The actress who died a thousand deaths

3 June 2021

It takes one to know one. Fiona Choi explains why she wanted to turn the glamorous and tragic story of Asian Hollywood star Anna May Wong into a cabaret show.

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From immigrant laundry-man’s daughter to Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star to international style icon, Anna May Wong’s career spanned silent film, talkies, Broadway, cabaret and television before it was thwarted by alcoholism and an industry unwilling to see past her Asian face.

Wong is famously quoted as saying: “When I die, my epitaph should be: I died a thousand deaths. That was the story of my film career. They didn’t know what to do with me at the end, so they killed me off.”

Actress Fiona Choi (The Family Law, Golden Shield) has had a lifelong fascination with Wong and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Her obsession has found expression in a cabaret show having its WA premiere as part of the Perth International Cabaret Show. Choi chats with Rosalind Appleby about why she wanted to tell Wong’s story through song.

Rosalind Appleby: Who was Anna May Wong and what about her inspired you to tell her story through cabaret?

Fiona Choi’s lifelong fascination with Anna May Wong has resulted in a cabaret show paying tribute to the Hollywood star. Photo supplied

Fiona Choi: Anna May Wong was the world’s first Chinese-American movie star, whose career was thwarted due to miscegenation laws of the day, which forbade people of two different races to share a screen kiss. She was relegated to playing the stereotypical supporting roles that were killed off or died tragically to make way for the White woman to win the man. She was an international Style icon, a Cabaret star in Europe, and the first Asian woman to star in an American television series. But she was always too ‘Yellow’ for Hollywood and too ‘Western’ for China. As a girl obsessed with the Golden Years Of Hollywood I remember being astonished to find random photos of this mysterious & stunning Chinese woman amongst glamourous photos of stars like Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland & Vivien Leigh, and always wondered about her story: how did she fit in and carve a place for herself against all these odds. Turns out my childhood best friend Helen Yotis Patterson (herself a Greek Australian) had a similar childhood fascination, and so we decided to create Dragon Lady together. 

RA: Wong faced so many hurdles in her career. Drawing on your experience as an Asian female actress almost a century later, how much has changed?

FC: Sadly, I don’t know if too much has changed at all. Of course we no longer have laws banning interracial romance on stage & screen, but the biases and the hurdles are still there, always just under the surface. Whitewashing and Yellowface is still a thing! The fact I have an Asian face is the first thing people notice about me, and the assumptions associated with that have hindered my career as much as it has helped at times. Many people who have watched The Family Law are still surprised upon meeting me that I don’t talk in Jenny Law’s heavy accent. As an Australian born to Chinese immigrants, I’ve never completely belonged to either culture and so our challenge now is to take ownership and elevate visibility of this third culture – people of colour who are Aussies through and through.

RA: Tell us about the creative process behind “Dragon Lady – the Many Lives & Deaths of Anna May Wong”.

Putting “Dragon Lady” together was like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Helen wrote this beautiful script which was equal parts evocative biographical anecdotes, fantastical magic-realism fables and wry hilarious commentary. And so our challenge was to find the right songs to punctuate each section of text. We found many well-known songs (by artists like Bowie, Streisand, Cole Porter, Leonard Cohen) that we re-arranged to suit, but lyrically there were certain sections of the story that we couldn’t find a perfect song for. And so our MD Andrew Patterson and Simon Hall (from comedy group Tripod) wrote 4 incredible original songs in 4 quite different genres, and I think those are my favourite to perform in the show.

Find out more about the Perth international Cabaret Festival in this podcast with Artistic Director Michael Griffiths.

RA: Who will your show appeal to?

FC: “Dragon Lady” will appeal to anyone who loves strong feisty women; anyone who’s nostalgic for Old Hollywood or Weimar cabaret; anyone who can relate to that feeling of being on the outside looking in, of straddling two cultures and never belonging to either. And of course, to anyone who simply loves hilarious & heartfelt songs both familiar and new.

RA: You are based in Melbourne but you have studied music theatre at WAAPA – what are you looking forward to seeing/doing while you are back in Perth for the 2021 Perth International Cabaret Festival?

I am sooo excited to be coming back to Perth after so many years – I definitely want to visit WAAPA again, and have heaps of friends to catch up with, including my old WAAPA classmate Meow Meow who is also performing at PICF.  Other things I’m looking forward to are going to Cottesloe Beach, Freo markets, and seeing if Perth’s wedges with sour cream & sweet chilli are as good as I remember.

RA: What is your favourite playground equipment?

FC: I LOVE the spider web (or crows nest) swings!

“Dragon lady – the Many Lives and Deaths of Anna May Wong” is showing 23-24 June 2021 at the Perth International Cabaret Artist.

Win a double pass to see some of the most exciting acts at the 2021 Perth International Cabaret Festival, which runs from 19 – 27 June at His Majesty’s Theatre. Head to our competitions page for information on how to enter.

Pictured top: Fiona Choi as Anna May Wong in the cabaret show “Dragon lady”. Photo supplied

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Rosalind Appleby

Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

Past Articles

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    Willy Wonka takes a trip to utopia in a concert by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra that entrances both young and old, writes Rosalind Appleby.

  • Women in jazz – the elephant in the room

    After years of witnessing gender inequality in the jazz world, Gemma Farrell is calling it out with the release of an ambitious debut album by the Artemis Orchestra.

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