Film & TV

Who is Anna May Wong? Hollywood's First Chinese-American Trailblazer

On the late star's birthday, L'OFFICIEL looks back on the life and legacy of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, who paved the way for Asian representation in film and TV.
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Today, Hollywood is more diverse than ever. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s most recent annual study indicated that a non-white person starred or co-starred in 31 of the 100 top-grossing films from 2019: a 138 percent increase in minority representation since 2007 when the study began. However, contributions of female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ actors continue to go unrecognized as industry touchstones like the Academy Awards fill their nominations with an overwhelmingly white male majority

It’s still an uphill battle for minorities in Hollywood, whether aiming for a starring role in a Best Picture or a seat in the director’s chair. Many have been forging their own path out of necessity since the early days of film, and each successful generation can make it a pinch easier for the next. That’s why it’s important to remember and revere the diverse trailblazers who started it all, like Anna May Wong.

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Born on this day in 1905, Wong was the original ceiling-shatterer for Asian and Asian-American film stars. Considered to be the first Chinese-American Hollywood movie star, Wong grew up in LA’s Chinatown in a racially segregated America riddled with extreme nativist sentiment regarding Chinese migration. The Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed 20 years earlier as the first immigration ban to target a group by name, and the Chinese and Asian roles in Hollywood were played by white actors who taped back their eyes to look “more Asian” and wore “yellow face” with exaggerated theatrical costumes, creating offensive portrayals of Asian people in film.

Wong was determined to see herself on the big screen, though, and dropped out of high school to pursue an acting career. At age 18, she landed her debut feature role in The Toll of the Sea, one of the first movies made in color, and managed to stand out with emotional mannerisms despite the fact that it was a silent film in which her character eventually dies. 

“I drained my emotions trying to live the part out. I hoped to represent my people worthily,” Wong said.

After acting in Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad, Wong rose to stardom and became a style icon during one of fashion’s greatest revolutions: the flapper era. She made headlines for dating white actors, being “best dressed,” and cutting bangs that became her signature haircut.

Consistently, however, Hollywood’s treatment of her stood in stark contrast to the supposed praise she received from the public. She was almost always cast in stereotypical roles in which she played a sensual or subservient side character while white actresses continued to play Asian women in starring roles. In The Crimson City, Wong, who played a minor role, had to teach Myrna Loy, a white actress playing an Asian lead, how to use chopsticks. 

Wong was fed up, so she moved to Europe, where she finally starred in many plays and films. Her breaking point, however, came in 1935 when a director refused to even consider her for the starring role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film The Good Earth. Instead, a white actress was casted after the Motion Picture Production Code ruled that the wife of a white actor must be played by a white actress (even if they were both playing Chinese characters, as they were in The Good Earth). Instead, Wong was offered the role of a seductress named Lotus, which she refused.

After touring China to study the culture and visit the village of her ancestors, Wong starred in many lower-budget 1930s movies to portray Chinese and Chinese-Americans positively. In the 1950s, she starred in her own TV show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was the first television series with an Asian-American lead. 

Despite making history for Chinese-Americans, Wong was mainly remembered after her death in 1961 for her stereotypical seductress roles. It was not until years after that retrospectives and biographies began to bring the true scope of her contributions and worth to light, including Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock’s Hollywood, which attempts to rewrite film history in a way that gives marginalized stars the opportunities they deserved. 

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Michelle Krusiec, a Taiwanese-American actress, plays Anna May Wong in Ryan Murphy's "Hollywood" on Netflix.

In an age where Korean Bong Joon-ho, the director of Parasite, can be the first Asian director to win the Oscar for Best Picture, but Crazy Rich Asians, which was the first modern story with an all-Asian cast and an Asian-American lead in 25 years at the time of its 2018 release, can be snubbed of any Academy Award nominations, the obstacles, frustrations, and successes of early stars like Wong are more important than ever. While a critically-acclaimed show like Hollywood imagines Wong’s career in a world where opportunities are truly equal, we can learn from her past—and the Asian-American stars of our present—to inch closer to that future. 

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