Anna May Wong (1905 – 1961) is the very first Chinese American actress to reach international stardom. Starting off in the United States doing super stereotypical roles (good ‘ol Hollywood, gotta love it), she left for Europe to star in more diverse roles and achieved international stardom there. One of the biggest disappointments in Anna’s career was due to MGM passing her up as an Asian lead in lieu of a white actress Luise Rainer doing it in “yellow face”. The movie in question was The Good Earth but the actress didn’t let it faze her as she spent the year in her home country learning more about her culture and people.
The most popular roles that Wong had done as a silent movie queen were those of “The Dragon Lady” and “Madame Butterfly”, sadly these terms are not positive ones to associate a Chinese American beauty with, but as an actress Anna did what she had to do. No need to look at them negatively now, as they paved the way for more meaningful roles for herself and other actresses who followed her, regardless of her namesake being tied to them.
Anna’s Background & Influences
Anna was the product of second-generation Chinese parents and was the second of 7 children within the household. Her birth name was Wong Liu Tsong and she grew up in the neighborhood with Mexican and Eastern European families. From an early age Anna was interested in movies, sneaking off to watch the Nickelodeons and showing a sort of obsession for them. As she matured she started off as an extra in various movies (without her parent’s knowledge) until at age 17 she landed her first leading role in a Technicolor film called The Toll of The Sea. Despite glorious reviews by many sources, Hollywood could not bring itself to star a Chinese American actress in anything so she was forced to be a supporting actress in movies that required an “other” race as the extra.
“There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.” – Anna May Wong.
Anna was also a huge fashion icon in the United States and Europe, further catapulting her success. In the 1930’s she returned to America, based on a wont for European actresses by Paramount. Everything was peachy at first with the roles that were available but pretty soon the big ugly racist head of Hollywood showed itself again and the pattern returned of Anna being passed up for “yellowface” actresses.
To complete her contract with Paramount after the disappointing loss of the lead in The Good Earth, Anna did a number of fluff B movies which allowed her to play positive roles as a Chinese American. This combined with her auctioning off her old costumes and outfits to help Chinese refugees, earned her honors from China who had always looked at her with a side-eye due to what she was doing onscreen.
Although she died at a young 56, Anna May Wong’s image still lives on today as a symbol of the past age of film and true acting (no voices or CGI). She is remembered fondly as the first star of Asian-American film history and of course one of the true Hotties of History.See some words or phrases that you don't understand? Check out The Dragon's Lexicon.