Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American movie star, but her career was limited by racism and discrimination.
Who Was Anna May Wong?
Anna May Wong an Asian American actress who found success in both Hollywood and Europe in films such as Piccadilly (1929), Daughter of the Dragon (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932). Though as a Chinese American she was often limited to smaller roles that fit the Asian stereotypes expected by white producers and audiences, Wong still managed to put her own stamp on the parts she was allotted. She built a career that spanned silent films, talkies, the theater and television before her death at the age of 56 in 1961. Wong has since been recognized as an iconic Asian American actress who dealt with difficult circumstances and helped blaze a trail for subsequent generations of performers.
Early Life and Family
Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles, California, on January 3, 1905. Her parents, Wong Sam Sing and Lee Gon Toy, were second-generation Chinese Americans. Wong’s grandparents arrived in California before immigration from China to the United States was restricted at the end of the 19th century.
Wong was the second of her parents’ seven children. The family ran a laundry and lived close to the business. Growing up, Wong spent countless hours working in the laundry or making deliveries to clients.
At the integrated elementary school Wong attended with her older sister, they had to endure racist taunts from their classmates. Wong later said of the experience, “Every day was one of torture for us.” Her parents then transferred the girls to the Chinese Mission School, which had a Chinese American student body.
Wong’s childhood gave her the opportunity to see Hollywood films shooting in Chinatown. She displayed such an avid interest that she was dubbed the “curious Chinese child.” Despite paternal disapproval, Wong dreamed of pursuing a career in the movies. She selected Anna May Wong as a stage name and at 14 got her start as an extra in The Red Lantern (1919).
Wong left high school in 1921 to concentrate on acting. At the age of 17, she was given a starring role in the Madame Butterfly-inspired The Toll of the Sea (1922). She delivered a good performance in the picture, which was one of the first Technicolor films. Wong’s supporting turn alongside Douglas Fairbanks as a Mongol slave girl (and spy) in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) made her a bigger success. In 1924 she set up her own production company, The Anna May Wong Productions. The operation soon folded, thanks to an underhanded business partner, but she continued to get work in movies.
Yet Wong was feeling constrained by Hollywood. It was common for white actors to be cast in Asian roles, using makeup and costumes to appear Asian. The practice, known as “yellowface,” was not only offensive, it limited the parts available to Wong, who noted, “Rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”
In addition, studios did not permit interracial kisses in films, thanks to anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. This meant Wong was not eligible for starring roles that involved a romantic pairing with white actors. Instead, she was typecast in smaller parts, often as either a subservient woman or a scheming “dragon lady.” Her characters frequently died via sacrifice or as comeuppance.
Move to Europe
Given the limits Wong faced in Hollywood, in 1928 she decided to go to Europe and pursue her career in Germany and England. She earned plaudits for 1929’s Piccadilly, which was her final silent film. Wong then entered the world of talkies; in different versions of The Flame of Love (1930), she spoke French, English and German.
Wong appeared in London with Laurence Olivier in the 1929 play A Circle of Chalk and in Vienna with a musical play Tschun-Tshi, which she wrote. While in Europe, Wong, who’d worked as a model growing up, also became a fashion trendsetter.
Return to America
In 1930, Wong was back in the United States for a successful run on Broadway in the play On the Spot. However, one aspect of her return would never have been experienced by her white counterparts. Wong had been born in the United States, but due to the Chinese Exclusion Act and subsequent amendments, prior to traveling abroad, she’d been required to go to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a certificate of identity that would allow her to re-enter the country.
Wong later signed with Paramount Studios. Daughter of the Dragon (1931) saw her playing another stereotype, though at least she was the headline star. Shanghai Express (1932) had Wong sharing the screen with Marlene Dietrich, a friend from her time in Europe and was a higher quality film.
Yet Wong still didn’t get many roles beyond melodramatic B movies. She expressed some of her frustration in a 1933 interview, “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilization that’s so many times older than that of the West. We have our own virtues. We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen?”
When the film version of The Good Earth, based on Pearl Buck’s novel about a rural Chinese family, was being cast in 1935, Wong hoped to play the lead role of O-Lan. She did screen tests but was not truly considered by the studio. Wong was then asked to test for Lotus, a conniving concubine. She was ultimately offered that part but turned it down, explaining, “You’re asking me — with Chinese blood — to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
The part Wong wanted was given to the white Luise Rainer, who went on to win an Oscar for her performance.
Trip to China
After the disappointing casting decision for The Good Earth, Wong stepped away from Hollywood and visited China in 1936. There, she faced criticism for portraying stereotypes on screen, though she countered that she hadn’t been the one responsible for those roles. She later said, “It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I’m ‘too American’ and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.”
The trip did give Wong the chance to learn more about China and its culture. She wrote about her journey for The New York Herald Tribune and The Los Angeles Times.
Daughter of Shanghai (1937) allowed Wong a happy ending with a Korean American male lead, which was unusual for her oeuvre. During World War II, she made Bombs over Burama (1942) and Lady from Chungking (1942). She also raised money for China, which had been invaded by Japan.
Wong retired from acting in 1942, though she continued to make occasional film and TV appearances. In 1951, she became the first Asian American with the lead role in a TV series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in which she portrayed an amateur investigator with a day job as an art dealer.
Wong had a small part in the film Portrait in Black (1960) as star Lana Turner’s maid. Her final movie appearance was in The Savage Innocents (1961). She’d wanted to make a comeback in the Hollywood version of the musical Flower Drum Song, but passed away before production began.
Wong never married. There were rumors that she was romantically involved with Dietrich and white men. Even if this gossip was accurate, the laws and prejudices of Wong’s day meant these relationships couldn’t have resulted in marriage.
Death and Legacy
Wong died on February 3, 1961, in Santa Monica, California. She was 56. The cause of death was a heart attack. She’d suffered from liver disease for years prior to her passing.
The documentary Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words explored Wong’s life. Another documentary, Searching for Anna May Wong, considered if Wong would face the same career obstacles in the present day. The TV series Hollywood featured Wong as a character, though her storyline was fictionalized.
Wong has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has been the subject of biographies such as Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend and Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong.