Of Another Fashion

An alternative archive of the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color

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In many ways, this photo of the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Wong, taken at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, California, is hardly noteworthy. We’ve all seen wedding photos like this one. However, that this wedding took place on June 1, 1920 is historically astonishing. In 1920, the U.S. was in the middle of the anti-Asian exclusion era that officially began in 1882 and ended in 1965. The exclusion of female Asian immigrants in 1875 with the Page Act makes this wedding photo all the more unlikely. It is clear from their fashionable attire (tuxedos and au courant tea-length dresses) that the Wongs had relative social and economic privilege compared to most other Chinese in the U.S. at the time.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

At the turn of the 20th century, very few Chinese people but especially Chinese women thanks to the Page Act of 1875 were in the United States. Chinese Exclusion Acts prohibiting most Chinese from immigrating (beginning in 1882 and then expanding through the mid 20th century to exclude most other Asians) had the intended effect of severely decreasing the population of Chinese Americans. Laws like the Page Act that specifically barred female Asian immigrants made it nearly impossible for those Chinese who were born in the U.S. or Chinese who had immigrated before 1882 to have families. This was the first and only time in U.S. history that a racial group was singled out for immigration exclusion.

Amelia Lee, pictured above, was a racial and gender minority in 1910 when this photo was taken. It’s likely from her age, name, fashionable clothes, and the studio portrait that she was born in the U.S. to a relatively well-to-do family.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

This is (L-R) Alice Wong, Helen Hong, and Mary Dunn at Venice Beach on the Fourth of July, 1931.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

Here are (L-R) Alice Wong, Mary Dunn, and Helen Hong at Venice Beach on July 4, 1931.

Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

 

Anna Chang, the vaudevillian and movie actor in the 1930s, might have autographed this photograph for Bill Whitmore, the jazz musician who wrote “New Orleans Shuffle”.

The photograph was published in Frank Cullen’s Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers In America, Vol. 2 (Routledge 2006) 34.

Speaking of vaudeville stars, this is San Francisco-born Anna Chang! Chang followed in but never quite filled the shoes of the better known Chinese American star Anna May Wong.

In the early part of Chang’s career around 1928, she was in a traveling vaudeville act called Hula Blues, “a new kind of Hawaiian beauty show which entrances its auditors with its soft, melting harmony, and twanging ukuleles.” In 1932, she played the lead in Cary Grant’s first movie Singapore Sue. The video shows Chang singing her hit song, “How Can a Girl Say No?” (At the end of the performance, Chang proves a girl can say no by rebuffing the dopey advances of a young Grant.)

The first Miss Chinatown beauty contestants, San Francisco 1948. The eventual winner, Penny Wong, stands at the far left.

A publicity still of 22 year-old New Mexico-born Mary Mammon, a featured dancer at Charlie Low’s Forbidden City nightclub, published in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (15 June 1941).