Before I read Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story
, by Paula Yoo and illustrated by Lin Wang, I had never even heard of actress Anna May Wong. I've never been much of a movie buff, if that's any excuse. So I opened this wide picture book with no preconceived ideas of what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. Without fanfare or didacticism, Shining Star
goes way beyond the confines of a mere biography of a movie star and addresses a whole world of issues related to Chinese-American history and racism in the early 20th century.
Beginning with a nine-year-old Anna May daydreaming in her family's laundry in Los Angeles, the story brings us quickly to understand the financial hardship of the Wong family, as well as Anna May's longing to escape from her own drab life into the exciting world of movies. Despite the usual obstacles of her parents' disapproval and her Chinese ethnicity, she persevered at her dream to become a famous actress. The reality was, she found out, that she was always cast as negatively drawn, stereotypical characters and often was not given a role at all because of her race.
Author Paula Yoo deals with this reality admirably by telling Anna May's story in a clear, straightforward, non-sensationalist manner. When Anna May Wong finally won her first big role in Bits of Life in 1921, Yoo writes that Anna May was shocked to find out that movie studios at the time forbade actors and actresses of color to kiss their white costars. She then watched costar Lon Chaney covered in "yellowface" makeup, a gross distortion of Asian features involving yellow face powder and taped-up squinty eyes. Anna May "wondered if movie viewers would assume all Chinese people looked that horrible." But the money she was earning was badly needed by her family, and she set her concerns aside.
Yoo describes Anna May Wong's relationship with Hollywood in a way that does not demonize the system or the people involved in moviemaking that the time. However, readers still feel Anna May's disappointment and frustration, and are able to understand the unfairness of such a system from her point of view.
The turning point in Anna May's life occurs during her first trip to China. Yoo writes, "Anna May decided that she would honor her father and her Chinese heritage by fighting for more authentic images of Asians on-screen." And she did, returning to Hollywood and only accepting positive portrayals of Asian characters for the rest of her career.
Without saying so overtly, Yoo has told a story of a pioneer in racial equality who confronts the reality of racism and battles the system from the inside. It's wonderful to learn about strong minority women who have paved the way for greater understanding and equality for all of us in every field, including the happily-ever-after world of the movies.Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story
by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang