Born into the steam and starch of her father’s Chinese laundry in Los Angeles, Anna May Wong gained a toehold in Hollywood after her debut as an uncredited extra in the 1919 silent film, The Red Lantern, starring Alla Nazimova. Wong’s striking beauty and talent immediately drew the attentionof the First Lady of the Silent Screen. Nazimova’s tutelage opened doors for Wong, as it did formany young hopeful actresses such as Mildred Davis, Virginia Fox, and Nancy Davis (later known as Nancy Reagan). At the tender age of fourteen, the daughter of a Chinese laundryman was ready to emerge from her cocoon.
Hobnobbing with Tinseltown elites at the Garden of Alla and elsewhere, at the same time picking up bit parts in “China flicks,” Wong landed a lead role in The Toll of the Sea (1922), a cinematic reincarnation, one of the many to come in the long 20th century, of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This second Technicolor release was a blockbuster, grossing more than $250,000. The success led to her appearance in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), an Orientalist fantasy that cemented DouglasFairbanks’s status as a matinee idol and also immeasurably boosted Wong’s reputation.
Despite her spectacular rise, Wong was livingat a time whenChinese would be deemed “too Chinese” to playsuch a role—acultural absurdity plaguing both Hollywood and Main Street USA, a racial attitude that imposed a virtual form of foot-binding on Wong’s career. Consequently, when the German director Richard Eichberg offered her a five-picture contract, Wong readily joined the exodus of other nonwhite performers such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson and sailed for Europe to seek a better future. Or, ironically, Wong was going to Europe to be recog- nized as American.
Arriving in Germany in the spring of 1928, Wong saw a mesmerizing cultural scene: The artistic avant-garde—from Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, from Bauhaus to Dadaism—was in full swing. In mass culture, Berlin was, in the words of Kyiv-born writer Ilya Ehrenburg, “an apostle of Americanism,” America being the catchword for whatever was cool and modern—everything from jazz to the foxtrot and the Charleston, to Josephine Baker’s La Revue Nègre and her banana skirt. Arising out of the ashes of World War I, the Weimar Republic, to paraphrase Peter Gay, was dancing on the edge of a volcano. Prior to the rise of the Nazis, which shattered the liberal dreams and artistic visions, Wong was not only a witness to the precarious exuberance that characterized the short-lived Weimar era. More important, starring in a series of films to critical acclaim and rubbing elbows with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Walter Benjamin, Wong became the talk of the town in Berlin and achieved global stardom.
Pavement Butterfly (a.k.a. Großstadtschmetterling) was Wong’s second German film with Eichberg. Shot primarily in France and set alternatively in Paris and Nice, the film featured Wong as Mah, a Chinese variety dancer. Performing under the stage name of Princess Butterfly, she does fan dances at a street fair to accompany a Chinese circus artist, who pulls a stunt of “the Flying Harikari”—jumping through a wooden frame lined with sharp knives. Earlier in her first German film Song, Wong’s character dies in a precarious sword dance. Now in Pavement Butterfly, her new incarnation was once again ensnared in a plot of death by blade. Coco, a spurned and vindictive suitor of Mah, murders her partner and blames it on her. Running through the Parisian streets, Mah takes refuge in the studio of a young artist named Kusmin. She models for him and in the process falls in love with him. Kusmin’s portrait of Mah is sold to a rich patron, but on her way to the bank, she encounters Coco, who robs her of the money. Mistakenly accusing her of theft, Kusmin throws her out. Back on the street again, Mah is rescued this time by the patron who has bought her portrait. He takes her down to Monte Carlo, where she manages to retrieve the money stolen by Coco—only to see that Kusmin has a new love interest. Walking through the layered shadows of a portico fronting a casino, she exits from the life of the man she loves.
Befitting the film’s working title Die Fremde (The Foreigner), Pavement Butterfly portrays the story of a “racial other” living on the margins of a Western society. A beautiful and highly desirable woman, she is nonetheless an outsider who does not fit. Easily misunderstood, she is lovable but untouchable, a fate suffered by many of Wong’s characters. Faraway from Hollywood, the taboo on interracial kissing or romance continued to dog her, as it did throughout her career. German reviewers were quick to criticize the film’s racism and sexism. Writing for Film-Kurier, Ernst Jaeger noted the poor treatment of the “Chinese girl in saccharine”: “The Eichberg team did not dare to let a happy white man share the same bed as the undressed body of a Mongolian woman.” He ascribed the film’s “erotic hypocrisy” to the British influence (the film was coproduced by British International Pictures), calling it “the Anglo-American icing on the cinematic cake.” Another reviewer for a Socialist newspaper was more direct in its critique, putting the blame also on foreign influences: “Following the American scheme, the Chinese woman has to rescue a young white man, a painter, and at the end— because the white race is so sky-high superior to the yellow one—she gets the usual boot.”
Not all was lost, however. As suggested by the title phrase, Pavement Butterfly introduced a new character type, a role that belonged uniquely to Wong, as she once told Walter Benjamin at a Berlin soiree. While the word butterfly implies the familiar Madame Butterfly, and the sorrowful ending confirms the film’s place in the Orientalist mode, pavement points not only to a new setting for this old character type but also to the embrace of a figure in Weimar Germany as well as Europe- an cinema at the time: the vamp.
With the improvement of women’s social status in Weimar Germany, the mythology of the New Woman was being promoted by themedia and took on a life of its own. A typical image of such a woman is a glamorous girl fiercely independent, armed with bobbed hair, fashionable clothes, and an obligatory cigarette, working by day and frittering away the night at a dance club or a cinema. The 1930 film The Blue Angel , directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, did much to further popularize the image of the vamp. Playing a seductress named Lola, Dietrich trotted out her legs on stage and crooned in her husky voice, “love is just a game/to me men are drawn/like moths to the flame.”
Wong’s character in Pavement Butterfly was no temptress like Dietrich’s Lola, but Mah is equally attractive to the men around her, with some even willing, in a noir way, to kill for her. Like Lola, Mah orbits among the demimonde of artists and gamblers, bedecked in the latest Parisian fashions, loving passionately, and yet having the courage to walk away when she realizes the futility of the affection. Her parting words, in particular, reveal her streak of independence as a New Woman: “Ich gehöre nicht zu euch” (I don’t belong to you). Anticipating her signature “Dragon Lady” role in the talkie era, Wong added a dimension of the “exotic other” to the image of the vamp. In other words, she was simultaneously Madame Butterfly and the vamp.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2023 with live musical accompaniment by the Sascha Jacobsen Ensemble