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Who is Anna May Wong?

Jennifer Fenn
Jennifer Fenn

Born in 1905, Anna May Wong was a Chinese-American film actress popular during the 1930s and 40s. Though prejudice against Asians during that time prevented her from taking on any leading lady roles for most of her life, Wong carved out a successful career as a supporting actress in the United States before moving to the more open-minded Europe. As a result of her success there, Paramount Pictures offered her a Hollywood movie deal in the 1930s, though racism continued to hold Wong back even then. Her best-known film is Shanghai Express, which was nominated for Best Picture, and won an Oscar in 1932 for its cinematography. Wong died in 1961 of a heart attack.

A native of Los Angeles’ Chinatown and the daughter of launderers, Anna May Wong’s career started promisingly when, as a teenager, she was selected to star in 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, the first Technicolor film. The film used this new color technology to play up her unique Asian beauty. Her next notable role was in The Thief of Bagdad, filmed two years later. She scored a small but memorable role as Tiger Lilly in Peter Pan and another small part in Old San Francisco.

Anna May Wong was signed to a Hollywood movie deal in the 1930s.
Anna May Wong was signed to a Hollywood movie deal in the 1930s.

Life, however, was hard for all Chinese-Americans during this era, and despite her growing stardom, Anna May Wong was not spared the indignities her people faced. Marriage between whites and Chinese-Americans was only made legal in 1947. Asians also could not obtain property in the US during this time either. Anna May Wong had trouble securing leading lady roles, as practically all leading men were white, and a romantic story line or physical intimacy between a white person and a Chinese-American would have resulted in uproar. Studios shied away from the potentially costly risk of casting Wong in much else besides stereotypical “dragon lady” roles.

Understandably frustrated by the closed doors she encountered at American film studios, Anna May Wong moved to Europe and used her ability to speak multiple languages to snag many great roles, including in the film Piccadilly and several highly regarded plays such as The Circle of Chalk and Tschun Tschi. While these plays were a success, Wong’s ironically Californian accent caused some to mock her publicly; she soon after hired a speech coach.

Hollywood was able to woo Wong back after seeing her popularity skyrocket across the pond. Look magazine touted Wong, arguably at the height of her popularity, as “the world’s most beautiful Chinese girl” in 1938. Her rumored romantic liaisons also frequently made the gossip pages during this time, though Wong stayed notoriously quiet about her personal life.

The advent of WWII, however, cut Anna May Wong’s film career short. She had her own television show during the 1950s, another first for a Chinese-American, but her acting career was quickly winding down. Wong was set to attempt a comeback in 1960 with a film role in Portrait in Black, but she passed away before she could complete the project.

Anna May Wong never married or had children. Her known hobbies included golf, horses, reading and skiing. She was also a frequent drinker and suffered from liver problems in her later years. Still, Anna May Wong is regarded as a cinematic pioneer who appeared in over 50 films and paved the way for the future successes of minority actors and actresses by straddling the line between the East and the West.

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    • Anna May Wong was signed to a Hollywood movie deal in the 1930s.
      By: Perseomedusa
      Anna May Wong was signed to a Hollywood movie deal in the 1930s.