Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress in history.
Through years of hard work, she slowly started a shift in people’s minds that Chinese are more than either Dragon Ladies or China Dolls—the two-dimensional characters that were being written and represented on screen in Hollywood in the 1920s-60s.
Wong was not only a star in Hollywood, but she was also a leading lady in films and plays abroad in Germany and the U.K. She was also capable of delivering her lines in English, German, and French.
In any of her 55 films, what you will see is that no matter how limiting the stereotypical roles were, she played them with grace, subtlety, and depth. And this is what I admire about her the most.
Anna May Wong was born in the United States on January 3, 1905 to second-generation Chinese-American parents. Her grandfather emigrated to work the gold mines of California prior to the era of Chinese Exclusion. Her birth name was Wong Liu Tsong, meaning “yellow willow frost,” but at only age 11, she changed it to Anna May Wong, a more “American” sounding name.
In many accounts, we hear a lot about playground racism endured by Anna May Wong throughout her childhood. One of the stories that I remember is how little Anna May used to continuously get needles stuck into her by a boy at school. Her way of dealing with this was to wear thicker and thicker coats each day. Eventually, she and her sister moved to an all-Chinese school when racist torment got too much. Wong recounted later that this “left a scar on my heart.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, she became obsessed with film at a young age, often skipping class and using her lunch money to go to the cinema. Her father was not happy with this strong interest in film, feeling it interfered with her education, yet this didn’t stop her.
U.S. motion picture production relocated from the east coast to the Los Angeles area, which further fueled Wong’s fascination with film, and she would eagerly watch the crew shoot films in China Town, close to her home. At 9 years of age, she was nicknamed C.C.C (Curious Chinese Child), as she had begun to beg filmmakers to give her roles.
By the age of 14, she landed herself her first role as an extra in a The Red Lantern (1919), without her father’s knowledge. She continued to work hard for the following two years with roles as extras in films until she became sick with an illness called Vitus’s Dance, which led to months off school and a great deal of emotional trauma. Her father took her to a practitioner of Chinese medicine and the treatments made her better. Anna Wong was said to have a strong grounding in Confucianism and particularly Taoism and the teachings of Laozi throughout her life.
Wong found it hard to keep up with her acting and schoolwork, so she dropped out of school in 1921 to pursue a full-time career. Wong told Motion Picture Magazine in 1931: “I was so young when I began that I knew I still had youth if I failed, so I determined to give myself 10 years to succeed as an actress.”
Her break came at the age of 17 when she was cast as the lead in 1922’s The Toll of the Sea. Wong became the first ethnic Asian performer to receive top billing in a Hollywood film. Wong was portrayed as an exotic figure who sacrificed her life for the love of a Caucasian man. This is what The New York Times wrote about her performance in it:
“Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy… She should be seen again and often on the screen.”
Although she had such great reviews, there were very few lead roles for Chinese women.
Wong continued to get side roles, often playing the “exotic woman,” and laws prevented her sharing on-screen kisses with non-Asian men. In 1924, she played an Eskimo in The Alaskan, Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, and a Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad. This kind of typecasting was the unfortunate theme of the rest of Wong’s career.
In 1928, she shifted her career to Europe. Working in film and theater in the U.K. and Germany, she let a journalist know her frustration with the American Media: “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain?
Germany loved Anna May Wong, and there was no mention of her being American—she was praised as Chinese. She became good friends with Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riedenstahl, playing alongside Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express in 1932, and some may say even outshone Dietrich in this performance, but I think together they both have incredible screen presence in this film.
Picadilly was the last silent film she played in London, holding the leading role. Again, because of the Hays Code at the time, she was not able to kiss her love interest if the film on screen as he was non-Asian.
Anna May Wong ended up back in Hollywood continuing to work on humanizing Chinese to Western audiences, speaking out about discrimination.
Anna May Wong missed out on the lead Chinese role O’Lan in The Good Earth—the role went to German actress Luise Rainer. Wong was offered the part of a deceitful girl in the film who helps to destroy the family and seduces the family’s oldest son. Wong flat out refused the role, telling MGM: “If you let me play O-Lan, I will be very glad. But you’re asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
This refusal to consider Anna May Wong for the role is remembered as one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s.
It was not long after this that Anna May Wong visited China for the first time in her life. She went to visit her father, who had re-located back there after the death of Anna May Wong’s mother. This is what Anna May Wong said about China: “Although I’ve been to many, many places in the world, this first and only trip I made to China was the most meaningful.”
Anna May Wong died of a heart attack at 56 years of age.
When asked about her idea of happiness, she claimed that it was “an island of solitude with books. Not material things—but wisdom.”