Performing the ModernShirley Jennifer Lim
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.
“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
"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."
"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
"Lim productively rethinks the question of star agency, politicizing and historicizing theories of 'performativity'—denaturalization of the repeated gestures and acts that make race and gender socially intelligible—and 'the modern'—emphasizing surfaces and aestheticism—by situating Wong in an enlarged social structure.... Lim’s study of Wong’s modernity in relation to hybridity, as experienced in her cultural work and its reception, does justice to Wong’s complexity, opening up new questions and showcasing rarely considered material evidence for what promises to be a continued interest in this star."
—American Historical Review