On a whim, a young Chinese-American girl pays with an inch of her hair so that she and he sister can see Romeo and Juliet at the new nickelodeon in their neighborhood. From that moment on, she has a single desire: to be a motion picture star. Not simply an actress, but a star. Quite a goal for a young Asian-American girl in 1930s Los Angeles. Luli Wei is not her real name. It actually belongs to her sister, stolen in a moment of panic while meeting with the head of Wolfe Studios. But no one in the movie business uses their real names. To provide your employer with your real name gives them unimaginable power over you. So, Luli Wei became her sister. As she negotiates her contract, she states she will play no parts involving maids, funny talking characters, or fainting flowers. She makes the demand knowing the limits it will place on her options. So when she is offered the chance to play a villain, a monster, in an upcoming epic, she seizes the chance. Audiences love monsters and Luli knows this may be her chance to become the star of which she dreams. If only she can do it without becoming an actual monster first.
In Siren Queen, Nghi Vo creates a fascinating doppelganger to the Hollywood of the 1930s. She fills it with dark magic, luminous stars, brutal studio heads, and a seemingly endless stream of those willing to do almost anything to be a part of making movies. She takes readers behind the walls of Wolfe Studios, where those willing to risk being sacrificed to the powers that keep the studio running may find themselves surviving to make another film. They take these risks hoping to be put under contract, if they survive long enough. And they will take any part offered to them for the chance to break through and get noticed.
Vo makes pointed commentary on the rampant racism in Hollywood. While Luli declares she will not play maids or “talk funny,” Vo opens a conversation between her and someone that bears a striking resemblance to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award. The character, who performs under the name of Tiny Annie, tells Luli how playing these demeaning parts have lifted her and her family out of poverty, and questions Luli on her motivations for not taking the same career path.
Vo also provides a window into the underground network for gays and lesbians in Hollywood. She highlights the illegal, in more ways than one, speakeasies, often discovered only by invitation, where LGBTQ people sought refuge and a place to relax and be themselves. Vo also illustrates the informal networking within the studios, between gay and lesbian actors and actresses, which allowed them to provide support clandestinely, all the while maintaining each others’ carefully guarded secrets.
Siren Queen is a harrowing, fantastical journey through an alternate pre-code Hollywood, where magic is rampant, contracts with the studios are Faustian, and movie stars literally inhabit the night sky if they are lucky enough to rise. But it is also a journey of self-discovery, love found, lost, and found again. It is a reminder that there is a bit of monster in all of us and, if we allow it to, it may help make our dreams come true.
Read an interview with the author here.