Hollywood Legend Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong (3rd January 1905 – 3rd February 1961) was the first Chinese- American actress and the first Asian American to have gained international recognition.
This is an amazing lady, who starred in 55 films, 100 years ago. She broke into Hollywood and became an international star. She has fought through racism, stereotypes, and insults that were thrown at her. Yet, she has triumphed as a powerful, sultry, charismatic superstar.
She is someone that we should look up to in the face of adversity. She has never given up on her dreams despite all the challenges that she faced, no matter how lonely that road to success was for her.
Big thanks to Pastor Shin Tan and Beatrix for helping me with editing and uploading of this article. Through the help of Pastor Shin, this article is finally live for all of us to read. Also, I would like to thank H.E. Tsem Rinpoche for giving me the opportunity to learn about this beautiful actress and to share about her on Rinpoche’s blog.
Background and Childhood
Anna May Wong was born as Wong Liu Tsong (meaning “yellow willow frost”) in Flower Street in Los Angeles, one block away from Chinatown, in an integrated community of Chinese, Irish, German and Japanese residents. She was born to a second-generation Chinese-American parents, Wong Sam Sing (father) and Lee Gon Toy (mother), and among the family of seven, she was the second child.
In 1910, her family moved to a neighbourhood on Figueroa Street where they were the only Chinese in that area, living alongside with mostly Mexican and Eastern European families. The move to the new neighbourhood helped Anna to assimilate better into the American culture. Together with her older sister, they attended public school, but then were forced to transfer to a Presbyterian Chinese school when they were the target of racial taunts from other students. Classes attended were taught in English, but Anna would go for Chinese language classes on Saturday afternoons.
It was around the same time where U.S. motion picture productions began to relocate from the east coast to Los Angeles, where movies were constantly shot around Anna’s neighbourhood. Very quickly, she became engrossed in cinematography where she would rather miss school and spent her lunch money in the cinema and Nickelodeon movie theaters. Her father was not happy with her taking much interest in films as he was worried that it may affect her studies. Anna pursued her acting career despite the objections from her father, which was understandable because being an actress at that time was not seen as something reputable. Despite the stigma and objections, she insisted following her passion in pursuing her acting career.
Ever since Anna was nine, she would constantly be on the lookout for film producers and whenever she came across one, she would beg on bended knees in hope that she would be given some movie roles. Due to her innate nature of being highly curious and agog about her career, she eventually earned the nickname “Curious Chinese Child” (C.C.C). At 11, she came up with her own stage name of Anna May Wong.
Anna was working at Hollywood’s Ville de Paris departmental store when Metro Pictures needed 300 female extras to appear in The Red Lantern (1919) by Alla Nazimova. Without her father’s knowledge, Anna landed a role as an extra carrying a lantern. She worked for the next two years as an extra in various movies.
While still in school, Anna came down with an illness, chorea, which caused her to miss school for months. Just when she was on the verge of an emotional breakdown, her father took her for Traditional Chinese Medication and her condition improved.
Anna’s philosophy throughout life was strongly influenced by thoughts such as Confucianism and teachings of Laozi.
In 1921, Anna May Wong dropped out of Los Angeles High School to pursue her dreams of being a full time actress. She was determined to succeed as an actress and gave herself 10 years to do so.
“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.” ~ Anna May Wong, Motion Picture Magazine (1931)
In the same year, Anna received her first role on screen for Bits of Life, where she played the role of the wife of Lon Chaney’s character, Toy Ling. Later Anna recalled the memory of the film fondly as it was the only time where she played the role of a mother. Her appearance on Bits of Life earned her a cover photo on the British magazine Picture Show.
In 1922, at the age of 17, Anna played her first lead role in The Toll of the Sea written by Frances Marion. The story of the film was based loosely on Madame Butterfly. Throughout this film, Anna was recognized for her great acting skills.
“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.” ~ The New York Times
Despite these reviews for her great acting, Hollywood was reluctant to create leading roles for Anna. Her ethnicity prevented the filmmakers in U.S. from seeing her as a suitable actress for leading roles.
“She built up a level of stardom in Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her.” ~ David Schwartz, Chief Curator of the Museum of the Moving Image
During the next few years she spent her time in supporting roles providing “exotic atmosphere”, an example is the playing of the role of a concubine in Drifting (1923) by Tod Browning. The producers capitalise on Anna’s growing fame, but they only gave her supporting roles. Optimistic about her acting career, in 1923 Anna said “Pictures are fine and I’m getting along alright, but it’s not so bad to have the laundry back of you. So you can wait and take good parts and be independent when you’re climbing”.
