Anna May Wong

The first Chinese American film star

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Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American film star as well as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition. She also was a style icon despite facing discrimination and racism all the way. She truly inspired all Americans of different backgrounds to be daring, to be seen and to fight for what is right. She helped bring Chinese American to the US American conscience and helped humanize them to mainstream audiences at a time when racial segregation and discrimination against Chinese Americans was still rampant. 

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Beginnings

Anna May Wong was actually born Wong Liu Tsong on January 3, 1905 in Los Angeles, just block away from Chinatown. Her parents were second-generation Chinese-Americans; her grandparents had come to the US from their village near Taishan, Guangdong Province, China in 1853. 

Her father had spent his youth traveling between the US and China and had already married a woman and fathered a son with her in China. Nevertheless, in 1901, while still providing for his family in China, he married a second wife in the US – Anna May Wong’s mother. They would go on to have eight children with Anna May being the second oldest. 

The family would move in 1910 when Anna was merely 5 years old father away from Chinatown into an area with mostly Mexican and Eastern European families. This helped Anna to become more acquainted with the American culture and she and her sister would attend public school. Until the racism became too obvious and they continued their studies at a Presbyterian Chinese school. Although the classes were taught in English, Anna May would stay on track with her Chinese attending Chinese school in the afternoons and on the weekends. 

It was during her school years that the movie industry settled on the West Coast and movie sets and movie crews were a constant in the daily life of Anna. She started to get really interested, frequented nickelodeon movie theaters and basically became obsessed with the movies. It was already at the young age of nine years that she decided she wanted to become an actress. And she would pursue this new found passion and goal with zest, going around filmmakers offices begging for a role. This got her the nickname „C.C.C.“ – Curious Chinese Child.

She would also come up with her stage name „Anna May Wong“ all by herself and had it set by the age of 11. 

Start in the movies

Anna May Wong got her first role as an uncredited extra in Alla Nazimova’s film The Red Lantern in 1919 at the tender age of 14, carrying a lantern. She would continuously work as an extra for two years – appearing in movies with stars like Colleen Moore. But it became apparent that Wong would not be able to juggle schoolwork and acting at that pace, so she dropped out of school at age 16 and threw herself into realizing her dream of becoming an actress. In a later interview she would say about this decision: “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.“ 

That same year, at age 16, Wong got her first screen credit for Bits of Life opposite Lon Chaney, which resulted in a cover photo for Picture Show magazine. And the next year, 17 year-old Wong appeared in her first leading role in the movie The Toll of the Sea. The movie was a success and Wong was singled out in almost all reviews for her „extraordinarily fine“ acting, her „fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy“. There was a strong opinion on the critics’ and magazines’ sides to put Wong on the screen more often. 

Yet, Hollywood wasn’t quite sure and did’t know what to do. Background: This was during a time when there was rampant racism and discrimination happening in the US and in Hollywood. Screenwriters and studios just couldn’t see a Chinese American appear in leading roles. It became all the more complex as the usual roles during that time were impossible as it was forbidden to show love scenes of two people of different backgrounds. So, Wong would have never been able to kiss a white man on screen. Without an Asian leading man, Wong would never be cast as an Asian leading lady. The only Asian leading man of Old Hollywood was Sessue Hayakawa, with whom Wong starred only in one picture. Thus, Hollywood relegated Wong to supporting roles instead to provide some exotic flair and atmosphere. But she proved that you can become a star nevertheless.

Rise to Stardom

1923’s Drifting and the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks movie The Thief of Bagdad became each a huge success and introduce Anna May Wong to the masses. It would also start her typecasting either as sly and deceitful „Dragon Lady“ or naive and self-sacrificing„Butterfly“.

As Wong received better and more lucrative offers, she moved out of the family home and got her own apartment. She also had her eyes set on making films about Chinese myths and thus signed a deal to create Anna May Wong Productions. But her business partner was found out to be quite shady – Wong sued him and the company was dissolved. 

She was cast in a variety of movies between 1924 and 1928 – either as Dragon Lady or self-sacrificing Butterfly. She played indigenous native girls, Princess Tiger Lilly in Peter Pan, a manipulative Oriental camp in the film Forty Winks, a Dragon Lady in Old San Francisco and roles in Mr. Wu and The Crimson City. As per usual, she would lose out on the leading roles because of the censorship surrounding mixed-race onscreen couples. 

