Anna May Wong and
the Performance of Modernity
In the 1939 movie King of Chinatown, one first glimpses Chinese American actress Anna May Wong putting down her surgical implements, taking off her cap and mask after a successful emergency room operation.1King of Chinatown underscores the professional competence of Wo ng's character, Dr. Mary Ling, for immediately after the surgery the Bay Area hospital director offers her the position of resident surgeon. In melodious tones tinged with an upper-class British accent, Wong firmly but politely declines the prestigious appointment because she wishes to raise money to bring medical supplies to China to combat the Japanese invasion. Flashing her trademark smile, Wong gracefully strides across the room, Edith Head–designed skirt and blouse highlighting her all-American modern professionalism.
King of Chinatown not only pioneered Chinese American women's film roles; it also examined European American preconceptions about Chinese food and culture. After the surgery, Wong returns home, where her father has supper waiting for her and her guests—a European American nurse and the nurse's boyfriend. While walking toward the dinner table, the nurse's boyfriend rubs his hands together and says, “Lead me to that chop suey!” Mr. Ling replies, “Not many in China know of your great American dish, chop suey! Rice is our national dish.” They then dine on “real” Chinese food. While at the dinner table, the nurse's boyfriend chokes on the Chinese beverage offered as a toast, and this time Wong crisply informs him that drinking the unfamiliar alcohol requires “an acquired taste.” Based on a real-life Chinese American woman, Dr. Margaret Chung, Wo ng's role represents a modern American woman who is proud of her Chinese heritage.2