Do you know who the first Chinese American Film Star in Hollywood was? Anna May Wong was the first to break barriers for Asians in Hollywood. The camera liked Wong Liu Tsong, and for good reason. The teen became a Hollywood Star by the stage name, Anna May Wong. In addition to being an actress, she was also named the world’s best-dressed woman-a fashion icon.

She was not born in China but in Los Angeles’ Chinatown area. Her birth name, Liu Tsong means “frosted yellow willows.” Her father ran a laundry shop. Anna May Wong grew up speaking English and studied Chinese after school. When Wong was growing up, during the early Twentieth Century, it was a deeply racially heated period, especially for Americans of Asian descent. Anna May and her sister were taunted on the playground.  She loved to watch films, and how movies were made. She was a teen when she decided to become an actress full time and drop out of high school despite her parents’ objections. At the age of seventeen, Wong landed her breakthrough role. She had the leading role in, “The Toll of the Sea” in 1922. Anna May Wong started acting in the era of silent films.

Not only was she the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood, she was the first Asian American movie star based on the films that survived the silent movie era. Hollywood had used and continues to use white actors and actresses to portray Asians. During Anna May’s early career, the white actors and actresses performed in “yellowface.” In 1924, Douglas Fairbanks cast Wong in his highly successful “The Thief of Bagdad.” Anna May Wong then led in the sophisticated flapper style of the 1920s. This prolific actress appeared in over sixty movies. She also had a Television program, performed on stage and on the radio. Frustrated with the stereotypical villain roles she was given in Hollywood, Wong got work in Europe. She made movies in the capitals of Europe. She learned German and French to act in movies in Berlin and Paris.

Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong

The producers and picture companies in Hollywood continued to cast white women for lead roles as Chinese women. Finally, they offered Wong a supporting actress role as the moraless villain. She turned it down. Leaving a backwards Hollywood behind, she made her own film. She hired a cinematographer and made a silent documentary of her travels in China. During 1936, she filmed her documentary of her interacting in China. One scene was of her in Shanghai. The trip was filmed and would later be broadcast on television in the 1950s including narration from Anna May Wong. In 1937, Wong signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and her roles improved. She starred in “The daughter of Shanghai” and “Island of Lost Men.” Wong did not have to be the villain, but was portraying sympathetic roles with more depth.

Significant sacrifices were made by Wong to the war effort when WWII broke out. The Japanese Empire attacked the Chinese during the war. She auctioned off her movie costumes to raise money combined with her salary from both films Bombs over Burma (1942) and Lady from Chungking (1942) to the then United China Relief. Then, she suffered financial losses during the war. She was not getting acting roles in America. While Hollywood turned their back on her, she became depressed and drank. The war years were the lowest years of her life.

In the 1950s with acting opportunities in America again, Wong led a Television show of her cinematic work. It was the first time an Asian American Actress had done so. During her middle-aged years, she took any role in a movie that was offered. Finally, the prolific actress was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.  The next year, it ended sadly for the talented and stylish actress. Anna May Wong was an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver and died of a massive heart attack at the age of fifty-six.

Anna May Wong’s significance is as America’s first Chinese American Hollywood movie star, as a cultural advocate, and for her devotion to help the Chinese cause against the Japanese during WWII. Foremost, Wong was a barrier breaker in the racially and sexually segregated film industry. She persevered to act in sixty films. Many Asian female actresses had doors opened to them in Hollywood due to Anna May Wong’s persistence and accomplishments. To learn more, visit our website, JohnHutchingsMuseum.org.

Bibliography

Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Anna May Wong.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed

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“Anna May Wong (1905-1961), Hollywood screen goddess,” https://www.huffpost.com 

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IMDB. “Anna May Wong”Accessed April 2, 2021.

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0938923/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm.

Murray, Nickolas. “Anna May Wong” photograph. Smithsonian Institute’s National

Portrait Gallery. https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.99.45, 1937.