Know Your History: Anna May Wong

In celebration of Asian Pacific American month, Know Your History presents a series of profiles of prominent Asian/Pacific/Americans, chronicling an American history too often overlooked. Far from being “perpetual foreigners,” our collective history has shaped this country’s trajectory in important ways.

In the 1920s, a Chinese American actress graced the silver screen in Hollywood and rose to international stardom. To many younger Asian Americans, such a statement seems no more than a fantasy, a wishful rewriting of history. Even in 2013, Hollywood is noteworthy for its lack of Asian American actors/actresses with true star power. But Anna May Wong’s story, though fantastical, is no fantasy. The first Asian American actress in history, Wong was not only a Hollywood star but a leading lady in films and plays abroad in Germany and the U.K. All this while fighting stereotypes and typecasting in an era in which American xenophobia and anti-Chinese sentiments were remarkably prevalent. Despite the frustrating career limitations she faced as a woman of color in a time of overt racism, Wong handled her fame with grace, deft, and strength–and is remembered as a true trailblazer of Asian Pacific American history.

Portrait by Atelier Gudenberg, 1920s.
Anna May Wong, born Wong Liu Tsong, was born in 1905 in Los Angeles, California. According to Wong’s memoirs she was a third-generation Chinese American–her father’s father emigrated to work the gold mines of California prior to the era of Chinese Exclusion. Her father owned and ran a laundry business. Raised in a traditional household, Wong attended public schools in Los Angeles before she and her sister transferred to an all-Chinese school in LA’s Chinatown, after traumatic incidents of playground racism, which, as Wong recounted later, “left a scar on my heart.” 

My sister and I, after school, used to trudge home together, talking about our studies, what we had learned in this class and that, how pleased our parents would be over our progress. Then, one, day, on our homeward way, the world came crashing down around us.

A group of little boys, our schoolmates, started following us. They came nearer and nearer, singing some sort of a chant. Finally they were at our heels.

“Chink, Chink, Chinaman,” they were shouting. “Chink, Chink, Chinaman.”

They surrounded us. Some of them pulled our hair, which we wore in long braids down our backs. They shoved us off the sidewalk, pushing us this way and that, and all the time keeping up their chant: “Chink, Chink, Chinaman.”

When finally they had tired of tormenting us, we fled for home, and once in our mother’s arms we burst into bitter tears. I don’t suppose either of us ever cried so hard in our lives, before or since.

From an early age, Wong distanced herself from traditional Chinese expectations surrounding marriage and a woman’s role in the family. She was, in her own words, a uniquely American Chinese girl: “proud of her parents and of her race, yet so thoroughly Americanized as to demand independence, a career, a life of her own.”

Wong (at right), with her mother and sister.
Wong’s modern spirit and open mind drew her to the glamour of motion pictures. She skipped school to watch silent movie matinees, and watched eagerly as film crews came to Chinatown every so often for a shoot. To her parents’ dismay, it was then that Wong decided she would be a film star.

Wong adopted the American name “Anna May” and received her first role as an uncredited extra in 1919’s “The Red Lantern”. She was only fourteen at the time. For the next several years, Wong received odd jobs as an extra in various Hollywood productions. Her break into the mainstream came at the age of seventeen, 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. Yet the role was a stereotypical one, as Wong was portrayed as an exotic “lotus blossom” figure who sacrifices her life for the love of a Caucasian man. Such typecasting would be the unfortunate theme of the rest of Wong’s career.

Despite her fame and her popularity among American men and women who idolized her modern fashion (at the time she was often considered the world’s best-dressed woman) and her beauty, Wong’s career prospects were limited by her race. There was no demand for a Chinese leading lady in Hollywood. Nonetheless, Wong had established herself as a marketable actress in the industry, and received numerous supporting roles, albeit it perpetually cast as the exotic “other”: she played an Eskimo in “The Alaskan” (1924), Tiger Lily in “Peter Pan” (1924), and had a high-profile role as a Mongol slave in “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924). Despite the romantic nature of many of her roles, she was never allowed a happy ending with her love interest: her roles invariably ended in tragedy. Even more, Wong was never allowed an on-screen kiss in her long career in Hollywood (interracial marriage would not be legalized for several decades).

Anna May Wong in “The Thief of Baghdad” (1924).
Frustrated by the limitations of America’s “Yellow Peril” mentality, Wong moved to Europe in 1928 to pursue a career in film and theater in Germany and the UK. Wong was well-received in Europe and, after learning French and German, established herself as a worldly star, working with established German filmmakers such as Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl.

