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3 Anna May Wong and the Qipao’s American Debut

Sean Metzger Indiana University Press ePub

ANNA MAY WONG ACQUIRED SEVERAL QIPAO DURING HER WELL-publicized sojourn in China from January to November 1936. From this period through World War II (when images of Asians became more numerous on screen), Wong’s films particularly fashion her body through the use of costumes that become the focus of the camera. The clothing Wong wears enables readings of the Chinese/American woman’s body that elaborate on, and sometimes contradict, the diegetic narratives in which Wong appears. A focus on dress highlights the seams that connect the individual racialized and gendered body to the larger body politic at the moment of a decisive shift in American attitudes toward China.

In 1937 Anna May Wong appeared in a cameo role in MGM’s Hollywood Party (Roy Rowland), an orientalist star pageant that opened with one of its hosts, Elissa Landi, a white woman, arriving in a rickshaw. As the “real” Asian in this showcase of Hollywood celebrities, Wong interrupts the spectacular invocation of reel visions of Asia by positioning herself as a supposedly authentic purveyor of the latest fashions from China. She contrasts starkly with the rest of the cast, from the male host Charlie Chase—reminiscent, in his yellowface garb, of both Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan—to the Cocoanut Grove orchestra, ridiculously festooned in bright Chinoiserie. This two-reel musical short returned Wong to the American public eye after her sojourn in China. The film’s vignettes suggest a tension in this representation about whether conventional Hollywood depictions of Asia would be contested, reinscribed, or parodied. Such were the stakes in Wong’s return to the big screen.

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7 Uniform Beliefs?

Sean Metzger Indiana University Press ePub

IF AMERICAN CULTURAL PRODUCTION IN THE COLD WAR THROUGH THE early 1960s circulated around the Mao suit as a structuring absence, the ever-growing cult of Mao placed the suit center stage by 1968. This vestimentary visualization in the United States coincides historically with the advent of the Cultural Revolution and the mass production of Mao’s Little Red Book, first published in Chinese in 1964 and released in an English translation in 1966. Beginning in August 1966, frequent reports on the Cultural Revolution reached American audiences. Along with this development, the New York Times reproduced excerpts from Chinese documents. Readers could now see translations of some of the materials to which people living in the People’s Republic of China had access.1

Perhaps President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic efforts to establish formal relations between China and the United States or the Chinese “Mao craze” (Mao re) led to an increasing amount of Maoist paraphernalia in U.S. visual culture, especially from the late 1980s onward.2 Melissa Schrift has aptly linked Maoist iconography as evidenced by the advertising of goods on eBay to complicated forms of nostalgia in the United States. Although her study focuses on the Mao revival in China, her brief comments on American collectors of commodities featuring Mao point to an ambivalent, often paradoxical, relationship between American consumers and the communist system he came to represent.3 Schrift’s analysis suggests that various objects—from Mao suits to Mao badges and Mao posters—index a variety of longings in the public imagination. For some collectors and vendors, the artifacts remind one of the “unlamented dictator of Communist China”; for others, the icons serve as touchstones for current “spiritual explorations” or reminiscences about U.S. “political activism.”4 In one case, collectors stated that accumulating badges allowed them to preserve a little of their adopted “daughter’s heritage.”5 Insofar as these online testimonies share anything, it is faith in the objects’ representational capacities.

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1 Charles Parsloe’s Chinese Fetish

Sean Metzger Indiana University Press ePub

IN THE NINETEENTH AND EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURIES, THE ABSENCE of Asian bodies on U.S. stages resulted in actors developing what Josephine Lee calls “a complex set of codes for the presentation of the Oriental Other” that borrowed from the lexicon of Asian stereotypes.1 I group such codes—conventional associations of signs and meanings that purportedly convey Asianness—under the term “yellowface performance.” Over the decades, actors in yellowface have often stirred controversy; indeed, Anna May Wong’s complaints about Luise Rainer in the film The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937) led in part to Wong’s attempts to shift the representations of Chinese figures on the silver screen. But the relative obscurity of nineteenth-century yellowface performers impedes the contextualization of such disputes.2 The career of the white actor Charles Parsloe during the 1870s provides the most comprehensive case study available with which to examine early yellowface practice. The popularity of his embodiment of the “Chinaman” (a term indicating a theatrical construction that I invoke as a counterpoint to the lived experience of Chinese men) both depends on and informs hegemonic constructions of Chineseness. Parsloe’s performance practice constitutes a kind of ventriloquism, in which he animates the Chinaman and specifically his queue as a fetish that substitutes for and conceals the dominant anxieties about Chinese immigrants among the white majority in the United States during the late 1800s. The histories and genres through and to which Parsloe’s hairpiece generates meaning code the object as the dominant feature of the skein of race in late-nineteenth-century melodrama. The queue becomes the material apparatus of racialization through its deployment in frontier narratives.

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8 Mao Fun Suits

Sean Metzger Indiana University Press ePub

IF THE LAST CHAPTER PRESENTED COMRADE CHIN FROM M. BUTTERFLY as a rather earnest figure, the performance of the character onstage enables a wide range of potential expression. In her initial incarnation on Broadway, she embodied a sassy sensibility, perhaps bordering on camp for at least some spectators.1 The comic gambit of an individual actor can shift the apparently given meaning of individual lines, as Charles Parsloe long ago demonstrated. Performance, then, might imbue the apparent political content of a script or the associations of wardrobe with a different resonance. The staging of M. Butterfly certainly produced a spectrum of both serious and lighthearted overtones and undertones that contextualize the display of the Mao suit. These comedic associations have a genealogy in a set of American artistic creations that first emerged in the late 1960s.

The milieu of citation, from Mao’s speeches to the slogans chanted by Red Guards, creates a political context for Edward Albee’s play Box—Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung—Box, a triptych consisting of two different dramatic scenarios in an ABA structure that premiered on Broadway in 1968. Because it foregrounds citational play with the Mao suit even before the more famous prints created by Andy Warhol in 1972–73, Albee’s theatrical experiment might be seen as an American precursor to subsequent cultural productions that shifted the image of the Mao suit to more playful, sometimes parodic, associations. Such spoofs culminate in the performances involving Tseng Kwong Chi.

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4 Exoticus Eroticus, or the Silhouette of Suzie’s Slits during the Cold War

Sean Metzger Indiana University Press ePub

A RATHER INFAMOUS ICON, SUZIE WONG NEVER TOUCHES U.S. SOIL IN the imaginative worlds she inhabits in the novel (1957), stage (1958), and film (1960) versions of her story. Nevertheless, if Anna May Wong introduced a certain dress to the American public, Suzie Wong brought it into vogue. Tsai Chin, who played the part on stage when Paul Osborn’s play The World of Suzie Wong moved from Broadway to London in November 1959, describes in her autobiography the phenomenon as she experienced it in England:1

The show started a fashion craze. Women abandoned the blonde Brigitte Bardot look and grew their hair long and sleek. Some even dyed their hair jet black and penciled their eyes to be more almond shaped. Unfortunately for some, for it is not an easy dress to carry off, the cheong sam became the thing to wear. . . . The dress was so popular at Christmas parties in 1959 that Lee in the Evening News drew a cartoon of a woman commenting on her friend’s cheong sam: “Dammit Myrtle, I’ve told you a thousand times you can’t wear too-clinging frocks. Look what you’ve done to that one: split it.”2

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