Gold Mountain Girl: portrait of Anna May Wong
Steven W. Justice
48×48, Oil on canvas 2022
In 1869, on May 10, Central Pacific Railroad president Leland Stanford hammered home the ceremonial “Golden Spike” at Promontory Summit in Utah, to commemorate the completion of America’s transcontinental railroad. On hand were other bosses, investors, politicians, and Irish laborers. Omitted were all of the 20,000 Chinese laborers who constructed the more difficult western 1/3 of the project (at a 10% casualty rate), banging through high granite mountains using only picks and dynamite, while the eastern 2/3 balled along at a mile-per-day. In this painting, I correct this oversight and include the Chinese laborers in that iconic scene.
By that day, the Chinese had already been given, as part of their severance package, a one-way rail ticket to anywhere but Promontory Summit. In fact, the great American tradition of racial discrimination, which was easier to inflict since the social and political doldrums of the Chinese was conveniently pegged to that of African Americans, forced the Chinese to keep moving along until they eventually took refuge in the charming Chinatown ghettos tourists still enjoy in large coastal cities.
The movie actress Anna May Wong was born in L.A.’s Chinatown in 1905, 50 years after her family had emigrated from Guangzhou to strike it rich during California’s Gold Rush. They instead wound up in their races’ stereotypical support roles of food service and laundering. Anna May was bitten by the Hollywood movie bug at 17, and acted in 50 films followed by years of TV. She was denied leading roles, but landed endless parts as the evil temptress, dragon lady, slave girl, exotic show girl etc. Film censorship codes forbade so much as inter-racial smooching. In fact, if a white leading man was even attracted to her, her character had to die. Rules were rules. No one died in more movies than Anna May Wong.
After a lifetime of being rejected by Americans for being too Chinese and by Chinese for being too American, she lost herself in a sea of booze and depression. But had she not played all these stereotypical roles (and well) some White girl in yellow-face would have (and badly) while Gold Mountain Girl stayed home and folded laundry. The cure for pain is found in the pain.