Anna May Wong final

The Star Hollywood Wasn’t Ready For: Anna May Wong

Racism and sexism wasn’t going to stop this legend from accomplishing her dream of becoming an actress

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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Sign into any streaming service and you’ll see Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) on screen falling in love, saving their people as Disney princesses, and kicking ass in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This level of still inadequate Hollywood representation took more than a century, and it all started with Anna May Wong (1905-1961), the first Asian American movie star.

Born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles, Wong was a third-generation Taishanese Chinese American. She fell in love with movies at an early age and was known to skip school as a child to visit movie sets, and use her lunch money to go to the movies. At the age of 9, she decided she would become a movie star, according to the National Women’s History Museum.

Wong’s first role was as an extra on the 1919 film, The Red Lantern, which she landed as a teenager, after learning about a casting call looking for Chinese women. She asked her father’s friend (without her father’s knowledge) to introduce her to the film’s assistant director. Wong went on to appear in more than 60 films—including The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first-ever Technicolor films, and Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad (1924).

Despite acting opposite Hollywood legends including her friend Marlene Dietrich and Laurence Olivier, Wong faced racism and discrimination throughout her career, and was often cast in supporting roles that played to the Dragon Lady and Lotus Flower stereotypes. Because anti-miscegenation laws prohibited Wong from so much as kissing her (predominantly white) co-stars, leading female roles went to white actresses, who performed Chinese roles in yellowface. According to Turner Classic Movies, Wong was also considered “too Chinese” to play Chinese, though it is unclear what that phrase meant. But that didn’t stop filmmakers from asking her to help train white actresses in these roles in essential tasks like how to use chopsticks.

The most egregious instance of this was in 1935, when Wong was passed over for the leading role of O-Lan in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, which was released two years later. The part went to white actress Luise Rainer. Wong was offered the supporting part of Lotus, but she refused. As a Chinese American—in a film cast entirely with white American actors playing Chinese characters—she wasn’t going to play the only unsympathetic Chinese role. Turner Classic Movies described the success of The Good Earth, including Rainer’s Best Actress Oscar, as “an achievement considered by some to be one of the worst affronts in Hollywood history.”

The Good Earth wasn’t the first—or last—time Wong made her feelings known about Hollywood’s atrocious casting practices. In 1928, she left for Europe in search of better roles and opportunities. When sound films arrived, she learned French and German so she could also perform in those languages, according to PBS’s American Masters. And in response to The Good Earth, Wong went abroad again, filming and directing the documentary, My China Film (1936), which followed her travels in China.

“Anna May Wong had a huge artistic range,” said Shirley J. Lim, who wrote “Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern,” on American Masters. “Her ability to survive in a racially segregated and sexist world speaks to how audiences could see beyond what Hollywood could see.”

Wong continued paving the path for future AAPI performers late in her career when she became the first Asian American to star in their own TV series. "The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong” (1951) ran for one season, with 10 episodes, on the now-defunct DuMont Television Network. The role of Madame Liu-Tsong—who shares Wong’s Chinese name—was written specifically for Wong. The character ran a global empire of art galleries and solved crimes on the side. According to Vulture, despite the groundbreaking nature of “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong,” no known copies of the show exist. When DuMont shut down in 1956, most of its kinescopes were dumped into the Upper New York Bay—including, presumably, anything containing episodes of Wong’s show.

Wong was set to play a role in Flower Drum Song (1961), the first major Hollywood feature film to star a majority Asian American cast, but unfortunately was unable to due to health issues. She died in her sleep on Feb. 3, 1961 from a heart attack.

Published on May 30, 2022

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Robinick Fernandez

Robinick Fernandez is a prolific and visionary creative director whose work blends the worlds of art, architecture, design, and fashion. For two decades Robinick Fernandez connected art with design for global brands, and his work has left an impact having navigated across many countries and cultures including Europe, Asia, the United States and beyond. For his next venture, he celebrates his Filipino American roots as Creative Director for JoySauce, being committed to cultural storytelling, sustainability, forward-thinking design, and conscious content .