Anna May Wong - Lecture by Professor Shirley J. Lim

scene from the film PICCADILLY
PICCADILLY (1929, dir. E.A. Dupont)
Book cover with photo of woman in profile against tan background with knot pattern

Cornell Cinema is pleased to welcome scholar Shirley Jennifer Lim '90, Professor of History at Stony Brook University, for a lecture in conjunction with our fall series From Silent Film Star to American Icon: Celebrating Anna May Wong.

Professor Lim's talk—titled “Anna May Wong—will reveal the personal triumphs, professional heartaches, and giddy social whirl of “The World’s Most Beautiful Chinese” American woman. The subject of renewed attention in recent years, Anna May Wong (1905-1961) is most often referred to as the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood. And she certainly did dazzle in her roles. But this characterization diminishes her chief accomplishment: her capacity for reinvention. When Hollywood’s yellowface casting stymied her ambitions, out of the ashes of rejection, she persevered, becoming an Australian vaudeville chanteuse, a British theatrical luminary, a Parisian fashion icon, a B-film pulp diva, and an American television celebrity. By the time Wong died on February 3, 1961, she had left a legacy of more than fifty films, numerous Broadway and vaudeville shows, and a television series.

Equally important is how she became a global celebrity despite being shut out from Hollywood’s A-list leading roles. “Anna May Wong” will show the real woman behind the actress’ façade, including her sexual escapades, debauched night life, and friendships with significant cultural figures such as African American actor Paul Robeson, the tastemaker Carl Van Vechten, actress Fania Marinoff, and lesbian icon Judith Anderson.

In a particularly powerful turn, Professor Lim will also use the glamourous and highly photogenic actress's life story to dramatize Asian American history. During the Chinese Exclusion Era (1882-1943), Wong continually battled the threat of immigration detention and deportation. In 1946, Los Angeles’ racial housing covenants stymied Wong’s efforts to purchase a house. Throughout her career, when European American actresses won roles as Chinese and “Oriental” characters over her, Wong found solace not only in Asian American communities, but in Harlem and amongst gay and lesbian circles.

The talk will be introduced and moderated by Jessie Taieun Yoon (they/them), a PhD student in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell.

The talk is free and open to the public. It will take place at Cornell Cinema, Willard Straight Theatre, and will be followed by a free screening of Piccadilly (Germany, 1928, dir. by Richard Eichberg) at 7:30pm.

This special event is made possible by generous support from the Asian-American Studies Program, the East Asia Program at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Department of History, the Department of Performing and Media Arts, and the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.


Shirley Jennifer Lim is Professor of History at SUNY Stony Brook and the author of A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930–1960. Her most recent book Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern (2019, Temple University Press) explores how Wong helped shape racial modernity as she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and, more generally, “Oriental” women between 1925 and 1940. In the book, Lim re-evaluates Wong’s life and work as a consummate artist by mining an historical archive of her efforts outside of Hollywood cinema. From her pan-European films and her self-made My China Film to her encounters with artists such as Josephine Baker, Carl Van Vechten, and Walter Benjamin, Lim scrutinizes Wong’s cultural production and self-fashioning. By considering the salient moments of Wong’s career and cultural output, Lim’s analysis explores the deeper meanings, and positions the actress as an historical and cultural entrepreneur who rewrote categories of representation. Lim graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University in 1990 and received her PhD from University of California, Los Angeles, in 1998.

Dr. Lim's book Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern is available for purchase from Temple University Press. Please enter the code T20P at check out to receive a 20% discount when you order though their website.

“Celebrating Anna May Wong” is presented in partnership with the Wharton Studio Museum and Cinemapolis as part of the 12th Annual Silent Movie Month in Ithaca. Please visit for more information.