Musings Report #23 05-2-12 Heroine/Hero: Anna May Wong & Bruce Lee
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Heroine/Hero: Anna May Wong & Bruce Lee
Though I first learned about the 1920s/30s-era movie star Anna May Wong about a decade ago when her career was "rediscovered" by a new generation of film fans, I had not seen her better films until last month: Piccadilly, The Thief of Bagdad (both silent) and Chu Chin Chow (talkie). (I have yet to see Shangahi Express and Daughter of Shanghai.) Having been an admirer of Bruce Lee since first seeing his martial arts films in Honolulu in the early 1970s, I was immediately struck by the parallels between Anna May and Bruce. (She had parts in over 50 films, he is remembered for a mere four, only one of which has anything close to a "Hollywood" budget, Enter the Dragon. It was actually a low-budget co-production with a Hong-Kong studio; the famous broken-bottle fight was staged with an actual broken bottle, and Bruce suffered a massive cut that required multiple stitches. Hollywood would never use broken glass in a live fight sequence....)
Though both were of Chinese heritage, both were native-born Americans: Anna May (born 1905) was a third-generation American born in Los Angeles (her family came to California in the 1850s), and Bruce Lee (born 1940) was born in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Both faced systemic prejudice in Hollywood with extreme perseverence and adaptability. Both were denied the "natural" role-of-a-lifetime when the lead part of a Chinese character was given to a Caucasian actor. (For Anna May, the film role was in Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth," for Bruce it was the lead in the TV series he created and pitched, "Kung Fu.") Chinese-Americans were not allowed to marry Caucasians until 1947, and many cities restricted property ownership by Asian-Americans. In other words, the U.S. Constitution did not apply if you happened to be born in America of Asian heritage.
Blocked by discrimination in Hollywood, (Anna May was declared "too Chinese" and Bruce's accent was deemed poor--uh, anyone in H'wood ever heard of a voice coach?) both only found success by leaving the U.S. for less restrictive film industries: The U.K. and Europe for Anna May, and Hong Kong (at the time, U.K.-controlled) for Bruce.
Anna May left in the late 1920s, and Bruce left in the early 1970s--forty years later, essentially nothing had changed in Hollywood.
What makes these two people heroine/hero to me is that they created roles for themselves that not only did not exist--they created roles for themselves against the active resistance of the Hollywood system, their families and in Anna May's case, the Chinese Nationalist government. Though each gained the friendships of famous Caucasian actors and actresses in the industry, they started their careers with zero support, connections, influence or money.
It's one thing to "make it in America" by pushing past discrimination, predjudice and poverty to join the Power Elites--for example, by becoming an attorney, legislator, doctor, judge, professor, etc.--but it's another thing altogether to carve out a role that simply didn't exist, a role that would die with the creator.
Even today, there are no lead roles for Asian-American actors and actresses that aren't in films set in Asia or Chinatown--for example, "The Joy Luck Club." Asian-American actors are lucky to get the token-Asian parts on ensemble TV shows, and international Chinese stars such as Michelle Yeoh get to be (at best) a "Bond girl" in Hollywood. Actors such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan are typecast in Hollywood as "evil-Asian villains" (unchanged from Fu Manchu stereotypes in the 20s) or comic-action "heroes." Dramatic roles for Asian-American lead actors/actresses in films that aren't specifically Asian-themed don't exist.
No Asian-American actress has ever been nominated, much less won, a leading-role Academy Award. (Miyoshi Umeki, a Japanese actress, won an Oscar in the 1957 for her supporting role in Sayonara; Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa was nominated in 1957, and Asian-American Pat Morita was nominated in 1984 for Karate Kid. Anna May's cousin, James Howe Wong, won an Oscar for cinematography.)
In other words, there were no leading-role "openings" for Asian-American actresses and actors in 1921 or 1971, and little has changed in 2012. (Imagine if African-American actors were still limited to roles in movies set in Africa or the equivalent of Chinatown, i.e. an ethnic ghetto.)
I mention this for context, so we can understand just how much talent, drive and perseverence it took for Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee to "make it" in a highly discriminatory world that had no slot for them.
To mention but one example, Anna May learned German and French well enough to take leading parts in films in both languages, and she sang songs in Italian, Danish and a few other languages. When London critics derided her California accent, she hired a voice coach and learned to speak with a mid-Atlantic accent.
