Anna May Wong: The First Asian American Icon

Now if I asked most people, which actor was the trailblazer for Asian people on the worldwide stage (and I guess I mean Hollywood), I would wager most would come up with Bruce Lee. A few might even offer up Nancy Kwan. What if I told you that the breakthrough was not made in the 1970s by Lee, nor in the 1960s by Kwan, but rather by a young second-generation American Chinese girl back in the 1920s, who not only became a film star in both the silent age, but also in the talkies, who also managed success in Europe as well as in Hollywood, a woman who became an international fashion icon, and who actually got her own TV show decades before Bruce Lee popped up on The Green Hornet? Let me introduce you to the wonderful Anna May Wong.

But first, some context. Wong Liu-tsong was born to second-generation Chinese American parents in 1905, in Los Angeles, just as the American film industry was gravitating toward the City of Angels. These were not enlightened times, and although Chinese immigration had bought in tens of thousands of hardworking men who literally built the infrastructure of the Western part of the United States, the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw political movements and laws passed that severely impacted the ability of immigrants from Asia.

The 1875 Page Act put a ban on Chinese women immigrating in because apparently, and I kid you not, the were all prostitutes. This was followed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which fundamentally put a ban on anyone coming to America from China. This simply wasn’t a great time to be of Asian extraction in the United States. Furthermore, this was an era where anti-miscegenation laws prohibited even the hint of inter-racial romance, severely limiting the roles available to non-Caucasians.

The young Wong, however, was not initially deterred by this socio-political environment and fell in love with the movies. She skipped school to visit the local playhouses, and as films were being made on her doorstep, she badgered film-makers to let her appear, however, however briefly, in the scenes they were filming in her neighborhood. Occasional work as an extra would eventually become bit parts, and after dropping out of school at the age of 16, she set herself the target of making it as an actress within ten years.

 

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“I’m Anna May Wong. I come from old Hong Kong. But now I’m a Hollywood star.”

 

It wouldn’t be long before she got her break when renamed as Anna May Wong, the seventeen-year-old got the starring role in Chester M. Franklin’s repurposing of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, “The Toll of the Sea” (1922). Even though this was a film that was groundbreaking for technical reasons (it was the first Hollywood film made in Technicolor and the first made in this process that did not require special equipment to project), it was the performance of Wong that garnered the special reviews.

Sadly, because of those anti-miscegenation laws, this would be the only time Wong would actually have the starring role. but over the next few years, she carved out a fairly successful on-screen career for herself. Not only that, but her striking looks and strong personality made her a popular celebrity of the day, ensconced in the style of the Flapper girl – strong women who were fiercely independent, drank and smoked and partied hard, and who had a visual styling that was hard to ignore. At this time, Wong was as famous international as her contemporaries Louise Brooks and Clara Bow.

“The young Wong however was not initially deterred by this socio-political environment, and fell in love with the movies.”

However, there was a growing problem with Wong’s film career – she was being typecast as either scheming Dragon Ladies or naive Lotus Flowers. That’s when she wasn’t just fitting in as exotic window dressing (in one film she was cast as an Eskimo).

Wong was not to be deterred, and she decided to look elsewhere for cinematic roles and took herself to Europe where she would prove a hit in both German and British films, as well as more traditional stage roles. Her crowning achievement in this period of her career was probably as Shosho, in E. A. Dupont’s “Piccadilly” (1929), a film that has recently been somewhat rediscovered and lovingly restored. This was to be Wong’s final silent movie, but unlike most of her contemporaries, she was able to move into the world of talkies seamlessly. She was helped here again by that trademark work ethic.

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Whilst in Europe, she picked up some criticism for her somewhat shrill Californian accent, so she went and took lessons in classic British Received Pronunciation. Language did not deter her either, as she was able to give performances not just in English, but perfectly acceptable german and french.

It was this period also that gave Wong another moment in the pop-culture firmament. it is believed that she had a relationship with writer Eric Maschwitz whilst living in London and his penning of the lyrics to These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You) wherein response the effect Wong had on him.

“Her striking looks and strong personality made her a popular celebrity of the day, ensconced in the style of the Flapper girl – strong women who where fiercely independent, drank and smoked and partied hard, and who had a visual styling that was hard to ignore.”

The European adventure had been such a success, that Hollywood came calling again. She returned to the United States in 1930, with a contract from Paramount Pictures. Unfortunately, whilst sound had come to Hollywood in her absence, the roles had not changed. There now came an additional problem. She was being criticized by the Chinese press for propagating negative stereotypes for the entertainment of Americans. This criticism came despite her being quite vocal and active in writing about her struggles, and additionally penning some political articles in support of the Chinese against the Japanese aggression toward them at this time.

In 1932 she was passed over for a role in an MGM production because.. “too Chinese to play a Chinese”. Worse was to come when she was overlooked for the lead in the production of Pearl Buck’s popular Novel “The Good Earth”, with the role going to Luise Rainer. Now, as good as Rainer was as an actress, she was not Chinese. Rainer went on to win the best actress Oscar in 1937, but Wong was indignant.

The rejection led her to take a year out from her career, and she decided to go visit her ancestral home, Taishan in China. The trip had somewhat mixed results. Back in the USA, she penned a number of articles about her travels, but in China, things were not going as smoothly. The local Media were insistent on painting her as someone who made the Chinese look bad in American films, and the fact she spoke Taishanese rather than Mandarin made it hard for her to communicate her side of any stories. During this time she started to struggle with depression, which she attempted to counter via heavy smoking and drinking.

“Even though she was an icon of the early twentieth century, somewhere along the way the world forgot about Anna May Wong…Fortunately, there has been a revival in interest in Anna May Wong in recent years.”

Upon her return to the States, Wong’s career slowed down, though it was probably much more rewarding. She was cast in a number of B-Movies and started finding roles that were more sympathetic to the American Born Chinese. The films may not have made the big money, but the reaction to these films from both the American-Chinese and Chinese media was much more positive. After a couple of anti-japanese propaganda efforts in the early 1940s Wong stopped appearing in films regularly, and concentrated in her real estate investments.

You can’t keep a Star down though, and in 1951 she blazed yet another trail – she was given her own TV show, “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong”, in which she starred as a Detective cum Art Dealer. Sadly, it only got one season, and no footage or stills remain. But again, not this was 15 years before Bruce Lee had his American TV break in The Green Hornet.

 

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“Every time your picture is taken, you lose a part of your soul.” Anna May Wong

 

She continued to occasionally guest in TV shows, but her health was failing. Years of heavy drinking and smoking were to have a heavy toll on Wong’s well-being, On February 3, 1961, at the age of 56, Wong died of a heart attack as she slept at home.

Even though she was an icon of the early twentieth century, somewhere along the way the world forgot about Anna May Wong. Maybe an element of this can be attributed to endemic anti-Chinese sentiment in the USA, but it’s also just a sad fact that like that ground-breaking TV show, many of her movies have simply been lost. Possibly because she never married, never had children, there has been no-one to carry the torch of her legacy.

The cold truth, however, was that she was probably too Chinese for the Americans, and too American for the Chinese. Those anti-miscegenation laws would have prevented her from marrying anyone other than a Chinese man, and she was far too modern a woman to have been suitable for a traditional Chinese suitor.

Fortunately, there has been a revival in interest in Anna May Wong in recent years. Some of her films have been rediscovered and made available. Several books have been written about her (from dry academic pieces interested in her gender and ethnicity to detailed biographies, to a children’s book outlining her life). In a way, maybe her story is almost more compelling when you consider how she fell out of our pop-culture radar for so long. What I hope is that I have sparked a little interest in the woman and her work for you.

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