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The Brightest Star


The Brightest Star

Gail Tsukiyama’s THE BRIGHTEST STAR straddles the line of fiction and creative nonfiction, in much the same way as its real-life protagonist, late actress Anna May Wong, walks the line of being both Chinese and American. Her life is a journey of balance as she weighs traditional Chinese values from her family with the popular trends of early Hollywood. She responds with perseverance or devastation through the prejudices of the film industry, health woes and family tragedies. Those who relish tales of old Hollywood --- its glitz, glam and charade of artistic opportunity --- or are just enchanted by compelling character development will cherish this book.

The novel’s “present,” a train ride in 1960, fluidly transitions to Wong’s heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. Nothing feels abrupt when the longer sections of her youth and early adulthood fast forward to her mid-50s. Wong eagerly awaits the train’s destination, a press tour in New York for Portrait in Black, her first major film role in about a decade. She kills time by reading her old journals, reminiscing when she was piling up acting roles despite Hollywood’s preference for yellowface. Tsukiyama employs hindsight and irony in her captivating book whenever Wong doubts that audiences would care enough about her memoir.

"Those who relish tales of old Hollywood --- its glitz, glam and charade of artistic opportunity --- or are just enchanted by compelling character development will cherish this book.... Tsukiyama crafts a fictional memoir so seamlessly that she fades away, allowing Wong to shine like the star she is."

Wong’s parents emphasize the importance of honoring their homeland values alongside their American home. Though Anna May Wong’s name is assimilated from Liu-Tsong, and her father indirectly lauds the American dream within his children’s education, Wong is rich with Chinese values. Throughout her story, she stresses the importance of family, and its unconditional and symbiotic support. She defines her identity as “both Chinese and American, different and the same,” so she embraces traditions within fashion and cuisine, while spurning sexist, husband-centered aspirations to pursue an acting career in Hollywood.

As a young schoolgirl, Wong falls in love with the expressiveness of silent film actors, sneaks off from school to go to cinemas, and, later in high school, begins in the trenches of her industry as an extra. Tsukiyama wisely blends these familiar origins with her family’s reactions, particularly her father’s disapproval. He feels that acting will make her undesirable to a “good husband,” while her sister, Lulu, believes that she should pursue her dreams. Once Wong is acting in her first roles and attending her first Hollywood parties, the audience is in tune with her family dynamics, casting a solid foundation for her backstory just as her career kicks into gear.

The Spanish Flu makes Chinese extras difficult to find, opening a door for Wong. The parties hosted by Japanese-American actors Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki are legendary thanks to the strong drinks served during Prohibition. Tsukiyama avoids a common pitfall of historical fiction by weaving, and not fixating upon, historical backdrops.

During one of these parties in the early 1920s, Wong meets director Mickey Neilan. She’s 16, and he’s almost 15 years her senior. Promising marriage and more prominent movie roles, Neilan takes her virginity and eventually breaks up with her in fear of racist backlash. Wong resents Neilan for his cowardice, for following his career and not his heart. Though her reflection on this relationship may draw from the real Anna May Wong’s recollections, it is a shame that Tsukiyama does not use her own fiction to discuss the disturbing nature of this predatory relationship. It is true that Wong is reading her journals, which would draw from a 16-year-old’s reactions, but framing Nielan’s offense as solely racist, without a hint of discussion about pedophilia, is perhaps the book’s lone misstep.

Honing her facial expressiveness, and her anger and heartache following her breakup, Wong’s big break comes in the 1922 film, The Toll of the Sea. She feels she can finally begin to show American audiences a “real Chinese-American girl.” Wong’s father resents the paparazzi outside his family’s home and business. He and his daughter perpetually fight over the “dishonor” her acting brings to the family, and he cites Chinese newspaper critics to prove his point. This doesn’t stop Wong, as she sees these critics as more people who need to learn “different and the same.” When she’s not acting, she stays relevant with her studio photos; she has a keen eye for fashion and intricately weaves traditional Chinese styles with trendy American fads. Throughout THE BRIGHTEST STAR, Tsukiyama showcases what Wong does between jobs, crafting a realistic career story.

Wong struggles to find roles where she isn’t portraying a prostitute, villainous opium den owner or suicidal ex-lover. She tries her luck in European theater, garnering a large following after a few years there. By the end of her career, Wong has an expansive repertoire in movies, theater and television, paving the way for better Asian representation in the film industry. Tsukiyama crafts a fictional memoir so seamlessly that she fades away, allowing Wong to shine like the star she is.

Reviewed by Sam Johnson on June 22, 2023

The Brightest Star
by Gail Tsukiyama

  • Publication Date: June 20, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperVia
  • ISBN-10: 0063213753
  • ISBN-13: 9780063213753