When I began my research into Asian stars appearing in TV westerns (see my entry of Jan. 8, 2013), it took me a while to get to Anna May Wong because I didn’t associate her with TV appearances in the 1950s and ’60s the way I did with a younger generation of Asian actresses such as Lisa Lu, Nobu McCarthy, Nancy Kwan, France Nuyen, and Miyoshi Umeki. But eventually I did and I was happy to learn that she’d appeared in an episode of “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” that was called “China Mary” and aired on March 15, 1960. Since the Encore Western Channel runs this series, I hoped it was only a matter of time before I could see it, so I checked the listings every day to see what episodes they would run and after a year or so of waiting, it came on this past Monday, August 19. Luckily, I had the day off and was able to watch it and take screen grabs, as well as record it.
Wong had been the first Asian-American leading lady in Hollywood films and had been under contract to Paramount back in the 1930s. She’d begun her career as a teenager in 1919 and had her first starring role in the Madame Butterfly-styled melodrama, TOLL OF THE SEA (1922), the first full-length feature filmed in two-color Technicolor. Her more famous roles include Douglas Fairbanks’ THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924) as “the Mongol slave”; PETER PAN (1924), as Tiger Lily; SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932), as Marlene Dietrich’s traveling companion; DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931), as Fu Manchu’s daughter; and the title role in the excellent Paramount B-movie, DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937). During that time, she mostly played exotic “oriental” roles that played up her beauty and sexual attractiveness. Here’s a typical publicity still from that era:
Fed up with Hollywood, she went to Europe and made a few films there in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including the silent English film, PICCADILLY (1929), which was restored and re-released in 2003. Back in Hollywood, she made mostly B-movies for the rest of the 1930s and early 1940s, some of which were quite good and gave her decent parts. After making two low-budget war films for PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) in 1942, she stopped acting for a long stretch, with only two more credits before 1956, when she started taking TV roles in earnest. By then she was middle-aged and primarily known as a former star from Hollywood’s heyday.
In the Wyatt Earp episode, Wong plays China Mary, a matriarch who rules Tombstone’s Chinatown with an iron hand. After a series of assaults in which drunken whites are beaten and robbed by what appears to be a group of Chinese men, Earp’s investigation takes him to China Mary who insists that if Chinese are involved, she’ll take care of it. When Earp says that he has to bring the assailants to justice, she tells him, “Then find them yourself.” After a victim is killed and Chinese are identified as the culprits, a townsman wants to “string ’em all up.” There’s talk of burning down the Chinese section. Earp sets himself up as a “drunken” decoy to attract a robbery attempt and he fights off his attackers, capturing one young man, Li Kung (Aki Aleong), whom we’d seen earlier in the episode getting bullied by white men as they ridicule a passing Chinese funeral procession.
Earp takes Li Kung to China Mary for questioning and finds himself the witness to a generational clash as the youth denounces China Mary and calls her “a disgrace to our people.” Earp intuits that there is a blood relationship between these two. Li Kung is eventually freed, but vows to kill Earp. His one attempt to do so is thwarted by a bullet from the darkness, killing him. Earp seems to have guessed, again, correctly, who fired the shot, but he avoids pressing charges. China Mary mourns the death of her son, whom she had to kill in order to save the larger Chinese community.
What’s most notable here is that the main action occurs between Chinese characters. It’s about the relationships among the Chinese, not with the whites, who are only witness to a larger social conflict, one that has played out in immigrant communities everywhere since the late 19th century. China Mary wants to keep the Chinese community in Tombstone safe and whole and is willing to accommodate the town officials when necessary. Her son wants the Chinese to stand up and take matters into their own hands. The big confrontation between the two, with Earp as a witness, includes this dialogue:
Earp: “He’ll talk if you tell him to.”
Mary: “I haven’t that power.”
Earp: “I thought you were the boss around here.”
Mary: “Not with him or his friends. He does not approve of me.”
Li Kung: “Why should I? Are you something to be proud of?
