Anna May Wong became a Hollywood star in an era when Asians in North America faced a bewildering range of laws restricting immigration and permitting discrimination. Weary of playing stereotypical roles and losing parts to white women in yellowface, she looked to European cinema and the American B pictures, where better and more nuanced parts could sometimes be found.
One such film is Daughter of Shanghai (1937). After the murder of her father, a young woman goes undercover to expose an illegal and often-murderous immigrant smuggling ring. In addition to crossing paths with various dangerous characters, she also encounters a Chinese-American G-man, played by Korean-American actor Philip Ahn. This is Wong's film and her character proves intelligent, brave, and resourceful, but we're still in 1930s Hollywood, and she must have a male hero come to her rescue when things turn really desperate.
Stereotype isn't absent, but it is muted, and not exclusively related to the depiction of Asians. Anthony Quinn, for example, portrays a ham-fisted, dim-witted, big-hearted Irishman. Wong's character, while working undercover as an entertainer, bills herself as the titular Daughter of Shanghai and surrounds herself with exotic Orientalist trappings. We know, however, that she grew up in America, and she's playing the crooks, using their expectations to gain critical information.
She also discovers that some of the white Americans she most trusts can be the most racist.
The film, with its blend of danger, humour, and social issues, remains enjoyable, and benefits from a noteworthy cast. In addition to Wong, Quinn, and Ahn, Daughter features character actors Charles Bickford and Cecil Cunningham, Olympic athlete and action hero Buster Crabbe, film heavy Fred Kohler, and the resilient J. Carrol Naish.
Wong's short-lived 1951 TV series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong seems to owe much, conceptually, to this movie.