Anna May Wong

“The harder the work, the greater the satisfaction in accomplishing it.”

Anna May Wong, first Asian-American Hollywood actress, 1906-1961

Born in Los Angeles ,Wong Liu-tson (known professionally as Anna May Wong) was a silver-screen pioneer who appeared in over 50 films, including Shanghai Express. In the 1920s and 30s, she persisted in challenging prevailing Asian stereotypes in film, paving the way for the next generation of actresses. This year, the American mint will issue a quarter with her likeness on it, and a new biopic produced by and starring Gemma Chan has also recently been announced. She lived on Flower Street, and her Chinese name means “frosted yellow willows.”

One of seven children, Wong toiled in her family’s laundromat, and did deliveries during her childhood. She skipped school to hang around movie sets in Chinatown, eventually getting noticed and landing a role as an extra in The Red Lantern at 14. Her first leading role was as Lotus Flower in the silent film The Toll of the Sea in 1922, and despite her parents’ disapproval, she dropped out of high school to pursue acting. But the roles that were offered were often bit parts portraying cliché Asian seductresses. It was often white actresses who played the Asian leads, with Wong teaching them how to use chopsticks. In 1930, Wong’s mother was hit by a car in front of their home, and the family relocated to China. When she visited China for the first time in 1936, Wong received backlash from people who felt her roles were disrespectful. Famously, she refused to read for the role of a concubine in 1937s The Good Earth

American laws at the time forbade inter-racial kissing in films, so she was passed over for romantic scripts. In frustration, Wong left for Europe, settling in London and performing in such famous projects as Picadilly. She also wrote and starred in the operetta Tschun Tschi in fluent German, and co-starred in the play A Circle of Chalk with Laurence Olivier. It was there that her fashion sense flourished, and she became known as a great beauty, appearing on international best-dressed lists. Wong never married, but was rumoured to have been in a romantic relationship with Marlene Dietrich, whom she appeared with in Shanghai Express.

Wong returned to the US after the studios promised they would offer her better roles, and she took to the stage on Broadway. In the 1950s she made a comeback in television, becoming the first Asian-American woman to headline a TV series, Madame Lui-Tsong, in which she played a gallerist-detective. She died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, CA, at the age of 56, a year after she got her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.


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