At 19 years old, Anna was casted in a supporting role as a scheming Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad by Douglas Fairbanks. She played a stereotypical “Dragon Lady”, where her brief appearances on-screen caught the attention of the audiences and critics. This film grossed more than USD 2 million, and helped Anna make her debut to the public’s eyes. Conscious that Americans viewed her as “foreign born” despite the fact that she was born and raised in California, Anna began to cultivate a flapper image.
In March 1924, with plans to make films about Chinese mythology, Anna signed a deal creating Anna May Wong Productions. It was when her business partner was found engaging in dishonest practices that Anna sued him, and the company was dissolved.
It was soon evident that Anna’s career was and would continue to be limited by the American anti-miscegenation law, which prevents her from sharing on-screen kisses with any person of another ethnicity, even if the character is an Asian being played by a white actor. The only leading Asian actor at that time was Sessue Hayakawa. Unless another Asian leading male actor can be found, Anna could never be the leading female actress.
Despite having offered exotic supporting roles, with favourable reviews, Anna became increasingly disappointed with her castings and began seeking other paths to success.
In early 1925, she joined a group of serial stars on a tour of the vaudeville circuits. When the tour became a failure, Anna together with the rest of the actors returned to Hollywood.
In 1926, Anna starred in The Dragon Horse (1927). This was one of the first films in the States to be produced with Chinese backing, the film was funded by San Francisco’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. The setting of the story was during the Ming Dynasty and featured Asian actors playing the Asian roles of the film.
Hollywood’s Asian female characters were soon to be seen as two stereotypical characteristics, the naive and self-sacrificing “Butterfly”, or the sly and deceitful “Dragon Lady”.
In 1928, being tired of both the kind of typecast and how lead Asian roles are in favour of non-Asian actresses, Anna left Hollywood for Europe. She commented on Film Weekly in 1933 that “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”
Anna became an overnight sensation in Europe, starring in notable films like Song and Show Life (1928) and City Butterfly. In response to Song, The New York Times commented that Anna was “acclaimed not only as an actress of transcendent talent but as a great beauty”. The article noted that the Germans have overlooked Anna’s American background. “Berlin critics, who were unanimous in praise of both the star and the production, neglect to mention that Anna May is of American birth. They mention only her Chinese origins.”
In Vienna, she played the lead role in Tschun Tschi, an operatta, in fluent German.
“Fräulein Wong had the audience perfectly in her power and the unobtrusive tragedy of her acting was deeply moving, carrying off the difficult German-speaking part very successfully.” ~ An Austrian critic
While in Germany, her close relationship with several women throughout her life, especially with Marlene Dietrich led rumours of her being a lesbian, which was very damaging to her public reputation.
Anna’s first stage performance in UK was in the play A Circle of Chalk where London producer Basil Dean bought the play for Anna to appear with Laurence Olivier. Due to the criticism of her California accent that was described by one critic as a “Yankee squeak”, Anna sought vocal tutoring at Cambridge University, where she learnt a British accent.
In 1929, Anna made her last silent film Piccadilly, the first of the five English films which she had the leading role. The film created an impact in the filming screen in UK. Variety commented that she “outshines the star” Gilda Gray, the then top-billed actress.
Returning to Hollywood
During the 1930s, American studios were looking for fresh European talent when Anna caught their eye. She was then offered a contract with Paramount Pictures. Enticed by the promise of leading roles together with top billings, she returned to the States. Through the prestige and trainings that Anna received in Europe, she got the lead role on Broadway drama in On the Spot, where she did 167 performances. She later appeared in Dangerous to Know, where the play’s director wanted her to use stereotypical Japanese mannerisms that was derived from Madame Butterfly, in the performance of a Chinese character. Anna refused. Instead, Anna used her knowledge of Chinese style and gestures to imbue the character with a greater degree of authenticity.
Since her return to Hollywood in 1930, Anna repeatedly turned to stage and cabaret for creative outlet.
Keeping her promise to appear in a Josef von Sternberg film, Anna accepted a stereotypical lead role of Fu Manchu’s vengeful daughter in Daughter of the Dragon (1931). It was the last stereotypical “evil Chinese” role that Anna played. She starred appearances alongside with Sessue Hayakawa. Despite her starring role, it was not reflected in her pay cheque. She was paid USD 6,000.00, while Susse Hayakawa received USD 10,000.00, and Warner Oland who appeared for only 23 minutes received USD 12,000.00.
