Anna May Wong (1907-1961) is chiefly remembered as the first actress of Asian extraction to achieve stardom as the epitome of the "Oriental temptress," so much a fixture of melodramas in the late 1920s and 1930s.
Anna May Wong became America's first Asian American movie star before films could even talk. In fact, with more than 80 film credits to her name, Wong is the all-time leading Asian American presence on film. She maintained her popularity for more than a quarter of a century, and she remained one of the highest-salaried stars of her time. She built a career around being the mysterious evil villainess, repeatedly playing stereotypical Oriental roles. She was the exotic slave girl, the powerful dragon lady, the mysterious woman of the Orient with deadly charms.
However, despite her success, Wong was torn between her two cultures. Twice, at the height of her fame, she moved to Europe to protest the limited, stereotypical roles she and other Asians were offered in Hollywood. Yet during a later trip to China to learn more about her native culture, Wong was heavily criticized for her degrading portrayals of Chinese women and was told that many of her films were banned in China.
Born on Flower Street in Los Angeles, California, in 1907, Anna May Wong was named Wong Liu Tsong, which in Cantonese means "frosted yellow willow." Wong was third-generation Chinese American; her father was born in Sacramento and his father had immigrated to California during the Gold Rush.
Growing up, Wong and her six brothers and sisters lived in an apartment over the family's run-down laundry. Her first memories were of constant steam and the strong odor of hot-ironed linen. As a young child, Wong became fascinated with the brand-new world of movies. She began skipping Chinese school in the evenings to watch such movies as The Perils of Pauline (1914) at the local theater. By the time she was 11, Wong decided she was going to be a movie actress. Against all odds, she got her first part at age 12 when an agent hired three hundred Chinese girls as extras in the 1919 film The Red Lantern. Hardly visible in the film, she went on to get a few more minor roles.
For two years, Wong worked after school as an extra without telling her parents, who, she knew, would not approve. At age 14, her father found her a job as a secretary, but Wong was fired as unqualified one week later. When she returned home, fearing her father's anger, she found a letter from a director's office offering her a role in the film Bits of Life (1921). It would bring Wong her first screen credit. Although Wong's father strongly objected to his daughter's chosen career, he eventually gave in on the condition that an adult escort, often he himself, would chaperon the young Wong on the film sets at all times. When she was not in front of the cameras, her father locked her into her room on the set.
At age 17, Wong had one of the few romantic lead roles she would ever play in Toll of the Sea (1923), the first Technicolor feature ever made. As a young village girl who marries an American sailor, Wong captured the media's attention for the first time. Reporters began to appear at the laundry in the hopes of catching Wong for an interview or a photo.
International fame came in 1924 with The Thief of Bagdad, in which Wong played an exotic Mongol slave girl opposite star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Wong's role embarrassed her family. Although Wong would continue to support her family for many years, she remained close only to her brother, Richard.
The success of Bagdad led to countless new offers. She appeared as an Eskimo in The Alaskan and a Native American girl in Peter Pan. In addition to film roles, Wong also worked as a model. She made a few more films, but soon became disillusioned with the roles and with Hollywood's practice of casting non-Asians in the few leading Asian roles. Wong finally fled to Europe where, in London, she costarred with Charles Laughton in Piccadilly. After the film, director Basil Dean produced a Chinese play, A Circle of Chalk, specifically for Wong. She successfully played opposite the rising new talent, Laurence Olivier, in London's New Theater.
Wong remained in Europe for three years, where she was hailed for her film and stage appearances. In Germany and France, she made foreign versions of her British films, including Germany's first sound picture. She spoke both German and French so fluently that critics could hardly believe they were hearing her voice instead of a native actress. During her career, Wong taught herself to speak English, Chinese, French, German, and Italian.
In 1931 a leading role on Broadway lured Wong back to the United States. The play, On the Spot, ran for 30 weeks, until Wong was called back to Los Angeles when her mother died in an automobile accident.
Wong's next screen role, Daughter of the Dragon, cast her in yet another stereotypical role as the daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu. Wong then appeared in the thriller Shanghai Express, starring Marlene Dietrich. Wong's portrayal of the bad-girl-turned-good inspired better reviews than Dietrich received. Years later, the star would complain that Wong had upstaged her.
Wong then made one independent Sherlock Holmes picture and returned to England, where she felt her true audiences were. Like many minority artists at the time, Wong felt Europe was a less racist place to work. There she enjoyed the company of royalty and the wealthy. Wong remained in England for almost three years, appearing in more films and traveling in a variety show.
After failing to win the lead role in The Good Earth, which was given to a non-Asian German actress, a furious and frustrated Wong traveled to China, the home of her ancestors. In spite of those who criticized her for playing degrading Asian roles, Wong remained in China for ten months, studied Mandarin Chinese, purchased costumes for films and plays, and wrote articles on her travels. Unfortunately, she learned that she was too westernized for the Chinese stage. At the same time, she knew she never would be considered American enough for Hollywood's racist views.
After returning to the United States, Wong starred in one sympathetic role before World War II. In Daughter of Shanghai, she played a detective. She then appeared in two war epics, Bombs over Burma and The Lady from Chungking. The war brought another difficult situation for Wong. As more war movies were being cast, she was not hired as an actress, but as a coach to teach Caucasian actors how to be more believable as Asians.
In 1942, finally fed up with the Hollywood system, Wong retired from films at the age of 35. "I had to go into retirement for the sake of my soul. I suddenly found no more pleasure in acting. My screen work became a weary and meaningless chore—and Hollywood life a bore!" Wong told New York Enquirer in 1957. Throughout the war, she contributed to the war efforts by working for the United China Relief Fund and touring with the USO. During the 1940s and 1950s, Wong took occasional small parts on television, even starring in her own series, Mme. Liu Tsong, in which she played the owner of an international chain of art galleries who was also a sleuth.
Seventeen years after retirement, Wong attempted a film comeback. She returned as Lana Turner's mysterious housekeeper in the 1950 film, Portrait in Black. In 1961, while she was preparing for the role of the mother in Flower Drum Song, Wong died of a heart attack in her sleep.
Further Reading on Anna May Wong
Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players: The Thirties, New Rochelle, New York, 1976.
Pictures, August 1926 and September 1926.