Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the AFI Catalog spotlights America’s first female Asian American movie star, Anna May Wong, who spent her career defying racial stereotypes and paving the road for greater diversity in Hollywood.
Growing up in Los Angeles’s Chinatown neighborhood, Anna May Wong secretly skipped classes to pursue a different type of education on film sets, where she fostered a love for acting. Eventually dropping out of high school, Wong dedicated herself to performing and, at the age of 17, starred the first 2-strip Technicolor film, THE TOLL OF THE SEA (1922). While her career and popularity continued to grow with films like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924), the rampant racism of anti-miscegenation laws and the Chinese Exclusion Act stifled any potential growth beyond her stereotyped roles of “Madame Butterfly” or the “dragon lady.” To fight against typecasting, Wong created her own production company in 1924, but an ensuing lawsuit against her business partner led to the dissolution of the studio before it could get off the ground. Wong soon became frustrated with the lack of dynamic parts in Hollywood, so she moved to France to perform in theaters and act in British, French and German film productions. During the transition from silent to sound filmmaking, Wong made a starring appearance in PICCADILLY (1929) which was originally released in England as a silent film and was later re-released with sound to capitalize on the emerging technology.
Wong became fluent in both French and German to diversify her acting opportunities in sound films. Her work in Germany cultivated a friendship with Marlene Dietrich and the public drew comparisons between their androgynous fashion and untamed sexuality. Upon returning to Hollywood, SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) revitalized Wong’s career and appeared to be a turning point for more complex and nuanced roles. But despite the success of the film, Wong’s opportunities continued to be limited as she refused to exaggerate East Asian accents and mannerisms. She left Hollywood, once again, and documented her travels in China, a trip of personal and cultural significance. Later on in the 1950s, Wong turned to television with a starring role in THE GALLERY OF MADAME LIU-TSONG, which was written specifically for her. With the promise of a new medium to showcase her talents on the horizon, and a lead role of “Madame Liang” in the film adaptation of FLOWER DRUM SONG in the works, Wong passed away at age 56 before she could regain her stardom.
Anna May Wong’s legacy continues to be echoed by Asian and Asian American actors in Hollywood as they embark upon uncharted territory to tell diverse stories on screen. Wong broke new ground by entering the mainstream and defied the racial stereotypes that were ubiquitous in her time. Instead of contributing to Hollywood’s homogeneity of Asian archetypes, Anna May Wong set the precedent for future years of revisionist stories starring and created by Asian American storytellers.