Wong returned to Hollywood in the 1930s, but found herself in a familiarly hostile environment. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1934 set a formalized ban on the positive representation of miscegenation, i.e. interracial romantic relationships, on screen. Therefore, Wong was restricted from playing opposite a Caucasian man, and was frequently passed over in favor of Caucasian actresses in yellowface. Wong was dealt the professional blow of her career in 1937 when she was denied the leading role in “The Good Earth,” based on Pearl Buck’s famous novel of the same name, which was set in China. The lead role was given to an Austrian woman, Luise Rainer, dressed in yellowface. In a proud act of defiance, Wong refused to be cast in the stereotypical supporting role as the male lead’s concubine.

Wong plays a supporting role to a yellowfaced French actress, Renée Adorée, in “Mr. Wu” (1927).
By the onset of WWII, Wong had tired of her continued marginalization in Hollywood and sought an early retirement. Throughout the war, she worked for the United China Relief Fund, raising funds to ease the destruction caused by WWII and China’s civil war. Wong took on occasional roles in the next two decades, including the lead in a television series, “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong,” (1951) a show conceived with Wong in mind. A decade later, in 1961, Wong passed away from a heart attack in Santa Monica, California.

95 years after her first film appearance, how are we to make sense of Anna May Wong’s career and her legacy? Her roles were largely confined to conform to Hollywood’s xenophobic imagining of the vilified, Oriental “other.” Such stereotypical representations of the Chinese were not without criticisms–indeed, Wong was chastised by Chinese media as perpetuating negative stereotypes about the Chinese in Western pop culture (though she later won over many Chinese critics in the ‘30s during an extended visit and tour of the country). Yet, despite her problematic roles, Wong was vocal in her dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s representation of Chinese. After shifting her career to Europe, Wong told a journalist of her frustrations with American media: “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villan? And so crude a villain–murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass.“ Moreover, in 1926, Wong talked to the movie magazine “Pictures” about the frustrating assumption of her “foreignness”:

“A lot of people, when they first meet me, are surprised that I speak and write English without difficulty. But why shouldn’t I? I was born right here in Los Angeles and went to the public schools here. I speak English without any accent at all.”

Thus, Wong was in no way complacent with the roles she was fed or the representation of Chinese Americans during her time. And despite the limitations presented to her in her career, through her beauty, talent, and charm, Wong was able to win over the hearts and minds of fans the world over, in America, Europe, and China. She was idolized for her fashion and her worldly affectations, and hung with the trendiest avante-garde thinkers and artists of 1930s Europe. A true performer, Wong was capable of delivering her lines in English, German, and French.

More than a half-century after Wong’s death, how far have we come? Though appearances by Asian American actors and actresses on TV and Hollywood have become more common, Asian Americans continue to face many of the same limitations that constricted Wong’s career. Stereotypes such as the martial arts expert, the monk, the geisha, the nerd, and the accented foreigner define many of the roles Asian Americans continue to play today. Hollywood is yet to produce a true Asian American leading star. In fact, just last week, Lucy Liu, perhaps our generation’s biggest Asian American star, opened up about the racism and limitations she has faced in her own career. Clearly, even after all these years, the struggles that categorized Wong’s career have far from disappeared.

Ultimately, I am struck with the sad thought that Wong’s life in many ways reflects those of the tragic characters she so often played. Her talent and ambition should have catapulted her to the highest echelons of stardom. Yet, she was stifled again and again by ignorant casting and the troubling trend of yellowface in Hollywood (which, notably, lingers to this day). A modern American woman, she expressed reservations about marrying a traditional Chinese man, as her parents expected. Yet at the same time she was prevented by law from marrying any of her numerous Caucasian suitors (one suitor even advised that they elope in Mexico as a solution). Even decades after her death, the same limitations she suffered in Hollywood continue to afflict current Asian American actors.

And yet, in spite of it all, Wong demonstrated dignity and grace throughout her career. She fought tirelessly to escape the stereotypes that were forced onto her, and to break down Western stereotypes about the Chinese. And in many ways, she succeeded: she won over countless men and women across the world who were able to see past superficial differences and admire Wong’s talent and poise.

Through it all, Wong will be forever remembered as a pioneer in the arts and a heroine of Asian Pacific American history.

For more information about Wong’s life, Yuna Hong’s excellent documentary Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, streams on PBS through the end of the month.

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