Anna May Wong, the First Chinese-American Movie Star

By Lyss Hobson on December 20 2019 in Society

A portrait of Wong in 1935.
A portrait of Wong in 1935.

Born in 1905 as Wong Liu Tsong, nobody could have guessed that Anna May Wong would grow up to be a Hollywood legend. The daughter of second-generation American-Chinese laundryman Wong Sam Sing and his second wife, Lee Gon Toy, Anna grew up with her six siblings on Flower Street, in an integrated community just outside of Chinatown in Los Angeles, California.

Early Beginnings

Anna attended California Street Public Elementary School at first, but the other students bullied her relentlessly. Children would often follow her shouting racial slurs, slapping her, pulling on her hair, and pushing her into the street as she walked to and from school. In response to this display of prejudice, Anna’s parents moved her to the Chinese Mission School in Chinatown, and enrolled her in a Chinese school after her classes every day as a way to keep her in touch with her Chinese heritage.

In the 1910s, the film industry was beginning to boom in California, and many movies with scenes set in China would film in Chinatown and hire crowds of Chinese extras to make their films feel more authentic. Anna took a keen interest in the movies, often skipping out on her after-class Chinese school to go to Chinatown to watch the filmings. Her parents were not pleased with her new obsession, but Anna refused to give it up. She often asked directors and filming crews to let her be an extra, and in 1919, at fourteen years old, she finally got her first background role, in Alla Nazimova’s The Red Lantern.

Early Acting Career

After this first role, Anna was hooked, and she kept taking whatever small parts she could get until in 1921 she quit high school entirely to focus on her acting. In 1922, at 17 years old, Anna landed her first starring role as the lead character in The Toll of the Sea. This breakout role made her the first Chinese-American woman to star in a Hollywood film.

Often, directors would cast white men and women to play Chinese characters rather than hire Chinese actors, and there were anti-miscegenation laws in place at the time that forbid an Chinese actor to play the romantic lead if the other starring actor was white, even if the white actor was playing a Chinese character. These practices led to a string of disappointing supporting roles for Anna, as it was difficult for her to find starring roles that Hollywood prejudice would allow her to play.

Anna had her second big hit in 1924, as a villainous Mongol slave in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad. Even with her growing success and renown, however, Anna was increasingly frustrated with the racism she faced in Hollywood culture. Her two biggest roles were clear examples of the two stereotypical characters that directors insisted she play over and over again as a Chinese-American woman: the “butterfly”, a naive woman who sacrifices herself for love like Anna’s character in The Toll of the Sea, or the “dragon lady”, a cruel, ferocious woman full of schemes and secrets like her character in The Thief of Bagdad.

European Move

Eager to escape this typecasting and play more complex and varied roles, Anna moved to Europe in 1928. She spent two years acting for stage and screen throughout Europe, and she built a huge reputation for herself overseas. Perhaps her best-remembered role from this time was as a nightclub dishwasher-turned-dancer in 1929’s Piccadilly, a performance that many critics praised as show-stealing. She also filmed The Flame of Love, her first movie with sound, in 1930, recording her lines in English, French, and German.

In 1930, Anna returned to the United States with a renewed resolution to stand up and speak out against discrimination. She openly criticized Hollywood’s racist attitudes toward Chinese actors in interviews, and she began to push back against those same attitudes when she encountered them in her work.

When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was adapting the popular Pearl S. Buck novel The Good Earth to film in 1935, Anna hoped to play Chinese protagonist O-Lan. Since the studio had selected a white actor to play O-Lan’s husband, however, anti-miscegenation laws forbid a Chinese actress from playing O-Lan. The studio offered Anna a role as a deceitful seductress named Lotus instead, but she turned down the job rather than play another unsympathetic, stereotyped role.

Travel to China

Anna went to China for a year in 1936 in order to learn more about the Chinese side of her culture and heritage. When she arrived, she was disappointed to discover that many Chinese people thought poorly of her. A strong nationalist sentiment in China led critics to decry her American lifestyle and Hollywood career as a disgrace to China. Upon her return, she expressed sadness at the way she felt her people on both sides had rejected her, as though she was too Chinese for the Americans and too American for the Chinese.

In the late 30s, Anna began to take roles in lower-profile B movies, as this allowed her to play more complex and sympathetic roles than the big Hollywood films would permit. She used the knowledge of Chinese culture and mannerisms she had learned during her trip to China to give more authentic performances, even refusing a director’s request to play up exaggerated Japanese stereotypes in her role in 1938’s Dangerous to Know in favor of a more understated and accurate portrayal.

Anna set one more milestone in 1951 as the first Chinese-American woman to star in her own TV show, playing the title character in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. The show ran for one year, and Anna played an art dealer and detective in a role written just for her.

On February 3, 1961, at 56 years old, Anna May Wong died of a heart attack. She had planned to return to acting in film, but she never had the opportunity. To this day, the Asian-American Arts Awards and the Asian Fashion Designers give awards named after her to honor her legacy.

More in Society