The Rediscovery of Anna May Wong by Mykki Newton

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

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

-Anna May Wong (1936)

It has been 101 years since a high school girl from Los Angeles carried a lantern as an uncredited extra in the silent film The Red Lantern (1919), but that moment would later be known as the first time Anna May Wong appeared on film. Her passion for the art form would cause her to dropout of high school and eventually become the first Chinese-American movie star. She not only had to work hard to accomplish that milestone, she had to fight the laws of the United States which made interracial love illegal even on film. Those laws weren’t ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1968, seven years after Wong’s death. She couldn’t even kiss another Asian character on film if that character what played by a white actor, which happened most of the time. Still, her talent and steadfast nature made her an international sensation and shortly after the dawn on the 21st Century, there began a rediscovery of Anna May Wong by film fans, historians, and scholars. That rediscovery continues to grow in scope with new documentaries, books, and the focus on the underrepresentation of Asian actors today in American cinema.

Anna May Wong (1922)

“She worked. She worked. She worked. I think the best word for Anna May Wong is she earned her position. She earned it the hard way.”

-A.C. Lyles, Paramount Executive

Anna May Wong would receive an honorary doctorate degree in her lifetime, but in the beginning after dropping out of high school, she worked constantly as an uncredited extra in a string of films. She finally got her fist screen credit playing opposite a future icon. Wong played the wife of Lon Chaney in Bits of Life (1921) and it earned her the cover of a British film fan magazine.

Lon Chaney, Anna May Wong, Bits of Life (1921)

The following year at the tender age of only 17, she had her first lead role in The Toll of the Sea, one of the first Technicolor films ever produced. The story is based on the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly and Wong’s performance was praised by critics and made her a star.

Anna May Wong, Toll of the Sea (1922)

"Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical 'feeling'. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy ... She should be seen again and often on the screen.”

-The New York Times

Unfortunately, the success of Toll of the Sea, Wong’s performance and the critical acclaim she received did nothing to repress Hollywood’s fear of having an Asian leading lady. Anna May Wong was thrown back into supporting roles for the next five years. Despite the lesser roles, she shined and often over-shadowed stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Betty Bronson, Dolores Costello, Warner Oland, and Wallace Beery.

She was a star in the eyes of movie audiences, but not in the eyes of studio executives. So, Anna May Wong once again made a bold move to satisfy her passion and left Hollywood for Europe.

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play. There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.

-Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong, Drifting (1923)

Anna May Wong, Douglas Fairbanks, The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Anna May Wong, Peter Pan (1924)

Anna May Wong, Old San Francisco (1927)

By 1928, Anna May Wong had conquered Europe with her third film made on that continent. She was the title character and lead role in the German film Song (a.k.a. Schmutzmiges Geld). The movie about a Malaysian woman’s ill-advised love of a murderous painter was a huge hit and European audiences and critics fell in love with Wong’s enormous talent and beauty.

For the next two years, she wowed audiences in Germany and the U.K. She even starred in a London stage production of A Circle of Chalk with an up-and-coming young actor named Laurence Olivier. She starred in five British films including her final silent film, Piccadilly (1929). Wong portrayed the romantic rival to Gilda Gray, but she was still not allowed to kiss the white object of her affection. Piccadilly was another huge hit and once again, Hollywood came calling.

Anna May Wong, Song (1928)

Anna May Wong, Piccadilly (1929)

Paramount Pictures offered Anna May Wong a contract in 1930 and she returned to make films in the United States with a promise from the studio to have lead roles and top billing. However, there was one stipulation to that promise...Wong had to first play the stereotypical evil daughter of Fu Manchu in Daughter of the Dragon (1931). One of the reasons she took the role was to work with the only other Asian-American movie star, Sessue Hayakawa. It would be the last time she would agree to play such a role.

Warner Oland, Anna May Wong, Daughter of the Dragon (1931)

"Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?"

-Anna May Wong

That public criticism of Daughter of the Dragon struck studio heads and in 1932, Anna May Wong was teamed with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express. This time Wong’s role as a so-called “fallen woman” was played straight, honest and sympathetic. It was also the same time Peking University awarded Anna May Wong her honorary doctorate degree. Sadly, the time had still not come for an end to the racial discrimination when it came to interracial romance.

Although she was a star, the studio and the Hays Code stood in the way of Anna May Wong becoming a leading lady. That barrier dealt her the biggest heartbreak of her career. Wong had lobbied for years to play the lead female role and wife of a Chinese farmer in The Good Earth (1937), but she wasn’t even considered because the lead male role of the Chinese farmer was being played by Paul Muni, one of the greatest actors of all-time, but he was not Chinese. Anna May Wong’s heartbreak was softened some by her work in the 1937 crime drama featuring Asian leads, Daughter of Shanghai.

Anna May Wong, Daughter of Shanghai (1937)

"I like my part in this picture better than any I've had before ... because this picture gives Chinese a break – we have sympathetic parts for a change! To me, that means a great deal.

-Anna May Wong

Following Daughter of Shanghai, Anna May Wong slowed down on her acting career and consumed herself with another passion devoted to Chinese people. She toured the world and did shows to promote the true Chinese culture and honest Chinese values.

Anna May Wong’s career spanned more than 40 years and graced the silver screen, the stage, radio, and television. As a teenager, she gave herself 10 years to make it in Hollywood. It took far less time than that, but it took decades of courage and patience for her to become the eternal subject of inspiration to generation after generation, even into a second millennium.

"Pictures are fine and I'm getting along all right, but it's not so bad to have the laundry back of you, so you can wait and take good parts and be independent when you're climbing."

Anna May Wong

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