Anna then used her stardom to make political statements. She became more outspoken in her advocacy in Chinese American causes and for better film roles.
In a 1933 interview for Film Weekly entitled “I Protest”, Wong criticized the negative stereotyping in Daughter of the Dragon, saying, “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain– murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”
In 1932, Anna appeared alongside with Marlene Dietrich as a self-sacrificing courtesan in Shanghai Express by Sternberg. This is where her sexually charged scenes with Marlene was spoken about by many commentators and fed rumours to the relationship of the two stars.
The Chinese press had been giving Anna’s career mix reviews where they were less than favourable to her performance in Shanghai Express. A Chinese newspaper had the headline: “Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China” and continued, “Although she is deficient in artistic portrayal, she has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race.” Critics from China believed that Anna’s on-screen sexuality spread negative ideology about Chinese women. The most hurtful criticisms came from the Chinese government. However, the intellectuals and liberals were not as opposed to Wong, as they awarded the actress with an honorary doctorate in 1932.
In both America and Europe, Anna had been seen as a fashion icon for over a decade. In 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin society of New York voted her for “The World’s best-dressed woman”. In 1938, Anna was named “The World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl” by Look Magazine.
Her success in Europe and prominent role in Shanghai Express does not mean she can get what she wants. Due to the the anti-miscegenation rules, she was passed over for the leading female role of Lian Hua in The Son-Daughter, in favour of Helen Hayes. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer said that Anna was “too Chinese to play a Chinese” in the film. Hays Office also stopped her from romantic scenes as the male lead was Ramon Novarro, who was not an Asian.
After which, Anna was scheduled for the role of a mistress to a corrupt Chinese general in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), but the role later went to Toshia Mori.
Returning to Europe
Disappointed by Hollywood, Anna returned to Britain where she stayed for nearly three years, appearing only in four films as she toured Scotland and Ireland as a part of vaudevilla show. She also appeared in King George Silver Jubilee programme in 1935.
In 1934, her film Java Head, although considered as a minor effort, was the only film that Anna kissed the lead male character, her white husband in the film. Anna’s biographer commented that it might be the reason why the film remained as Anna’s personal favourites.
While being in London, Anna met with Mei Lanfang, one of the most famous stars of Beijing Opera. Anna had long interest in Chinese opera. Lanfang offered to instruct Anna if ever she visited China.
Anna returned to the States in June 1935 with the goal of obtaining the role of O-lan, the leading female character in MGM’s film version of The Good Earth. Anna has made known her desire to play O-lan in a film version of the book since the novel was published in 1931. Several Los Angeles newspapers had been routing Anna as the best choice for the part since 1933. Because O-lan’s husband, Wang Lung, was to be played by Paul Muni of European descent, the studio never seriously considered Anna for the role of O-lan. The Chinese government had advised against casting Anna for the role. A Chinese advisor to MGM said that “whenever she appears in a movie, the newspapers print her picture with the caption ‘Anna May again loses face for China’ “.
She was instead offered the part of Lotus, a deceitful song girl who helps to destroy the family and seduces the oldest son of the family. Anna turned down the role telling MGM head of production Irving Thalberg, “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.” The role that Anna has hoped and wished for went to Luise Rainer, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
The refusal of MGM to consider Anna for the most high-profile of Chinese characters in U.S. film is remembered as “one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s”.
Returning to her roots
After the disappointment of losing the role of O-lan in The Good Earth, Anna announced her plans for a year long tour of China where she visited her father and his family in Taishan. Her father and her siblings had returned to his hometown in China in 1934.
Alongside with Mei Lanfang’s offer to teach Anna, she wanted to learn more about the Chinese theater and through English translations to better perform Chinese plays before international audiences.
“… for a year, I shall study the land of my fathers. Perhaps upon my arrival, I shall feel like an outsider. Perhaps instead, I shall find my past life assuming a dreamlike quality of unreality.” Anna told San Francisco Chronicle before her departure
As Anna was travelling in China, she continued to receive strong criticism from the Chinese government and film community. She had many difficulties communicating in many area of China as she was raised with Taishan dialect rather than Mandarin. Anna has mentioned that due to the variety of dialects, Chinese sounded “as strange to me as Gaelic”, she thus had the strange experience of talking to her own people through an interpreter.
