The Bittersweet Life of Anna May Wong

by Noël de Souza June 26, 2020
Actress Anna May Wong

bettman/getty images

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American to become a movie star in Hollywood. Born in Chinatown, Los Angeles, in 1905 as Wong Liu Tsong, she worked in film, stage, and television and entered the film industry at a time of deep racism, when Caucasian actresses were cast as Chinese characters in yellowface.

Her fascination with acting took root at an early age. She was 11 when she started skipping school to frequent the nickelodeons with tip money she made from delivering laundry for her father. It was a time when film was moving from the East Coast to the West Coast and a lot of shoots took place in and around Chinatown.

“I would play hooky from school to watch the crews at work, though I knew I would get a whipping from my teacher, and later from my father, for it,” she is quoted as saying in “Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong,the 2007 book by Anthony B. Chan. “I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared. I’d stare and stare at these glamorous individuals, directors, cameramen, assistants, and actors in greasepaint, who had come down into our section of town to make movies.”

She would beg the filmmakers to put her in their movies. She finally got her wish when she was cast as an extra in The Red Lantern in 1919 at age 14. In this film, a Caucasian actress, Allah Nazimova played a Eurasian.

Liu Tsong changed her name to Anna May Wong long before she got any screen credit.  She was so obsessed with acting that she dropped out of school to pursue this career. She looked older than her age and found work doing bit parts. She was finally given a screen credit in 1921 when director Marshall Neilan gave her the role of Toy Ling, the abused wife of Chin Gow - played by white actor Lon Chaney in Bits of Life.

At age 17 she was cast in her first major role The Toll of the Sea, an adaptation of the opera Madame Butterfly. The film was shot in Technicolor’s two-strip process and Anna May Wong received top billing, thus becoming the first Asian to star in a major Hollywood movie. (In an earlier 1915 adaptation Madame Butterfly had been played by Mary Pickford in yellowface.)  Nevertheless, her breakthrough role was still a clichéd one, as the Asian woman who sacrifices her life for the love of a Caucasian man.

Being a Chinese star in Hollywood meant very little; the parts for Asians were few and far between. So, instead of becoming a star, she was stuck in supporting roles. One such role that drew attention to her once again was when Douglas Fairbanks cast her as a treacherous (and scantily clad) Mongolian slave in The Thief of Bagdad in 1924. Again, the critics and public took notice, but this did not do too much for her career. She was stuck in the stereotypical roles of playing the Dragon Lady or murderous vamps.

Frustrated that her career was going nowhere, she moved to the UK in 1928, telling a local movie magazine in 1933 which was cited in the Los Angeles Times, “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass? We are not like that.”

In Europe, she was respected for her talent. She did a play with Laurence Olivier, The Circle of Chalk, and was roundly criticized for her voice and singing, so she hired a professor to teach her to speak the King’s English. And having taken lessons in German and French, she carved a career for herself in European films where racism - at least in the world of arts – was less marked. She became a media star.

Paramount offered her a contract, promising her lead roles, but those never came about. She was again stereotyped. MGM was casting The Good Earth, but instead of casting Wong for the role of the Chinese farmer’s wife, they went with German actress Luise Rainer who played the part in Chinese drag and went on to win the best supporting actress award at the Oscars. Wong was offered the part of the concubine, Lotus. She turned it down, telling Irving Thalberg, according to the Chan biography: “. . . you’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”

MGM had its reasons for not casting her opposite Paul Muni, although he, a white actor, was playing a Chinese character in yellowface. It was illegal in many states including California for Asians to marry Caucasians. That meant that the film would be rejected by many theaters because there was a new motion picture code, the Hays Code, that kept producers from portraying miscegenation in a positive light.

Wong did not work for over a year after that. She went to China, and instead of welcoming her with open arms, they looked down upon her for playing all those stereotypical and negative roles. She returned to the USA, her movie career at a low ebb, she found work on stage and in radio and television. Despite being vocal about racism in Hollywood and fighting against it, Wong was rejected by her own community for the roles she played.

After more than 50 films (some of her earlier films have been lost), Wong retired in 1942 at age 37. She made two comebacks, one in 1951 in a TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong where she played the lead. Her last role in a movie in 1960 was in a Lana Turner vehicle, Portrait in Black, where she played Turner’s maid.

In spite of all the hardships she endured, she became the first global Chinese-American movie star. She died in 1961 at the age of 55.