As a film crew sets up shop in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, a little girl watches with rapt attention. Pestering the crew with questions about the movies and hoping to end up in one, she earned herself the nickname C.C.C., Curious Chinese Child. Years later, her loitering around would pay off when a casting agent in need of Chinese extras put her on screen and launched the career of one of the most successful silent actresses and one of the first Chinese American actresses in Hollywood: Anna May Wong.
Anna May Wong’s parents owned a laundromat in the original Los Angeles Chinatown established in 1880 when it barely had a population of 10,000 people. Wong Sam Sing, Anna May’s father, was a second generation Chinese American who grew up during the tail end of the Civil War, and after his mother’s death, moved back to southern China for several years. On returning to California as a young man, Wong Sam Sing married a Chinese American woman, Lee Gon Toy. Their first daughter, Lew Ying came in 1902, and three years later they gave birth to Liu Tsong, later known as Anna May Wong. With a son and another daughter following, the Wong’s ended up moving out of Chinatown to Figueroa Street, a middle class neighborhood a few blocks from Chinatown. As the only Asian American family in a neighborhood with Mexicans, Slavs, and Germans, the children faced intense bullying at their public school. Anna May and her sister transferred to a Presbyterian Chinese school, and the family continued their laundry business.
Born in Los Angeles as a third-generation Chinese American, school was not Anna May Wong’s top priority. She loved the “flickers” that played in Nickelodeons, and whatever spare change she earned would go straight to movie tickets. On more than once occasion she skipped school to go see the movies. After watching the movies and observing the film crews in her neighborhood, Wong said that as a child she would practice all the lines she’d heard to herself in the mirror for hours. By the time she was 11 years-old, Liu Tsong created her stage name Anna May and set out to become an actress.
“We were always thrilled when a motion picture company came down into Chinatown to film scenes for a picture,” she said in a 1926 interview. “I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared.”
In the silent film era LA’s Chinatown would suffice as China because of the Chinatwon Central Plaza opened in 1938 and was “designed by Hollywood set designers, and even possessed a film prop donated by legendary director Cecil B. Demille to give the mall a more “exotic” atmosphere.” After hanging around sets, Wong finally caught the eye of the casting director in need of extras and he put Wong on screen for as an uncredited lantern carrier in The Red Lantern. She was elated at her first movie role, being one of three prominently featured Chinese girls in the scene. However later when she went with some friends to see the movie, she found out she was cast alongsid 600 other girls, chosen randomly for her on screen part, and the quality was so poor she couldn’t tell which girl was her. But Anna May Wong wasn’t discouraged, and from there she eventually started getting small extra roles on set leading her to drop out of Los Angeles High School to focus on acting full-time.
When she was 17 years-old, Wong got her big break as the lead in The Toll of the Sea, the second movie to ever be shot in Technicolor. Based loosely on the opera Madame Butterly, Wong played the lead Lotus Flower, the forgotten wife of a handsome Englishman who in the end of the film leaves their son to him and throws herself off a cliff. Her appearance in The Toll of the Sea stood out immediately to critics for both her performance and appearance. The Technicolor showed off the bright costumes and scenery of “China” and her subtle facial expressions and physicality set her apart for an actress so young. The New York Times said, “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.”
Unfortunately, when she was seen again on screen, she often had to work through sub-par acting roles. Because of anti-miscegenation laws banning interracial couples, Wong could never kiss her on-screen lovers, and as a result her character usually died. This helpless “lotus girl” who never gets the handsome white hero, began for her in The Toll of the Sea when her character she sends her son away to live with his white father and commits suicide. On the other hand, she was also chosen to be the villain as the conniving “dragon lady” keeping the two white leads apart with her sexuality, drugs, or murderous plans for the woman as in The Thief of Baghdad, Forty Winks, and Old San Fransisco. Wong’s movie credits in the early part of her career played off this pattern for years, and eventually she left for Europe at two different times in her career.
“They were all so wonderful to me,” Wong said of her time in Europe. “You are admired abroad for your accomplishments and loved for yourself. That made me an individual, instead of a symbol of my race.”
In Europe, Anna May Wong lived in Berlin and found more opportunity in Europe than she ever did in America. Her career abroad flourished like many other American expats of color due to Europe’s more welcoming attitude for American artists. They would invite these “exotic” performers and celebrities to their parties so they could make themselves feel good for being so open minded. Under this subversive patronization Wong’s European career produced some of her most notable films, and she expanded her career by branching out to star in plays, German operas, and toured for a short time as a part of a vaudeville show.
On being told her American accent grated European audiences, she spent months in England taking voice lessons and perfected her posh alto-toned accent just in time for “talkies” to hit the scene. She met and worked with many of the best talent, including Leni Riefenstahl, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Eichberg, and had an alleged affair with Eric Maschwitz.Her most famous European work, Piccadilly was a British production directed by German Ewald Andre Dupont and takes place in a London nightclub where Anna May Wong’s Shosho works as a dishwasher. When the nightclub owner walks in on her dancing in the kitchen, she’s eventually hired as the club’s main performer and thus creates a performance that Variety said, “outshines the star” actress Gilda Gray.