The pressure on Anna’s personal life being an international public personality took effect in the form of her outbursts of anger, sudden depression, excessive drinking and smoking.
On a trip to Hong Kong, she was greeted with a shout of “Down with Huang Liu Tsong– the stooge that disgraces China. Don’t let her go ashore” when she was rude to the awaiting crowd. She left for a short trip to Philippines, and joined her family in Hong Kong when the situation was better. She spent over 10 days with in her family village and some time in the neighbouring villages before she continued with her tour of China.
Back in Hollywood
After being back in Hollywood, Anna reflected on her year away in China and her career in Hollywood, “I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese Theatre. I have no feeling for it. It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I’m ‘too American’ and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.”
In order to complete her contract with Paramount Pictures, Anna made many B-grade movies in the late 1930s. The roles that Anna played were the non-stereotypical roles which were publicised in Chinese-American press for positive images. Smaller budgeted films were bolder than high-profile releases which Anna used this to her advantage portraying successful, professional, Chinese-American characters.
These roles were proud and competent of the Chinese heritage, which were against the prevailing U.S. film portrayals of Chinese Americans of that time. These has led to even the approval of Anna’s film roles in Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and King of Chinatown (1939) by the Chinese consul to Los Angeles.
In Daughter of Shanghai, Anna played the lead role that was written for her as the heroine of the story, setting the plot into motion than a more passive character that was originally planned. Everything was so carefully tailored to Anna that at one point it was renamed as Anna May Wong Story.
“I like my part in this picture better than any I’ve had before… because this picture gives Chinese a break– we have sympathetic parts for a change! To me that means a great deal.” ~ Anna told Hollywood Magazine
Anna continued to act in movies, series and documentaries from 1942 to 1960. In late 1953 she suffered an internal hemorrhage, which her brother attributed to the onset of menopause, her continued heavy drinking, and financial worries.
Anna was scheduled to play the role of Madame Liang in the film Flower Drum Song by Rodgers and Hammerstein, but was not able to do so due to her failing health.
For her contribution to the film industry, Anna May Wong received a star at 1708 Vine Street on the inauguration of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. She is also depicted larger-than-life as one of the four supporting pillars of the “Gateway to Hollywood” sculpture located on the southeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, with the actresses Dolores del Río (Hispanic American), Dorothy Dandridge (African American) and Mae West.
On 3rd February 1961, Anna died of a heart attack as she slept at home in Santa Monica. She was 56. This happened two days after her final screen performance on the television show The Barbara Stanwyck Show.
Her cremated remains were placed together at her mother’s grave at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. The gravestone is marked with her mother’s name on top, and the Chinese names of Anna and her sister Mary along the sides of the gravestone.
Through Anna’s image and career, she has left a legacy behind. She has helped to humanize Asian Americans to white audiences during a period of overt racism and discrimination. Although Anna’s films and her established public image as an Asian American citizen, the law at that time still discriminated against Asian immigrants and citizens. Through her example, it clearly shows that the culture of the East and the West are very different. Sadly, Anna May was not considered an Easterner or Westerner as she was rejected by the Chinese as being too American, and the Americans preferred other races to act in Chinese lead characters.
Some of the 55 films that she acted in
- The Red Lantern (1919) debut – uncredited
- Bits of Life (1921)
- The Toll of the Sea (1922) as Lotus Flower
- The Thief of Bagdad (1924) as a Mongol Slave
- A Trip to Chinatown (1926) as Ohati
- Old San Francisco (1927)
- Piccadilly (1929) as Shosho
- Elstree Calling (1930) as Herself
- Daughter of the Dragon (1931) as Princess Ling Moy
- Shanghai Express (1932) as Hui Fei
- A Study in Scarlet (1933)
- Limehouse Blues (1934) as Tu Tuan
- Dangerous to Know (1938) as Lan Ying
- Island of Lost Men (1939) as Kim Ling
- King of Chinatown (1939) as Dr. Mary Ling
- Lady from Chungking (1942) as Kwan Mei
- Bombs Over Burma (1943) as Lin Ying
- Impact (1949) as Su Lin
- Portrait in Black (1960) as Tawny
Daughter of the Dragon
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Discovering Anna May Wong
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Anna May Wong – In Her Own Words
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Shanghai Express, where she plays one of the leading roles with Marlene Dietrich
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