A Dreamlike Quality of Unreality – The Many Afterlives of Anna May Wong


How to parse affection for the classics of old Hollywood with the many micro-aggressions and bare-faced instances of racism committed against actors of colour? Mike Pinnington considers a pair of exhibitions that walk the line – and then some…

There’s a moment in Dahong Hongxuan Wang’s complex and elegiac film, Role Model, in which the artist, playing Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong during documentary filming of a 1936 tour of her ancestral home, poses the question: “Do I appear so much like an outsider to them?” Further musing: “I could be a role model.”

In the aftermath of the cruel (by no means unusual) rejection for a role in favour of a German-American actor adopting ‘yellow face’, the film shows Wong wrestling with her displacement; a sort of foreignness or estrangement she must bear, whether in China or America. As she said to members of the press before embarking on her journey: “perhaps I shall feel like an outsider.” Before, and somewhat cryptically: “Perhaps instead I shall find my past life assuming a dreamlike quality of unreality.”

“Wong asserts an assumed authority, flexing as only a Hollywood star back then could”

In Role Model, which flits between colour and black and white footage, producing the effect of waking us from, and lulling us in to the fiction, Wong asserts an assumed authority, flexing as only a Hollywood star back then could. She directs the director to her satisfaction, insists on the re-filming of scenes, selects locations, and so on. Is this a contemporary revisionist position, gifting Wong, albeit almost a century too late, greater control of her life and career? We know that on her return to America, the actor, stung by her experiences, reported her sadness at being “rejected by China because I’m ‘too American’ and by American producers, because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.”

Dahong Hongxuan Wang, Film Still, Role Model-web

But it is Wong’s contemplation of her life potentially adopting “A dreamlike quality of unreality” that dominates here, acting as a kind of motif for the Bluecoat’s current season. Throughout, whether self-directed or appearing in the films of fellow artist Michelle Williams Gamaker, we find Dahong Hongxuan Wang creatively inhabiting her alter ego, Anna May Wong. It is frequently uncanny, and yet also lends what might sound a bit of a balancing act, a sense of verisimilitude; a factor the artists, and the viewer, rely on throughout.

“Thieves is folded seamlessly into the overarching narrative in play”

Here she is again in Williams Gamaker’s film, Thieves, which is folded seamlessly into the overarching narrative now in play. Named for both the silent/b&w 1924 and 1940 Technicolor talkie version of The Thief of Bagdad, Williams Gamaker has said that while she deeply loves old cinema, it is “riddled with injustices” she cannot overlook. In this version, then, we find Anna May Wong at the heart of the action with Indian born, Sabu (who became an American citizen in 1944), another actor of colour whose career was stymied by racism. We hear how “the bulk of Anna’s scenes” have been scrapped; unconcerned – indeed approving – director Michael Powell simply remarks: “Korda will thank you for that, the budget is sky high.”

Michelle Williams Gamaker, Anna make up, photographed by Ellen Jane Rogers-web

So far, so true to form. But sick of being othered and sidelined, cast as they so frequently were in supporting, if exoticized roles, in Williams Gamaker’s update, the duo proceeds to concoct a joyously phantasmagorical revenge involving a horde of zombie-like automata, gloriously named ANNAMAYTONS, running riot on set. In the final groundfloor gallery, a wall is pasted with flyers urging us to ‘Join the ANNAMAYTONS’ – part gang, part rock group, all righteous.

“Assorted props, costumes, posters and bits of sets further pull us into the story”

Filling much of the rest of this space are assorted props, costumes, posters and bits of set, blurring the boundaries between artifice and art, and further pulling us into the fiction. (Is this the fallout of the ANNAMAYTONS’ revenge?) On the window, meanwhile, is painted a section of the mountain of the show’s title: Our Mountains are Painted on Glass. A reference, the text tells us, to the fragility of Hollywood sets, it puts me in mind of the matte painting techniques used to produce the appearance of a background landscape – a nod in the direction of the ingenious illusory problem-solving at play in many a twentieth-century production.


Upstairs in the exhibition’s final act, we come full-circle, with Williams Gamaker’s film, The Bang Straws. In it, we find Anna May Wong auditioning for a role in 1937′s The Good Earth. It was the bitter taste of rejection from that film that led to her ill-fated China trip so vividly reimagined at the outset. After the triumphal critical treatment of The Thief of Bagdad, this is a sobering experience; one in which we find Wong demeaned and chastised by the disembodied voices of, who we assume to be, the casting department and the film’s director, Sidney Franklin.

“Are audiences ready for you?”

“Dahong,” says a female voice (making clear the construct that is cinema and, by extension, art); before, in a disinterested tone of voice: “I bet that means something.” Persevering, the actor enquires: “Do I have lines?” To which a male voice replies: “That’s what we’re trying to ascertain… are audiences ready for you?” The role for which Anna May Wong was unsuccessfully auditioning? A Chinese farmer.

Having witnessed this ordeal, you can’t help but reconsider the lonely figure she sometimes struck in Role Model, and how starkly she must have felt her dislocation in both the land of her ancestors and of her birth.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t an exhibition that lingers on or wallows in injustices; it merely addresses them. Rather, it is a careful consideration of cinema history, one that casts Anna May Wong in the role(s) of her life. Or should that be afterlife? For, in the complex yet coherent, complementary works on display here, she plays both avenging angel and ghost – at once haunting, and righting some of the many wrongs of, old Hollywood.

Mike Pinnington 

Dahong Hongxuan Wang: Role Model, and Michelle Williams Gamaker: Our Mountains are Painted on Glass, continue at the Bluecoat until 30 June

Images, from top: Role Model film stills; Michelle Williams Gamaker, Anna make up, photographed by Ellen Jane Rogers; Michelle Williams Gamaker, Thieves, (behind the scenes), 2022. Photo Ellen Jane Rogers

Posted on 29/05/2024 by thedoublenegative