Poetry News

Sally Wen Mao Discusses Film Star Anna May Wong and Qipao at Nylon

By Harriet Staff
Mao Sally Wen

Sally Wen Mao writes about Anna May Wong, Chinese culture, and the iconic qipao dress in her article, "Two Worlds, One Dress: On The Chinese-American Qipao." Mao connects her experience as a Chinese-American who grew up in Silicon Valley with iconic Hollywood actress Anna May Wong, who "arrived in Shanghai in February 1936 aboard the S. S. President Hoover [as] thousands of fans greeted her alongside reporters and her brother, James. At the time, Shanghai was experiencing a period of intense growth and cosmopolitanism: It was near the tail end of its "Golden Age"—while the West was experiencing a Great Depression, Shanghai was abuzz with glamour, art, and intrigue, even as the threat of civil war and foreign invasion loomed." On from there: 

To the disappointment of the local Shanghai press, the 31-year-old Anna May Wong didn't speak any Mandarin. She was the first Asian-American internationally renowned movie star, born and raised in Los Angeles as a second-generation Chinese American of Taishanese descent. Though Anna May Wong's whole film career in both America and Europe pushed her to "represent" China, she had never been to China before. She intended her visit to be geared toward education—to learn Mandarin and study the Chinese theater. According to one interview, Wong wanted to "find out if [her] interpretations of China were truly Chinese." This trip was documented in a limited series and filmed by the prominent newscaster Newsreel Wong, who stayed at Anna's side during her whole visit. Wong also wrote and published a series of six columns about her trip, published in the New York Herald Tribune.

In July 2018, some 82 years later, I arrived in Shanghai, flying into the Pudong Airport from Washington Dulles. I was the same age as Anna May when she first visited Shanghai, and for the first time in my adult life I was going to live in China—my parents and I had emigrated from Wuhan to Boston when I was five. My mother was born in Shanghai in 1961, in the Jing'an neighborhood near the temple, and like me, she moved away at the age of five, not to America, but to the Hubei countryside. Though she has never returned since she left, my mother's origins still made me feel like I had roots in Shanghai. That was comforting.

For the next six months, I was going to live at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, an artist's residency right on the intersection of East Nanjing Road and the Bund—the beautiful strip of riverside buildings whose heritage architecture has been preserved from the time of the International Settlement. From the rooftop of my hotel, one could view the Huangpu River, across it the glittering Pudong—the glowing Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai Tower so often covered in fog. In the evenings, the Bund glowed gold—I would walk outside, lost in the endless throngs of visitors from all over the world, in disbelief that I was there.

Read more at Nylon.

Originally Published: February 8th, 2019