After this last silent film in Europe, Anna May Wong eventually decided to give America another chance when Paramount offered her a contract in Hollywood.The initial role of Wong’s comeback was the standard Oriental dragon lady, but Wong was in it for the real prize: Shanghai Express. One of her first “talkie” movies, Shanghai Express garnered critical acclaim and won Oscars for Best Directing and Best Picture. Starring next to her friend Marlene Dietrich as the sidekick of color, Wong really stole the show. Wong, a prostitute and standard sidekick of color, holds her own against the allure of Dietrich with her own grace and power. The movie did not, however, fully launch Wong’s career out stereotypes and whitewashing, and she was once again passed over for a Chinese role. MGM told Wong she was “too Chinese” for other roles, and frustrated by the same Hollywood, Wong left for Europe a second time.
Rumors in 1935 that MGM was adapting Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth into a film and looking for actresses ende dup bringing Anna May Wong back to Hollywood. It was a book Wong liked, and the lead role of a Chinese woman with a backstory and character development would have been perfect for her. Jennifer Warner’s book “The Tool of the Sea” say that “in 1935 she tested several times for the producers of The Good Earth but was never seriously considered for the role.” The lead actor for the movie had already been cast as the white Paul Muni, so naturally the romantic lead could not be an Asian American woman. Instead MGM went with Luise Rainer — who won the Oscar for her portrayal of O-Lan. The studio did offer Wong part in the movie asLotus, a teahouse dancer who seduces the main character. In a meeting with MGM head Irving Thalberg, Wong famously declined:
“You’re asking me — with Chinese blood — to do the only unsympathetic role in a picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
Wong decided to leave America again, but this time, she would embrace being “too Chinese” and spent a year touring China. By the time she returned to Hollywood, Wong’s career started to fade like most other silent film stars. She made early appearances on television, and during World War II she worked as an activist for Chinese support with the United China Relief Fund, and toured with the USO.
“I had to go into retirement for the sake of my soul. I suddenly found no more pleasure in acting. My screen work became a weary and meaningless chore — and Hollywood life a bore!”
Finally in 1942 she retired from acting at age 42, with more than 60 film credits to her name. Back home in Los Angeles, Anna May Wong was able to throw herself into a more domestic life. Her entire career has been infamously mysterious about her love life, no alleged relationships ever confirmed. She’d said of her co-worker and childhood friend Philip Ahn whom tabloids tried to tie together, “It would be like marrying my brother.” In 1939 she bouth an apartment complex in Palisades and developed Moongate Apartments with her younger brother Richard. She decorated the landscaing to resemble the Taishan villages of her heritage, including small ponds and village exclusive plants. She hosted her world traveling friends, and worked in the LA Chinese community as a special guest to draw atendees. Then on a bright June 25, 1938, Anna May Wong was the first shovel in the grounds of Los Angeles Chinatwon’s Central Plaza, planting a ceremonial willow tree.
Fifty years after her death, Anna May Wong’s story lives on through number of biographers have told her life story, film festivals bring back retouched movies for audiences, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame. At the modest Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, one of her dresses stands as the only artifact of her mark on Hollywood. Though she was never the blockbuster star that most remember of the silent era, Anna May Wong is remembered for her legacy as one of the first Chinese Americans in film, and one of the most outspoken voices for representation and better roles for Asian Americans in Hollywood.
Anna May Wong’s hardships with the media sounds commonplace — and partially expected — for the 1930s, it’s not unheard of in 2016. Wong’s legacy for Asian Americans in Hollywood goes unknown mostly because the same barriers are still in place: stereotyped roles and whitewashed casting. For every Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None that show positive portrayals of Asian American families, there’s Matt Damon in the Great Wall and Scarlet Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi placed in Asian roles unnecessarily.“One of the aspects of Anna Mae Wong’s legacy in Hollywood is her perseverance and her ability to transcend the stereotypical roles that she was sometimes cast in,” Jacqueline Lyanga, the director of the American Film Institute said. “I think that this continues to be inspiring for actresses working today who face their own struggles in Hollywood.”
Anna May Wong’s story might have faded, but for she paved the way for upcoming Asian actresses in Hollywood. Because of her representation in the early 1930s, it was more believable for audiences to see this was a possibility for other Asian Americans. Lyanga said that this year’s AFI film festival wanted to feature Wong’s famed “Piccadilly” as a part of Cinema’s Legacy to honor her as a trailblazer in American film. She said that Anna May Wong deserves greater acknowledgment for her contributions that have inspired generations of filmmakers and actors of color.As young actresses begin their careers today in the same climate as Wong’s in the 30s, believing in better media representation gets more difficult. In the age of new media, with the YouTube, Vimeo, crowdsourcing, and easy access to cameras it’s much easier for Asian Americans to get into movies. Different means doesn’t make the same stereotypes and whitewashing disappear, but now actors can hold the media more accountable.
In 2016, the route to film works differently than the path Wong took, but it’s still representation that matters. The Hollywood of 2016 still has much to learn, as it did in 1930, but Anna May Wong’s work won’t stay in the silent film era. Current trailblazers like Constance Wu, Randall Park, Steven Yeun, Ming Na Wen, Alan Yang, and others are changing the face of media, and organizations like CAPE, CAAM, work to promote better Asian representation on screen. Ninety years after Anna May Wong began in Hollywood, perhaps now Hollywood will begin to change.
“I think that the challenge for everyone in Hollywood is to commit to presenting characters and stories that transcend Asian American stereotypes,” Lyanga said. “This starts with the scripts, the casting and the financing of productions. Hollywood can and should be just as diverse as the world in which we live.”