When a film or TV series is based where you live, you can’t help but look out for places you recognise. You probably have an example of it in your own town or city. For me in Bristol, it used to be Casualty and then Being Human (I walk past the house of vampires, werewolves and ghosts everyday) but it was certainly a little surprising to see Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong in 19th century Bristol in Java Head (1934, dir. J. Walter Ruben & Thorold Dickinson). This British film from the 1930s has been on release from the BFI since 2011, and at last I’ve watched it.
Primarily my interest lay in the novelty of the Bristol setting (and mentions of Clifton Downs, St Mary Redcliffe, or Brandon Hill …) but actually it is worth watching in terms of its representation of the Orient(al) in film, and the effects of the East on the lives of those in the West (country).
West meets East
Java Head is a historical melodrama set in the port of Bristol in the 1850s with the title derived from the name of the family home of the shipping company, Ammidon and Sons. One of the sons, Gerrit is in love with Nettie, the daughter of his father’s rival, but as a family feud prevents marriage, he heads off for adventure on the high seas, where he is happiest. He returns with new wife, the ‘exotic’ Manchu Princess, Taou Yuen, played by Anna May Wong, which causes quite a stir in the conservative community. Just before her first appearance on screen, the youngest member of the family plays a discordant piano key, and then the camera follows each of the family members’ shocked faces. Gerrit’s father asks what she will be called – “Taou Yuen Ammidon? The two don’t go together”.
Wong’s character is steeped in Western representations of the East – noble, stoic and studied in Chinese philosophies, but also passive, wanting to please her husband. However for the time when ‘yellowface’ was common, it was a lead role for an Chinese actor and, at the beginning of the film, I felt that we could make a recuperative reading of the film. The town is to some extent critiqued for its hypocrisy and prejudice – we see the city gossip about the couple, but Gerrit stands up for his wife and goes against the grain of the closed-minded community.
However, ultimately the film does not allow the interracial romance to flourish. Java Head fits in with “yellow peril” discourses where the West’s desires and fears are projected onto the East, and colonial practices sanctioned. As the narrative unfolds, her husband starts to drift away from Taou Yeun, finding her ‘foreign’ characteristics repellent. In one scene he looks around their bedroom, and the camera focuses on their Chinese objects, cutting back to his disgusted expression. Gerrit tells Taou Yuen “this will never be your home… you’re so different from everything here”. Wong’s character is described as priceless and delicate, a description more suited to the cargo the Ammidons trade, and as she is a princess, her status rather than ethnicity is used at times (disingenuously) to explain their irreconcilable difference. Although Gerrit turns against Taou Yuen, the film holds him up as honourable as he regards Taou Yuen as his (Colonial) responsibility.
Nettie, the innocent, but plucky girl-next-door, is set in opposition to the more worldly, detached Taou. When Gerrit sees Taou perform a ceremony for his deceased father, he asks her to stop her ‘barbaric’ ways and questions what she is wearing. Underneath Taou’s calm exterior, the Orientalist’s essential Eastern characteristics are revealed when she tries to strangle Nettie with a mad look in her eyes. Anna May Wong’s Chinese ‘costumes’, and hair and make-up in the Peking opera style, create her as Oriental Other. In the final scene when she visits and confronts Nettie, her elaborate outfit contrasts with the English rose in a plain, pure white cotton nightdress. In the end, Taou cannot live without her husband’s love, and sacrifices herself by committing suicide so that the white couple can be together. The film acts as a warning against an unnatural mixing of cultures and reveals that although the East seems to be wise and ordered, at essence lies instability and danger.
The moral dangers of the East are also played out through the family business itself. The head of the Ammidon family has a heart attack when he realises that his other son, landlubber, William, has been trading opium. Nettie’s uncle, Edward Dunsack has just returned from China, and the Ammidon ship has carried his stash of opium to feed his addiction to the East. He worships Eastern culture, but Taou Yuen says, “China’s bad for men like him”. Edward is weak (“as pale as a Chinaman”) and easily tainted by the East, whereas Gerrit, a ‘real man’, ultimately resists. Edward sees in Taou, “all the beauty and culture of two thousand years of civilisation in one women. It takes knowledge to appreciate the full fascination of China”. But his love of the East is seen as unnatural, a sickness, and he is a reminder to Taou that she will never belong in the West.
Java Head in context of Anna May Wong’s career
Java Head was Wong’s third film in Britain in 1934, along with Tiger Bay (J. Elder Wills) and Chu Chin Chow (Walter Forde). After the 1927 Cinematograph Film Act, a quota of films had to be British to counter the dominance of Hollywood films and Americanisation. With more movies being made in the UK, this provided opportunities for Anna May Wong to attain roles – and leading roles – which were not forthcoming in Hollywood. Karen Leong (2006) argues that Wong’s European cinematic performances and star persona, led to her win Hollywood parts, such as in Limehouse Blues for Paramount (Alexander Hall, 1934).
After making Tiger Bay in an interview with Doris Mackie, Anna May Wong stated:
“You see, I was tired of the parts I had to play… Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece? … We are not like that… why do they never show these on screen? Why should we always scheme-rob-kill? I got so weary of it all – the scenarist’s conceptions of Chinese character, that I told myself I was done with films forever.”
Although Wong goes on to say that her character in Tiger Bay is a more accurate representation of Chinese people, from our contemporary perspective, the narrative of this film follows a similar pattern to Java Head. Western colonisation is justified through a Chinese, exotic character, who, although seems to be on the side of the British Empire, has a murderous heart and must sacrifice herself so the young, white heterosexual couple can be happy. However, Wong’s critique of Hollywood as racist suits the British feeling against American imperialism, and also helps to cover their own colonial guilt.
The Motion Picture Production (Hays’) Code in America, which began to be enforced more strongly after 1934, prevented miscegenation, so kissing between different races was forbidden. Java Head was the only film where Wong kissed a male actor (her kissing scene from Piccadilly [Ewald André Dupon,1929] was cut). However, even at the time, one reviewer stated that Java Head “chiefly serves to introduce the most famous object in the museum, the daughter of a Chinese mandarin (Miss Anna May Wong)… making an engaging contrast with the homely Bristolware”. There is a patriotic parade during Java Head for the Queen’s birthday where Gerrit and Nettie realise that they are in love, but Taou Yuen is absent illustrating that the East cannot fit into the British home.
A natural sacrifice
For contemporary audiences, as soon as Gerrit starts flirting with Nettie, you know that it’s over for Anna May Wong. Java Head may leave a bitter taste as she sacrifices herself so that the white couple can sail happily off into the sunset, to visit new lands, but stay British.
Have you seen Java Head or any other Anna May Wong movies? Let me know what you thought.
Leong, Karen J., (2006) “Anna May Wong and the British Film Industry” in “Quarterly Review of Film and Video (23, pp 13-22)