[addressing Earp] “Do you know what she is or what she does? Do you know where the money comes from to buy these rich things?
[to Mary] “You are a disgrace to our people.
[Mary addresses Li Kung with a Chinese term]
“Don’t call me that. I hate you. I want nothing to do with you. I will not live as you have.”
Mary: “I didn’t want it that way. But do you know what you are doing? You bring yourself to ruin.”
Li Kung: “It’s my life and I will live it as I want.”
Mary: “No, it is the lives of the others you command also and, more than that, the lives of all us Chinese perhaps. Marshal Earp will tell you of the talk, the talk of burning us out.”
Li Kung: “They talk big, but they are not that hard or strong.”
Earp: “Oh, but you are hard and strong, huh? You’re gonna wipe us all out here in Tombstone?”
Li Kung: “If I could I would, for there are none of you that I love.”
Mary: “Isn’t there anyone that you love?”
Li Kung: “Take me back to your jail, Marshal.”
The final exchange between Earp and Mary plays out this way:
Mary: “Is it not better for one foolish boy to die than for all my people to pay for him?”
Earp: “Maybe it was justifiable homicide. I’ll probably never find out anyway. I hope I don’t.”
Because it’s a half-hour episode, the conflict is not explored in much depth and the whole thing is resolved a little too quickly, in a violent and melodramatic manner. Had this script been written for an hour-long western, say, “Bonanza” or “Gunsmoke,” these issues could have been dealt with a little more thoughtfully and perhaps allowed to be resolved more peacefully. Even so, it’s a pretty groundbreaking TV portrayal of Chinese in the west. There are no subservient Chinese here. And when Earp initially tries to see China Mary, the doorman at her establishment opens the little peephole and declares, “No white men allowed,” before Wyatt gets insistent.
Earp shows a great deal of respect to China Mary in each of his encounters with her. It’s implied early on that the two have had dealings before and that she’s always helped him when the need arose. The Chinese characters are always treated with dignity by the script. China Mary speaks without a trace of accent. The director, Roy Rowland, and his cameraman, clearly understood the mileage they would get out of numerous closeups of their imposing guest star and the episode wisely plays up these closeups, including the final shot of a sad and mournful mother. She is clearly the dominant figure in the episode and it’s clear that everyone involved understood that, including the series’ star, Hugh O’Brian, who defers to her in every scene he shares with her.
(One curious note about the credits of the episode. The actor playing Li Kung is billed in the credits as John Baxter. IMDB identifies him as Aki Aleong, which seems right to me since I’ve seen Mr. Aleong in several movies and TV episodes. But IMDB never says he was ever billed as John Baxter.)
Ms. Wong made only two more appearances in front of the camera—in the 1960 movie, PORTRAIT IN BLACK, where she played Lana Turner’s maid, and a 1961 episode of “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” which aired on Jan. 30, 1961, three days before Wong’s death of a heart attack at the age of 56.
Wong remains for me the most fascinating Asian-American entertainment figure of the 20th century (if, that is, we classify Bruce Lee as a Hong Konger, despite having been born in San Francisco). She had a troubled life and career, with ambitions far beyond what Hollywood was willing to allow. I have two documentaries about her: “Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times and Legend” (2007), by Elaine Mae Woo, and “Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words” (2011), by Yunah Hong and I plan to devote an entry to them here in the future. I also have two low-budget movies from 1942 starring Wong and dealing with the war in China, LADY FROM CHUNGKING and BOMBS OVER BURMA. In both, she plays a Chinese patriot engaged in resistance to Japanese occupation. In LADY FROM CHUNGKING, she’s not above putting her old seductive powers to work on a Japanese general in order to serve the cause. I suspect that the no-nonsense Anna May Wong we see in these films and in the “Wyatt Earp” episode was closer to the real Wong than any of the exotic oriental portrayals that made her famous. It’s too bad we didn’t get to see more of her in that mode.
From LADY FROM CHUNGKING: