Pushcart XLI: Sally Wen Mao, “Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles” (poetry) from Missouri Review #38.1

When I was sixteen, I modeled fur coats for a furrier.
White men gazed down my neck like wolves
But my mink collar protected me.

I bet men – and not a few women – are tired of hearing about the indignities of being female. And I’ll bet nearly everyone, including some of the woke, is shocked to find that Asians deal with racism, too. Well, the speaker of the poem doesn’t care what people are tired of hearing about, or what level of stereotyping others think is not too bad; she’s mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it any more.

The poem is one of a set of five poems concerning Anna May Wong, considered the first Chinese American actress. Her career started in the 1920s and moved from silents to talkies to radio and television, and while she performed in dozens of movies and almost as many TV roles (IMDB lists 61 credits), when it came to major roles, she was sidelines by whitewashing: the casting of white actors in non-white roles, a practice that’s still common today.

The conceit of the poem is the conflation of Wong’s 16th birthday and the speaker’s sweet 16 from 1984 [Addendum: See Comments – I missed a major reference here] with the overarching sense of the present. The concerns haven’t changed much:

                                                            ….It’s 1984
so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead,
an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city
without shores. Cast me as that girl who rivets centerstage
or cast me away, into the blue where my lips don’t touch
or say. If I take my time machine back to sixteen, or twenty,
or eight, I’d blow out all my candles. Sixteen wishes
extinguish and burn.

I don’t have much to add. Anna May Wong, and/or Sally Wen Mao, has done a pretty good job of speaking for herself. Most women do.


2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Sally Wen Mao, “Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles” (poetry) from Missouri Review #38.1

  1. I had no idea who Anna May Wong was, but I figured from context she was an actress who got stuck in stereotypical roles. For some reason, I didn’t see the 1984 16th birthday as the poet’s. I saw it as Molly Ringwald’s in 16 Candles, which featured the somehow-they-still-got-away-with-it racist character of Long Duk Dong, he of the “no more yankie my wankie” fame. The now old Anna May Wong gets sick of seeing this kind of thing, and wishes she could go back to being sixteen again and get better roles. But she knows she’ll never get to be Molly Ringwald kissing Jake at the end.

    By the way, did you ever see the much-overlooked biopic about Bruce Lee? There’s a really sweet scene in it where his to-be wife walks about of Breakfast at Tiffany’s with him when she realizes the portrayal of Mickey Rooney as the bucktoothed Asian bothers him. This poem made me think of that.

    • Oh, ok, that makes so much sense! I’ve never seen 16 Candles (I seem to have missed a lot of classic movies somehow) so it never occurred to me. I’ve never seen the Bruce Lee movie (obviously, i’ve got to get out more), but the Mickey Rooney thing is one of the nastiest examples of Hollywood whitewashing and stereotyping.

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