Move to Europe

Fed up with her typecasting and being passed over for Asian character roles which eventually always went to white American actors in yellow face. In Europe, on the other hand, Anna May Wong was welcomed with open arms and made a splash with her 1928 movies Schmutziges Geld and Großstadtschmertterling. The German critics were not only impressed by her superb acting skills, but also by her great beauty as well as the fact that she managed to speak German fluently and almost flawless – and German is a really difficult language to learn, I have frequently been told.  

After Germany, Wong moved on to the UK. She appeared in the play A Circle of Chalk opposite a young Laurence Olivier. Wong was criticized for her Californian accent and she would subsequently get tutoring in pronunciation at Cambridge University. And then, her British movies started. 

It was in 1929 that 24 year-old Wong starred in her last silent movie, which was Piccadilly. This movie caused a sensation and was later on called Wong’s best movie. In this role, she shimmies and stars in her most seductive and sensual role, but – again – was not permitted to kiss the lead man. A kiss had been scripted and planned for, but was cut before the release. 

Wong’s first sound movie was 1930’s The Flame of Love. Once again, Wong showed her strong language skills and recorded all three languages French, English and German herself. Although she was lauded for her work and skill, the film received negative reviews. 

Back to Hollywood

And then, Hollywood was looking for some new in Europe – and, ironically, Anna May Wong caught the interest of the studio’s. Paramount offered her a contract. Wong went back to the US in the hopes of top billing and great roles. Her first stop though was at Broadway in the successful play On the Spot, which she would later film as Dangerous to Know. From then on, Wong would often turn to the stage to get creative and good roles. Instead, though, she accepted the role of Fu Manchu’s vengeful daughter in Daughter of the Dragon in 1931. Although this was another stereotypical casting for Wong, it would be the last time she played an evil Dragon Lady and it was also her one and only role opposite the only other Asian star of that time: Sessue Hayakawa. The misogyny and racism running deep in Hollywood was reflected by the cast’s paychecks: Anna, the star of the picture received $8,000, Hayakawa $10,000 and the America actor Warner Oland $12,000 although he was in the film for only 23 minutes. 

Next, 27 year-old Wong appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express. Wong shared some sexually charged scenes with Dietrich, which on the hand fed the rumors about Wong being a lesbian and a lover of Dietrich, and on the other hand Chinese media felt the movie was a disgrace for China and that Wong had done a disservice to the nation of her forefathers. The harshest critic of course came from the Chinese Nationalist government.

Back and back again

But after these successes, Wong’s career went back to its old ways with stereotypical castings and Wong being overlooked giving Asian roles to US American actresses instead, like for example Helen Hayes in the leading female role in The Son-Daughter. Wong was deemed „too Chinese to play a Chinese“. And the role of a mistress in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen went to Toshia Mori – a Japanese actress. Once again disillusioned by the Hollywood scene, Anna May Wong went back to Britain, where she had had so much success. She would stay for three years. 

She starred in four films, toured Scotland and Ireland as part of a vaudeville show and appeared in the King George Silver Jubilee program in 1935. Her movie Java Head was a special one and remained one of Wong’s favorites throughout her lifetime. The reason? Wong was allowed to kiss her male co-star – a white man. 

And, once again, Anna May Wong went back to Hollywood in 1935 It was when the Pearl Buck novels gained interest and popularity and when sympathy for the Chinese was growing under Japanese imperialism. Wong set out for Hollywood to get cast in the role of O-lan in the movie version of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth. But, again, Wong was not considered and the role went to Luise Rainer instead, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in yellow-face. And this although newspaper and magazines already had printed that she would be perfect for the role. The Chinese government got involved as well and advised Thalberg and MGM to not cast Wong. This case of an American actress being chosen for this highly important Chinese character instead of a talented, beautiful Chinese actress is probably „one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s“ as Berry wrote in 2000. 