Bruce's family had moved back to Hong Kong when he was an infant, but he got in so much trouble for fighting and other hijinks that he was shipped to Seattle to finish high school and attend college. (His skills went beyond wu-shu; he won dancing contests in Hong Kong as a young teen.) After teaching kung-fu (properly called wu-shu) while in college, he moved to Oakland in the mid-1960s and started a martial arts school while still in his 20s.
Called upon to defend his right to teach wu-shu to non-Chinese, Bruce fought a famous one-on-one match with a martial artist chosen to represent the rigid Status Quo of the Chinese-American community in San Francisco. Though he was dissatisfied with his endurance, Bruce won the right to teach whomever he wanted--and that soon included Hollywood movie stars (males only, to the best of my knowledge).
What's exciting to me about opportunity in America is precisely what Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee accomplished--creating a role that did not exist before, and would not have existed without their extraordinary drive, determination, talent and perseverence in the face of rejection and disappointment that would have crushed most aspirants.
Sadly, Anna May and Bruce shared a similar fate: both died before their times, Anna May at 56 and Bruce at 33 from an allegic reaction to a pain-killer.
As the Global Economy Spirals into Recession....
There is a whiff of rising panic in the financial media as it is now undeniable that 1) Europe is in recession 2) China is slowing sharply 3) Japan is mired in a no-growth swamp and 4) the U.S. economy is also weakening. As a result, global markets have been sliding for around 9 weeks, along with all the commodities that rise in growth/inflation and decline in recession/deflation: oil, gold, copper, etc.
Here are a few thoughts that seem self-evident:
1) The central banks (CBs) cannot stand by and do nothing as the global economy tanks, yet they also can’t force the writedowns of bad debt that are needed--those are political decisions. So they will print money and “ease” liquidity because that’s their only lever. Expanding central bank balance sheets (electronic creation of money) won’t fix anything but such “easing” might goose stocks once more. If the 2012 market continues tracking 2011 as closely as it has to date, then we might get one more rally into July.
2) My contrarian sense gets nervous when every headline and pundit is bearish. It just isn't that easy to make money as a bear.
3) If history is any guide (and it is only a set of scenarios, not a crystal ball), we can expect the global Bear Market to generate volatility, not predictability.
4) I continue to see underlying evidence to support my long-term dual premise of a rising U.S. dollar (as people sell assets to raise cash to stay solvent and pay interest) and a decoupling of the U.S. market from the rest of the global economy.
I have been trashed/criticized in the blogosphere as "falling for the old nostrum" that the U.S. will attract cash as a safe haven. We shall see. Despite all the ugly realities we all know about, U.S. corporate profits remain strong as massive cost-cutting and adapting to new realities have dominated corporate strategies.
Simply put, global companies don't have the luxury of governments' "extend and pretend" avoidance of fiscal realities. Companies can't print money or borrow unlimited sums like governments, so they are four years ahead of governments everywhere.
As Josh (Chartist Friend from Pittsburgh) recently noted in a Zero Hedge comment, the standard-issue "America will crash" pundit believes two opposing things: the Pentagon will continue dominating the world while the U.S. dollar will go to near-zero and the U.S. economy will implode.
How can a nation with a worthless currency and a death-spiraling economy support a globally dominant military? And what is that dominant military "buying" for the U.S.? A nation's military, currency, ecomomic vitality, access to resources and global reach are all causally linked.
Everyone in the entire world with exposure to the global economy will become poorer in terms of purchasing power as credit dries up and deleveraging wipes out trillions of dollars of phantom wealth. But some nations will become much poorer in real terms, and others will become poorer and unstable. Poorer and stable is one thing, poorer and unstable is another entirely.
From Left Field
25 years of HyperCard—the missing link to the Web: the "mature" among you might remember Hypercard, the innovative program that was native to the Macintosh back in the late 1980s. As one of the first buyers of a Mac in 1984, I played around with Hypercard but never did anything useful with it.
Prepare For The Coming Housing Collapse: a data-driven analysis of shadow inventory and the banks' strategy to hold millions of impaired mortgages in "pre-foreclosure" in the hopes the market will recover if inventory is drained.
Facing Down the bankers: profile of (heroic) attorney Dennis Kelleher. "Mr. Kelleher does not work for banks. He works against them." (via Joel M.)
"To err is human, to blame it on somebody else shows management potential."\
Thanks for reading--