Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star to conquer Hollywood. Born Wong Liu Tsong (meaning “frosted yellow willows”) in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1905, she was truly a child of American movies as she loved watching film crews shoot in Chinatown as a child.

Infatuated with movies, Wong made her film acting debut in 1919, among five hundred other extras in The Red Lantern(1919), a big-budget extravaganza starring Alla Nazimova.

From then on, Anna May worked steadily in small roles and earned her first credit as Lon Chaney’s abused wife in Bits of Life (1921) before starring in The Toll of the Sea (1922), a Chinese variation of the Madame Butterfly tale and an early Technicolor film.

Swashbuckling movie star Douglas Fairbanks saw her in the melodrama and immediately cast her as the ‘Mongolian Slave Girl,’ in his Arabian Nights fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Wong became a fashion icon, and by 1924 had achieved international stardom. However, the only Chinese-American actress of the silent era, Anna May was consigned to interludes as a specialty dancer or decorative vamp  in the many forbidden East adventures and Chinatown mysteries.

Frustrated with Hollywood’s stereotyping and the increasing competition for diminishing Oriental roles – her lesser known Asian contemporaries were Etta Lee, Lotus Long and Toshia Mori – she fled to Europe in 1928. After some success in Berlin, Wong moved to London and starred in her final silent film Piccadilly (1929). Although billed third in the credits, Wong stole the backstage melodrama from nominal costars Gilda Grey and Jameson Thomas in what critics considered to be her best British film.

Travelling between the US and Europe, Anan May made her Broadway debut in Edgar Wallace’s melodrama, On the Spot, in the fall of 1930. Returning to Hollywood in May 1931 she made her perhaps most famous picture and her role as Hui Fei, the archetypal Dragon Lady in the Josef von Sternberg classic Shanghai Express (1932) would bring her screen immortality.

AnnaMayIn the most severe disappointment of her career, Wong was rejected for the role of Olan in The Good Earth (1936) in one of Hollywood’s most notorious casting disputes. Austrian actress Luise Rainer (who wasn’t Asian) played the role and won the 1937 Best Actress Oscar. Wong spent the next year touring China, visiting her family’s ancestral village and studying Chinese culture

Anna May Wong went into semi-retirement in 1943, supporting the Chinese war effort against Japan. She didn’t appearing again until a minor role in the film noir Impact (1949), some television guest spots, and finally as Lana Turner’s housekeeper in Portrait in Black (1960).

Anna May Wong died in 1961 of  a heart attack.

Wong’s image and career have left a lasting legacy. Through her films, public appearances, and prominent magazine features, she helped to “humanize” Asian-Americans to white audiences during a period of overt racism and discrimination.

Asian-Americans, especially the Chinese, had been viewed as perpetually foreign in U.S. society, but Wong’s films and public image established her firmly as an Asian-American citizen at a time when laws specifically discriminated against Asian immigration and citizenship

One Response

  1. May

    Thank you for a well told story of Anna May Wong. I often find it a pity that what happened to millions in Asia is often not remembered. There was especially an interesting fusion of East and West during the 1920s.