Anna May Wong

Performing the Modern

Shirley Jennifer Lim
Book Cover

PB: $29.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1834-0
Publication: Apr 19

HC: $99.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1833-3
Publication: Apr 19

Ebook: $29.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1835-7
Publication: Apr 19

262 pages
6 x 9
26 halftones

How Anna May Wong’s work shaped racial modernity and made her one of the most significant actresses of the twentieth century

Read the Introduction (pdf).


Pioneering Chinese American actress Anna May Wong made more than sixty films, headlined theater and vaudeville productions, and even starred in her own television show. Her work helped shape racial modernity as she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and, more generally, “Oriental” women between 1925 and 1940.

In Anna May Wong, Shirley Jennifer Lim re-evaluates Wong’s life and work as a consummate artist by mining an historical archive of her efforts outside of Hollywood cinema. From her pan-European films and her self-made My China Film to her encounters with artists such as Josephine Baker, Carl Van Vechten, and Walter Benjamin, Lim scrutinizes Wong’s cultural production and self-fashioning. By considering the salient moments of Wong’s career and cultural output, Lim’s analysis explores the deeper meanings, and positions the actress as an historical and cultural entrepreneur who rewrote categories of representation.

Anna May Wong provides a new understanding of the actress’s career as an ingenious creative artist.


"In this unorthodox biography of Anna May Wong (1905–61), Lim examines Wong's entire performing life through the lenses of race, culture, and 'modernity.' Lim goes through major periods in Wong’s life, providing context, looking at how events informed her legacy, and reflecting on where Wong fit into the larger culture and society. The author also examines Wong’s associations with Lupe Velez and Josephine Baker and the bearing orientalism had, and still has, on Western society. Lim is less concerned with the events of the actor’s life than she is with what Wong's life means. In other words, this is not a definitive biography of Wong. Wong was ahead of her time, and Lim takes time to explain what that truly means. Summing Up: Recommended."
— Choice

“Lim’s innovative book expands the existing archive on Anna May Wong and provides a new analytic framework for materials discussed in other works. Her masterful exploration of modernity and women of color through the central presence of Wong, combined with her creative ways of imagining different experiences, is both engaging and moving. Broadening the analysis from a singular celebrity, Anna May Wong shows how women of color whose careers relied on their visibility and self-fashioning encountered and engaged modernity and its various articulations. Richly nuanced, this book is elegant and lucid, absorbing and provocative.”
Karen J. Leong, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University and author of The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism

“Lim’s view of Anna May Wong, stunning Chinese American film star and entertainer, shows her cultural and personal performances and self-fashioning transnationally—from the United States to Europe to Asia to Australia. Born in 1905 in Los Angeles, Wong acted principally in films between 1922 and 1940, accepting roles as Chinese and other Asian characters (as did many foreign—including Mexican—performers). Wong’s disappointment when the German actor Luise Rainer won Hollywood’s most important Chinese role in The Good Earth prompted the production of her own film on China, which aired on national television in 1957. In this fascinating study, Lim expertly captures Wong’s emergence through the contradictions of gender, race, and modernity.
Linda B. Hall, Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Regents’ Professor in the Department of History at the University of New Mexico and author of Dolores del Río: Beauty in Light and Shade

"Delving into topics overlooked or understudied in other works, Lim’s Anna May Wong provides a nuanced picture of a film star whose ability to shape her global image reached far beyond her work in Hollywood.... (A) welcome addition to the growing literature on this early Asian American star."
— Pacific Historical Review

"Shirley Jennifer Lim’s Anna May Wong gives breadth and depth to Anna May Wong’s life’s work, providing a study different from other scholarly works on Wong, most of which have been about her key Hollywood films or her life and biography.... Lim’s book is refreshing, and her boldness to read against the grain, crafting a sophisticated argument about Wong’s self-creation and self-fashioning as modern and cosmopolitan is not just an argument about recovery or agency but also a call for reimagining the complexities of artistic ownership, production, and the politics of interpretation."
— Journal of American History

Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Prologue: Anna May Wong in Los Angeles
1. “Speaking German Like Nobody’s Business”: Anna May Wong in Berlin
2. American Moderns in Europe: Anna May Wong and Josephine Baker
3. “I Can Play Any Type of Oriental”: Anna Watches Josephine at the Casino de Paris, 1932
4. Glamourous American Moderns: Anna May Wong and Lupe Vélez
5. “My China Film”
6. Anna May Wong in Australia
Epilogue: Bold Journey, Native Land

Scholarship on Anna May Wong
Selected Bibliography

About the Author(s)

Shirley Jennifer Lim is Associate Professor of History at SUNY Stony Brook and the author of A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930–1960.


In the Series

  • Asian American History and Culture edited by Cathy Schlund-Vials, Rick Bonus, and Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

    Founded by Sucheng Chan in 1991, the Asian American History and Culture series has sponsored innovative scholarship that has redefined, expanded, and advanced the field of Asian American studies while strengthening its links to related areas of scholarly inquiry and engaged critique. Like the field from which it emerged, the series remains rooted in the social sciences and humanities, encompassing multiple regions, formations, communities, and identities. Extending the vision of founding editor Sucheng Chan and emeriti editor Michael Omi, David Palumbo-Liu, K. Scott Wong and Linda Trinh Võ, series editors Cathy Schlund-Vials, Rick Bonus, and Shelley Sang-Hee Lee continue to develop a foundational collection that embodies a range of theoretical and methodological approaches to Asian American studies.