short coiffed hair, no bangs. She hardly resembles the later Mrs. Lachman.
I type “Jue Quon Tai” into Google Image search and a small assortment of photos crop up. None helpful, none conclusive. I try again with “Quon Tai Lachman.” Getting warmer, but no dice. I go back to the original formulation: “Mrs. Harry Lachman.” Ding ding ding!
It’s the cat-eye woman, looking dapper as ever in a broad-brimmed hat and what looks like a silk capelet, and this time she is correctly labeled as Quon Tai aka Mrs. Lachman! She’s sitting next to Warner Oland, to boot.
Warner Oland, by the way, is most famous for his recurring role as the affable (read: nonthreatening) Chinese detective Charlie Chan—Hollywood’s “positive stereotype” answer to the nefarious Dr. Fu Manchu films. (You can read more about the man who inspired the character in Yunte Huang’s award-winning book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.)
Harry Lachman, in fact, would go on to direct Charlie Chan at the Circus a year or so after the dinner pictured. I retrace my steps back to the photo that started this manic wild goose chase in the first place, and there, standing behind a chuckling Mary Pickford, is Harry Lachman’s face peeking out.
Jue Quon Tai is the other Anna May Wong. At least one of many. Sadly, I don’t know much more about her than Wikipedia does. What I do know is that like AMW, she was born in California in 1898 and grew up in a prominent Chinese American family in Portland, Oregon. She was a performer in her own right, dancing and singing in vaudeville shows across the West and on Broadway in New York. The Era reports that she was also an accomplished concert singer with “an excellent and well-trained contralto voice, and sings native Chinese songs with remarkable effect.”
By all measures, Jue Quon Tai was a versatile, modern woman. She married the man she loved even though interracial marriage was outlawed in the U.S. She was outrageously fashionable and cut a fine figure in whatever she walked out in. And if all these party photos are any indication, she was an outgoing bon vivant. I can absolutely see why she and AMW became fast friends. Maybe we would know more about her if we started getting her name right.
Confident in the fruits of my midnight sleuthing, I furnish a correction of my own on Twitter, the coda to the curious case of the other AMW:
Hiding No Longer
I’m not a Marvel Comics Universe kinda gal, but I’m always excited to see more Asians on the silver screen, so I jumped at the chance to attend a Gold House sponsored screening of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings this weekend. I had low expectations going into it and the trailer I watched beforehand didn’t help either. But in the end, I was blown away by the movie’s incredible storytelling.
Tapping Destin Daniel Cretton, a Japanese American, to direct and David Callaham, a Chinese American, to write was absolutely key to making this movie a hit and an authentic Asian American story. It was Cretton who had the vision to cast the legendary Tony Leung (btw, Tony looks better than ever as the conflicted father of Shang-Chi). And it seems clear that the all-Asian principal cast, including Ben Kingsley, was an intentional move. Simu Liu is the funny, sensitive, badass super hero we deserve. Awkwafina is there to deliver comedic relief and heart. Plus, the movie’s awesome bus fight scene is a nice homage to Jackie Chan’s OG bus fight in Police Story (sorry, I could only find a clip overdubbed in English 🤷🏻♀️).
Shang-Chi has already reeled in $71.4 million at the box office, so what are you waiting for? Don’t watch the trailer, just go see the movie! You’ll love it, I promise.