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Anna May Wong: Biography Of The First Ever Chinese-American Movie Star

Entertainment | February 11, 2020

1939: Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (1907 - 1961), stage name of Wong Liu Tsong, in a scene from the film 'Island Of Lost Men', directed by Kurt Neumann for Paramount. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Hollywood story of Anna May Wong, a Chinese-American actress in the '20s and '30s, was bound to be frustrating. Due to the inherent racism of the time, she was offered supporting roles at best, or villainous, stereotypical "dragon lady" parts. It's not that Hollywood didn't make movies with major Asian characters -- it's just that leading roles in those films went to white actresses. Wong kept at it, though, and got to share the screen with such cinematic legends as Lon Chaney (Outside The Law, 1920), Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief Of Bagdad, 1928), and Anthony Quinn (Dangerous To Know, 1938). 

The prejudice Wong felt wasn't always passive-aggressive -- it's hard to cast a female lead who isn't allowed to kiss her co-star. At the time, there was a ban on interracial kissing on screen. It's a ludicrous concept today, but even then Wong was trying to speak out against such narrowmindedness.

"I can’t for the life of me understand why a white man couldn’t fall in love with me on the screen…without breaking some terrible censorship law," she told the Sydney Morning Herald. "What is the difference between a white girl playing an Oriental and a real Oriental, like myself, playing them? ... I would at least look the part, where the white girls definitely do not. If it were possible to overcome this terrible censorship barrier, a new field would open for me, giving endless chances to act in good parts. I don’t want to play white girls, but I do think I should have the chance to play the roles that are mine by rights."

Source: (history.howstuffworks.com)

Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong on January 3, 1905 to second generation Toisonese Chinese American parents in Los Angeles. Her father Wong Sam Sing ran the Sam Kee Laundry in Chinatown. The family lived in an integrated neighborhood with Germans and Irish one block from Chinatown. In 1910, they moved to a Figueroa Street neighborhood.

At that time, there were many movie shoots in Chinatown and Wong, who attended Chinese-language school in Chinatown, would skip school to watch shoots. She also delivered laundry for her father and spent the tips she earned on trips to the movies. When she was about nine, she earned the nickname “curious Chinese child” because of her habit of begging filmmakers for parts. By the time she was 11, she had already come up with her stage name. Unbeknownst to her father, by 1919, she had her first role in a film, an uncredited extra in The Red Lantern (1919); the part was obtained for her by a friend of her father. For the next two years, she did not receive an on-screen credit.

Pursuing A Career Against The Odds

In Toll of the Sea. Source: (Wikimeda Commons)

Wong continued to pursue her dream though, and had bit parts in several films. Her father was not happy with her choice, and he insisted that she have an adult guardian; she was locked in her dressing room between scenes if there were no other Asians in the cast. She dropped out of high school to pursue her career.

Her First Credited Role

With Lon Chaney in Bits of Life. Source: (IMDb)

In 1920, she was cast in a bit part in Marshall Nellan’s film Dinty (1920) and the next year she had her first credited role, in Bits of Life (1921), an anthology film. She went on to appear in Shame (1921) and then, at the age of 17, she was cast as Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea (1922), an adaptation of Madame Butterfly. The film was also the first color film made in Hollywood, and a rare color silent film. Because she had top billing, she became the first native-born Chinese actress to star in a major role.

Success In Europe

Anna May Wong With John Longden in Flame of Love. Source: (British International Pictures)

Despite the fact that she was the first choice when they needed to cast an Asian female, those parts were not abundant, so Wong continued to be cast in supporting roles . From the 1920s through the 1940s, Caucasian actresses continued to be cast as Asian leads even though Wong had the talent and authenticity. In 1925, the struggling actress decided to try vaudeville and when that was unsuccessful, she returned to film. She was often cast in supporting roles as a villain, typecasting that led her to leave Hollywood for Europe in 1928, where she made films in the UK and Germany. Her stage debut came with Laurence Olivier in The Circle of Chalk. She then hired a Cambridge University tutor to improve her speaking and as a result, spoke with an upper class British accent.

Wong learned to speak French and German, and Europe welcomed her as a star. She was featured in magazines all over the world. However, she would come to discover in the mid-1930s, when she took a tour of China, that she was not accepted there as they considered her a disgrace.

Facing Racism Again In Hollywood

Louise Rainer and Paul Muni in The Good Earth. Source: (virtualhistory.com)

In 1930, Wong was in her first talkie, The Road to Dishonour, after which she returned to America, appearing on Broadway in On the Spot. She was then back in Hollywood, returning to the stereotyped roles she had been in before leaving for Europe. They continued to refuse to cast her as a lead, and when she did a screen test for Son-Daughter, MGM claimed she was “too Chinese to play a Chinese.” She was also denied the lead role in The Good Earth and as the assistant who was casting the film said, she didn’t look the way he imagined Chinese women should look. Additionally, they wanted to cast a Caucasian to accommodate Paul Muni. The lead was given to Louise Rainer.  Wong was offered another role, that of the villain Lotus, but she declined it. The year The Good Earth was released, Look magazine called her “The World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl.” Later, in 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society named her “The World’s Best Dressed Woman.”

Comeback Cut Short

She was often stuck in stereotyped roles. Source: (factinate)

Wong continued to struggle because of the devastating effects of racism. She had begun to make a comeback in 1960, appearing as Lana Turner’s maid in Portrait in Black (1960). She was cast as Madame Liang in the film adaptation of Flower Drum Song (1961), but died before the shooting began. The title role was filled by the actress who built on Wong's success -- Nancy Kwan, fresh off her Golden Globe-winning performance in The World Of Suzie Wong (1960).

Racism Spoiled Her Personal Life As Well

Source: (KOAM)

Racism also colored her personal life. Most of her relationships were with older white men and it was against the law in California until 1948 for Caucasians to marry Asians. One of her relationships was with Eric Maschwitz, who wrote the song “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” and people have speculated that he was inspired by his relationship with Wong to write the song. She also was not destined to marry a Chinese man. In the Chinese culture, actresses were on the same level as prostitutes and had she married a Chinese man, she most likely would have had to quit her career.

Her Star Shines On

Source: (UPI)

In 1960, Wong received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1961, she died of a heart attack, ending her potential comeback. On January 22, 2020, she was honored by a Google doodle.

Tags: Anna May Wong | Ladies | Rare Facts And Stories About History | What Did She Do?... | Asian Americans

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!