It’s taken pretty much for granted in modern cinema that, for a Chinese film role, you cast a Chinese actor. Just as leading men no longer black up in boot polish to play Othello, actresses long ago stopped painting their eyes slanted to look Chinese. It’s daft, it’s unconvincing, and to the actors turned away for being ‘too Chinese for screen’, it’s racist.
In Anna May Wong’s day though, this was standard practice. In spite of this idotiic, pig-headed racism shown to her by studio bosses, Wong carved out an enviable career for herself, becoming the world’s first Asian-American star. She cut her acting teeth playing alongside the inimitable Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924); Shanghai Express (1932) saw her upstage Marlene Dietrich in the slinky seductress stakes. After all that, Hollywood’s ridiculous Hays Code forbade her to share an on-screen kiss with any actor that wasn’t Asian, so she could forget any ideas about significant leading roles.
Java Head and Tiger Bay mark Wong’s brief venture into British film, where she didn’t have to rely on cackling dragon lady roles to earn her crust. Here, Wong gets to challenge, even to rise above those stereotypes; she’s a joy to watch, clearly revelling in her newfound freedom.
Java Head (1934, dir. J. Walter Rubin)
Starring Anna May Wong, Elizabeth Allan and John Loder.
On the face of it, Java Head could be your ordinary, garden variety Victorian society romance; two people, who have been falling in love with each other since they were 8 years old, are suddenly separated by a third person, exotic and beautiful and perfect. That third person flips their lives upside down and whatever chance those two people had of being together seems utterly impossible now.
Given these fundamentals of plotting, it’s quite clear that Java Head is essentially Pretty In Pink fifty years before the fact. Except that Andrew McCarthy doesn’t top himself at the prom so Molly Ringwald can be with Jon Cryer. Which, frankly, would’ve made for a better ending. However, even in the thirties, this love triangle formula was well worn and in need of a good lie down for a couple of decades.
Then you factor in Anna May Wong’s character, and suddenly Java Head seems that bit more different. You see, that third person in this love triangle isn’t just another woman. She’s Taou Yuen, a Chinese Manchu Princess rescued from god knows where by Gerrit Ammidon (John Loder) and brought home to Bristol as his surprise wife. To Nettie (Elizabeth Allan), the girl he should’ve married, this is mystifying and heartbreaking. To Gerrit’s bean-counting brother William (Ralph Richardson), this is scandalous and stupid and all sorts of other outrageous things he’ll think of later. As for springing this on his father (Edmund Gwenn) with his weak heart, it’s a little bit irresponsible. His marriage is almost all of these things, but not for the reasons the people closest to him believe.
Wong has a whale of a time as Taou Yuen, a wise, noble woman trying to cope with a culture, a language, and a situation completely new to her. She’s reviled, even resented for daring to marry a white man, and still rises above it, because she truly loves Gerrit for who he is. Presented to his family, she’s met with horrified faces and shocked silence. Taou understands the situation; she knows full well how her people are viewed in the West. And yet…she doesn’t make any attempt to blend in. She doesn’t stick on a bonnet and make believe she’s Asian Jane Austen. Taou paints her eyebrows, sculpts her hair into arches and prisms and wears carved silver claw rings, because she’s proud of her culture and her heritage and her beliefs.
This is very much Anna May Wong’s film; we get to see the love triangle from Taou’s perspective, as the outsider who never had a chance. She doesn’t lose Gerrit because she’s Chinese; far from it. He always counts her as an equal, even coming to her for advice and solace. Taou loses Gerrit simply because she isn’t Nettie, and she never will be.
Tiger Bay (1934, dir. J. Elder Wills)
Starring Anna May Wong, Henry Victor and Lawrence Grossmith.
Limehouse sits on the bank of the Thames, and for a good couple of centuries, up until the bombing of London in World War II, it was a byword for crime, vice and general depravity. The first cut of Tiger Bay was set in this deplorable slum. Then the BBFC saw it, and saw this as rather letting the British side down a bit. Couldn’t one set the action in some scummy old South American port, what?
And so we have this opening guff with the spinning globe and a little map of Brazil that must’ve taken all of ten minutes to shoot. Then we’re in a gentleman’s club somewhere intolerably hot and sticky, where the members dress for dinner in black tie, as one does when one is British and abroad. The members get onto talking about romance, and what a load of old beeswax it all is. Some grinning munchkin called Michael (Victor Garland) disagrees. One can find romance everywhere, especially in the slums, don’t you know. He seems to think he’s making a bet; the other members look at each other like he’s fishing for a plausible excuse to go whoring of an afternoon.
Sadly, nothing so interesting motivates Michael. He really is a chump for twue wuv, and he soons finds his very own dream chumpette in Letty (René Ray), young ward of the wily club owner Miss Lui Chang (Anna May Wong). Michael wades straight into her business once he spots she’s in a fix with a rummy sort of chap. He gets a whopping great knife in the arm for his trouble, and Letty goes dotty for him, nursing him back to health and listening at keyholes to check he really truly wuvs her too.
Enough of that sort of thing. This rummy chap, Olaf (Henry Victor), is the real catalyst. He’s as crooked and twisted as they come; the sort who murder a waiter to make a point, then laugh like a drain at the look of horror on the faces of those who loved him. He wants a generous cut of Miss Chang’s takings, and he stops at nothing to get his way. This is the kind of scum and villainy Obi-Wan Kenobi tends to warn young people about, but Mos Eisley has nothing on Limehouse – er – Tiger Bay.
As watchable and gloriously villainous as Henry Victor’s Olaf is, this is Wong’s picture all over. She plays Lui Chang rather like Jeremy Brett used to play Sherlock Holmes; insular and abrupt, only allowing glimpses of her true self through cracks in the marble. She’s slinky, sexy and sassy and she never gives an inch, even faced with the likes of the wily Olaf. Michael and Letty’s boring, predictable little romance is rightly sidelined, to give valuable screen time to the battle of wills between these two bitter enemies.
Writer/Director J. Elder Wills is clearly working on a tight budget, shooting on no more than a handful of sets, but he brings them to life with commendable attention to detail. Even in black and white, we’re struck by the uncommonly tasteful Chinese decor in Miss Chang’s apartments, and the stark contrast of the streets at night, echoing with the jeers of drunkards and the rattle of dice games. Wills squeezes more action and despair and intrigue into 70 minutes than most modern bum-numbing ‘epic’ crime dramas manage in 2 hours.
A bluff old hand at Michael’s club sums up Tiger Bay for him, in the hope of putting him off blundering around there in his state of naïvety: “It’s like this mosquito. Stubborn, vindictive and damned unfriendly.” Sounds awful. Best go take a good look.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.
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