Thursdays | 13 Movies
Anna May Wong, the TCM Star of the Month for May, was the first major Chinese-American movie star in Hollywood. With her charisma and delicate beauty, Wong graced the silver screen in a career that spanned over four decades. She became an international celebrity and fashion icon donning her signature bangs, meticulously arched eyebrows and gracing magazine spreads with her impeccable sense of style. Despite her acting chops and star status, Wong faced discrimination and was denied leading roles due to miscegenation laws that prevented her from kissing white actors on screen. Many of these roles, including the part of O-Lan in The Good Earth (1937), went to other actresses made up in yellowface. Wong persisted, striking a balance of fighting against the system and working within it. While she struggled during her lifetime to be taken seriously as a lead actress, her continued legacy as a trailblazer paved the way for better representation for Asian Americans in film.
Born in 1905 in Los Angeles to Chinese-American parents, Anna May Wong was one of seven children. From a young age she knew she wanted to be a movie star. When movie production moved from New York to Hollywood, young Wong was at the heart of it all. She would visit the local nickelodeon to watch movies and then witness them being made in her own neighborhood. At the age of 11, she changed her name from Wong Liu Tsong (which translates to “frosted yellow willows”) to Anna May Wong. Despite disapproval from her family and her community, Wong pursued acting as a career. She seemed destined for greatness and thoroughly rejected any notion of living a “normal” life. In a 1925 interview with “Pictures and Picturegoer,” Wong observed that “women didn’t do anything but sit around and talk about their husbands and babies, and their housework. I couldn’t live such a narrow life.”
Wong’s acting career began in her teens when she appeared as an extra in films like Alla Nazimova’s The Red Lantern (1919) and in uncredited bit parts like in Marshall Neilan’s Dinty (1920). Her cousin James Wong Howe, who would soon become a renown cinematographer in Hollywood, helped get her noticed by filmmakers. She got her first screen credit in Bits of Life (1921) playing opposite Lon Chaney. Her first leading role quickly followed with The Toll of the Sea (1922), a drama loosely based on the play “Madame Butterfly.” The role of Lotus Flower was a great part for the 17-year-old Wong as it gave her an opportunity to showcase her acting skills, her natural beauty and her ability to carry a leading role. The Toll of the Sea is notable for being one of the first feature films in Technicolor. It received wide distribution because, unlike other color films of the time, a special projector wasn’t required for screenings. Wong was soon was cast in parts in Tod Browning’s Drifting (1923) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Now recognized as one of the great films of the silent era, The Thief of Bagdad was a commercial success and put Wong on the map.
It was clear that Anna May Wong had subverted expectations of what a Chinese-American woman should look like and how she should act. Wong found herself in an in-between place where she was too American for the Chinese and too Chinese for Americans. Her more conventional beauty was a draw but also a deterrent for playing certain types of Chinese characters. Wong’s exotic appeal and her 5 feet 7 inch frame both delighted and confused Hollywood. She noted in an interview, “I’m pretty tall for a Chinese girl… it always seems to hand a director a shock when he sees me for the first time. They all have the idea I should be about four feet tall.”
Early on in her acting career, Wong was typecast as either the evil “dragon lady” or the demure “butterfly.” She played a variety of “exotic” characters in films like The Fortieth Door (1924), The Alaskan (1924), Peter Pan (1924), A Trip to Chinatown (1926) and Mr. Wu (1927). Increasingly frustrated with playing stereotypical roles, Wong created her own production company in 1924 to produce films with better parts for Asian actors. Unfortunately, Anna May Wong Productions shut down within a year after Wong’s business partner took advantage of Wong for financial gain.