Tour to China

Disappointed yet again by Hollywood, Wong decided to take a break and go on a year-long tour to and through China. Her father had left the US together with her younger brothers and sister already in 1934 and Wong planned to visit him, extended family and the country of her ancestors, to which she had never been. When Wong had lived in London during the 1930s, she met Mei Lanfang, who was one of the most famous stars of the Beijing Opera and Langfang had offered to instruct Wong if she ever visited China. So, Wong wanted to earn not only from Langfang, but also everything there was to study about the Chinese theater. 

In January 1936, 31 year-old Wong started her journey and chronicled it in a series of articles that appeared in several US newspapers. Arriving in Hong Kong, Wong showed signs of irritability and probably consequences from depression and drinking. Subsequently, she was rather rude to the awaiting crowd, Wong would begin crying and a stampede ensued. 

In China, Wong was faced with lots of criticism, especially by the Nationalist government. Another obstacle was the language barrier as Wong had been raised with the Taishan dialect and not Mandarin, so she had to engage the help of an interpreter and felt foreign to the country and its inhabitants. 

But Wong reunited with her father and siblings and enjoyed some time in their village and extended family and would return to LA in 1938. 

The Bliss of B-Movies, Radio and the Stage

Returning to Hollywood, Wong was obligated to fulfill her contract with Paramount. Although these were straight B-movies, they had a silver lining for Wong: Because they were not expected to gather as much publicity or earn as much money, the studio was more lenient and Wong would be able to secure more gratifying roles. She was able to portray successful, professional Chinese-American characters and depart from her stereotypical casting as „Dragon Lady“ or „Butterfly“. Even the Chinese government was okay with these roles and gave its approval. 

The Daughter of Shanghai particularly was an important milestone for Wong, the script was specifically rewritten for her and the working title during production was Anna May Wong Story because it was tailored to her persona. In King of Chinatown, she played a surgeon fighting against the Japanese invasion.

Apart from these rather promising roles, Paramount would also rely on Wong to tutor other actors like Dorothy Lamour for Eurasian roles. 

Anna May Wong also performed on the radio, including finally a role in the Pearl Buck play The Patriot on Orson Welles’ The Campbell Playhouse. 

Her love for the theatre and cabaret, which did not pose such discrimination and was a creative outlet for Wong. She would perform songs in Cantonese, French, English, German, Danish and Swedish and tour the world from the US to Europe and to Australia throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Australia in particular attracted Wong and she would stay for several months, being the star attraction in a vaudeville show called „Highlights from Hollywood“. 

Political opinions and actions

By 1931, Anna May Wong, then aged 26, started to use her celebrity status to make political statements and guide public attention. She criticesed the Japanese government for the Manchurian invasion, Hollywood for its typecasting and stereotyping of the Chinese and advocated for Chinese American causes.

Through her travels to China as well as her continued typecasting, she would become even more fervent as time progressed. From 1942 onwards, she donated most of her salary to the United China Relief as well as the money raised from auctioning off her gorgeous movie clothes. 

But Wong was not only generous when it came to the causes close to her heart, she also was a practical and wise businesswoman with finances. In later years, she invested in real estate and was the owner of Hollywood property. She also converted her house in Santa Monica into four separate apartments that she rented out and called „Moongate Apartments“. She would actually be the house manager and works as such for more than ten years until she moved in with her brother. 

Later Life and Works

In 1951, Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American to star in a specifically written dedicated detective series, which was called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, using her original Chinese maiden name. The lead character was an art dealer that would be involved in criminal cases along the way. The prime-time series was cancelled after only one season although a second season was already in the plans. 

Instead she withdrew mostly from the movie scene, but, in 1956, hosted documentaries on China and appeared on television series like Adventures in Paradise, The Barbara Stanwyck Show and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. It was only in 1960, at age 55, that Anna May Wong would return to the movies in the Lana Turner movie Portrait in Black. And, once again, she got stereotyped. 

Health and Death

It was already in 1936, during her tour to China, when 31 year-old Wong showed signs of depression and sudden anger, she was smoking and drinking heavily 

On February 3, 1981, Anna May Wong died at the age of 58 of a heart attack during her sleep. She was interred at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles alongside her Mother and her sister Mary, who had already died from suicide in 1940. 