After appearing in Warner Bros.’ silent drama Old San Francisco (1927) and the Charlie Chan film The Chinese Parrot (1927), Wong grew weary of Hollywood and traveled to Europe to find more fulfilling work. There she made several British and German films speaking fluently in a variety of languages. For British International Pictures, she starred in what would be her final silent film Piccadilly (1929) where she plays Shosho, a dishwasher turned nightclub dancer. It was the first of five British films which would give her the leading roles she craved. At one point during her time abroad she made an English, French and German version of Hai-Tang (1930), a story of a Chinese cabaret singer who attempts to save her brother from an evil Duke. The film was heavily edited for U.S. release to cut out interracial love scenes. Wong thrived in Europe and was quoted in “Picture Play Magazine” as saying “they were so wonderful to me. You are admired abroad for your accomplishments and loved for yourself. That made me an individual, instead of a symbol of a race…”
Paramount Studios came calling and offered the international star a lucrative contract. While in Berlin, Wong had met and befriended Marlene Dietrich who had been collaborating with director Josef von Sternberg on several films. As part of her contract agreement, Wong accepted the role of Fu Manchu’s daughter in Daughter of the Dragon (1931) as long as she was able to make a film with Dietrich and von Sternberg. This arrangement paid off and Wong got a substantial supporting role in Shanghai Express (1932). Wong and Dietrich played a pair of traveling courtesans held captive on a train by a Chinese warlord. Shanghai Express was the highest grossing film of 1932 and was almost banned in China for its depiction of Chinese politics.
Shanghai Express proved to be the highlight of Wong’s film career. She fought for better roles at Paramount but was relegated to small parts, albeit non-stereotypical ones. Wong played a murder suspect in the Sherlock Holmes film A Study in Scarlet (1933), an astrologist in When You Were Born (1938) and a surgeon in King of Chinatown (1939). She also continued to work in England and Germany. In 1936, she took a break from filmmaking to travel to her family’s ancestral homeland. She filmed footage for the newsreel Anna May Wong visits Shanghai, China (1936).
She scored a win with Daughter of Shanghai (1937), a Paramount drama in which Wong and her childhood friend Philip Ahn, a Korean-American actor, play the two lead Asian roles. In an interview with “Hollywood Magazine,” Wong said “I like my part in this picture better than any I’ve had before, not because it gives me better acting opportunities nor because the character has exceptional appeal. It’s just because this picture gives the Chinese a break—we have the sympathetic parts for a change! To me that means a great deal.” The part was made specifically for her and was unusual in that it did not exoticize the Asian roles.
It was around this time that Wong faced her greatest career disappointment: losing the role of O-Lan in The Good Earth (1937). According to historian Arthur Dong in his book “Hollywood Chinese,” Wong “made known her desire to play the main character O-Lan. Wong was, however, considered for the part of Lotus, a concubine. In memoirs from associate producer Albert Lewin, Wong was finally judged “a little disappointing as to looks. Does not seem beautiful enough to make Wang’s infatuation convincing…” and "not as beautiful as she might be.” This was a bitter loss for Wong. She made a few more films for Paramount who decided not to renew Wong’s contract after Island of Lost Men (1939) ran over budget.
During World War II, Wong advocated for Chinese-Americans with various philanthropic efforts. This included writing a preface for a Chinese cookbook and raising money for the United China Relief Fund. When she did return to film it was to make a couple of propaganda films: Bombs Over Burma (1942) and Lady from Chungking (1942). Both films were produced by Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation and told stories of Chinese guerrillas fighting back against Japanese and German forces. She took another hiatus from filmmaking before returning to play a small but important role in the B-noir Impact (1949).
Throughout the 1950s, Wong continued to perform on stage, in night clubs, on radio and television. She broke ground by starring in the first television show starring Asian American actors titled The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. She returned to film with a small part in the Ross Hunter production Portrait in Black (1960) starring Lana Turner and Wong’s frequent co-star Anthony Quinn. Hunter had Wong in mind for the role of Madame Liang in Flower Drum Song (1961). However, poor health had plagued Wong and she died of a massive heart attack before filming began.
Wong was robbed of an opportunity to be part of the first major Hollywood film with a predominantly Asian American cast. However, had it not been for her tireless work in Hollywood and abroad, demonstrating that Asian actors could indeed both play Asian roles but also play lead parts as well, progress like this would still be years away.
During her career Wong was sometimes referred to as the Daughter of the East and the West. She was a bridge between two cultures and by fighting against stereotypes she demonstrated to audiences that Asian American characters were more than the sum of the many yellowface performances they were used to seeing. In the decades after her death, Anna May Wong has been recognized as the trailblazer she was. She has become the subject of several books and many film retrospectives which celebrate her contributions to film and to our appreciation of Asian American talent. In 2022 Wong will be one of five notable women to be featured on the back of the US quarter along with Maya Angelou, Dr. Sally Ride, Wilma Mankiller and Nina Otero-Warren.
Follow the full lineup of our Anna May Wong programming with our Letterboxd list.