Relationships

In 1936, when embarking on her journey to China, Wong was asked by journalists if she intended to get married and her answer was: “No, I am wedded to my art.“ And indeed, Anna May Wong never got married. Nevertheless, Japanese newspapers would claim that she was married to a wealthy Cantonese man named „Art“. That has never been confirmed though and can be filed under „trash“. 

In 1937, Wong was rumored to be engaged to wen childhood friend and Korean-American actor Philip Ahn. Wong’s answer to this rumors was the following: “It would be like marrying my brother.”

Tod Browning – Tod Browning had been the director of 1923’s Drifting, in which 18 year-old Wong had a supporting role. They conducted an affair for at least a year. 

Eric Maschwitz – During Wong’s time in the UK, she was romantically involved with writer and broadcasting executive Eric Maschwitz.

Friendships

Leni Riefenstahl – Anna May Wong met and befriended Leni Riefenstahl during her time in Germany when Riefenstahl was still an actress and had not yet taken up directing. 

Marlene Dietrich and Cecil Cunningham – Her friendship with Riefenstahl as well as the friendships Anna May Wong formed with Marlene Dietrich and Cecil Cunningham fueled rumors about Wong being a lesbian. This damaged Wong’s public image and career and caused embarrassment for her family. 

Style

Although Anna May Wong was an American that had never stepped onto Chinese soil, she was seen as foreign by the American public right from the start of her career. That’s probably one of the reasons why Wong was one of the first stars to adopt the flapper look. To blend in and make a style that was truly modern and united the younger generation her own and to create Anna May Wong the star. With her chiseled facial features and her slender physique the flapper’s sleek feminine style was definitely a fit for Wong. 

But the flapper lifestyle was more than just a fashion fad for Wong, it was a way to counter her frustrations in Hollywood – the prejudice, the discrimination and the racism. It was her way to seek independence and freedom, to not be tied down and to enjoy life. She drank and she partied and she dressed the part. She ultimately showed that Asian American women can succeed in Hollywood and paved the way for the generations to come. 

Many of her costumes and garments were heavily inspired by Chinese culture. Trademarks of her looks were floral patterned silks in western-shaped garments and a high-neck collar.She would popularize the Chinese cut of garments and the Mao suit in Hollywood. Opulent headpieces and hair accessories lent themselves to personalizing and individualizing rather conventional Chinese looks for Wong. Her beauty challenged the standards of the day and would influence fashion and beauty for decades to come. Her iconic half-bang combined with the typical 1930’s makeup with thin arched eyebrows, rich and dark lipsticks as well as thick black eyeliner would create a very dramatic and personal beauty aesthetic.

Her impeccable looks would actually garner Anna May Wong such accolades as the „world’s best dressed woman“ by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York in 1934 and The world’s most beautiful Chinese girl in 1938 by Look magazine. 

Although Wong was often relegated to supporting roles due to her Chinese heritage and the rampant discrimination and racism in Hollywood, this very one-sided view on Asian culture also meant that Hollywood would great lengths to provide Wong with the most exotic and extraordinary costumes to create the exotic atmosphere for which Wong was mostly hired. Thus, many of Wong’s movie costumes were a far cry from traditional and original Chinese dresses and clothing styles, they were nothing but extraordinary. Western cuts, costume designer’s creativity and a only slightly informed view on Asian culture created stand-out pieces made from of metal, fringe, sequins, beads, or all of them together. This opulence would sometimes outshine that of her Caucasian costars. As Wong started out in the silent movies, her clothes became nothing less than a tool of visual expression.

And Wong actually did what all smart women will do: Take what is offered and what is possible – in this case supporting stereotypical roles – and using everything possible to make it her own. And that included her style on and off-screen. Her eternal elegance that combined Chinese culture, Old Hollywood glamour and the independence of a young flapper would inspire generations of fashion and costume designers. 

Miscellaneous

Anna May Wong is one of the four pillars of the „Gateway to Hollywood“ sculpture alongside Dolores del Rio (Representing Hispanic Americans), Dorothy Dandridge (representing African Americans) and Mae West (White Americans). 

She also put in one of the rivets in Grauman’s Chinese Theater, but unlike Norma Talmadge who was also in attendance, Anna May Wong was NOT asked to put her hands in feet in concrete. 

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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