Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905 February 3, 1961) was an American actress, and is nowadays recognised as the first Chinese-American movie star. Born to second generation Chinese-American parents in Los Angeles with the birth name Wong Liu Tsong, Anna May quickly became enamoured with the movies and worked as an extra during her teenage years. Her first starring role came at the age of seventeen in The Toll of the Sea, one of the first Technicolor movies. The Hollywood Hype Machine got behind her, "She should be seen again, and often, on the big screen", and a notable supporting turn in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) brought her to international attention. There was, however, one problem. Her race.
Reluctant to feature an Asian-American actress as a female lead, Hollywood instead cast Anna May in supporting roles playing stereotypical Chinese characters, often of the Dragon Lady type. Part of the problem was The Hays Code, which forbade any depiction of "miscegenation". She could not be shown kissing a white actor, or be cast as his wife, girlfriend etc., even if he was playing an Asian character, and the only Asian leading man in Hollywood at the time was Sessue Hayakawa (With whom she starred in just one film, Daughter of the Dragon). This led to the biggest disappointment of her career, when she was passed over for the role of O-Lan in a film adaptation of The Good Earth, despite the newspapers hyping her up as a shoo-in for the part, because The Hays Code prevented her from being cast as the wife of the white Paul Muni, even though he was playing a Chinese character. She turned down the unsympathetic part of The Vamp Lotus, and took her career to Europe and Asia, where she was able to play the type of characters she wanted. She did return to America, playing some non-stereotypical characters in B-movies, some of which were actually written for her (Daughter of Shanghai for instance). Her health worsened in later years and she died of a heart attack just before she was to star in the film adaptation of Flower Drum Song.
Although she didn't have the career that was predicted in her youth, Anna May Wong is recognised today as a pioneer in terms of the way Asian-Americans were represented on the big screen. During a period where Asian-Americans were viewed as perpetually foreign by American society, Anna May's public image showed her as a hybrid between two cultures that society painted as impossibly different. In her life she was also a fashion icon, getting voted "World's Best Dressed Woman" by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York in 1934. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Peking University in 1932 - the first time it had ever been given to an actor.
She's depicted as one the "Four Ladies of Hollywood" on a 30-foot sculpture designed by Catherine Hardwicke at the western end of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, along with Dorothy Dandridge, Dolores del Río and Mae West. In 2021, the US government announced that she would be honored by having her face used as part of the American Women Quarters program, making her the first person of Asian descent to appear on American currency.
In popular culture:
- Her career was the subject of an Off-Broadway play China Doll by Elizabeth Wong (no relation).
- She is featured as a protagonist in the novel Delayed Rays of a Star (alongside Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl).
- She is portrayed by actress Doan Ly in the 2013 documentary In Her Own Words (in which scenes from her life are recreated using a different actress).
- She features as a recurring character in the miniseries Hollywood, played by Michelle Krusiec.
- In a 1980 episode ("Take Away") of the British TV series, The Professionals, a jerkass calls a visiting Hong Kong policewoman "Anna May Wong".
- The Toll of the Sea (1922) - Lotus Flower
- The Thief of Bagdad - Mongol Slave (her first Dragon Lady role)
- Peter Pan - Tiger Lily
- A Trip To Chinatown (1926) - Ohati
- Mr. Wu (1927) - Loo Song
- Across to Singapore (1928) - bar girl, No Name Given
- Piccadilly (1929) - Shosho
- The Flame of Love (1931) - Hai Tang
- Daughter of the Dragon (1931) - Princess Ling Moy (her final Dragon Lady role)
- Shanghai Express (1932) - Hui Fei
- Limehouse Blues (1934) - Tu Tuan
- Java Head (1934) - Princess Taou Yen (only film in which she got to kiss her white co-star)
- Dangerous To Know (1938) - Lan Ying
- Daughter of Shanghai (1938) - Lan Ying Lin (no relation to the above character)
- King of Chinatown (1939) - Dr Mary Ling
- Island of Lost Men (1939) - Kim Ling
- Bombs Over Burma (1942) - Lin Ying
- Lady From Chungking (1942) - Kwan Mei
- Impact (1949) - Su Lin
- The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951, DuMont TV series) - Madame Liu-Tsong (the first television show to feature an Asian-American)
- The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961) - As-hing (she died two days after her appearance)
Tropes associated with her works:
- '20s Bob Haircut: She adopted one in the 20s and embraced The Flapper look in order to show that she was just as American as anyone else. It seemed to work and she became a fashion icon.
- Americans Hate Tingle: Despite her popularity in America, the Chinese resented her for perpetuating negative stereotypes in the West. She herself disliked the roles that gave her this reputation, and moved to Europe to escape the typecasting. The Chinese government also lobbied to stop the studio from casting her in The Good Earth for this reason (as they were heavily involved in the pre-production process).
- The Big Damn Kiss: Java Head allowed her a kiss with John Loder, the only time she got to do so on-screen. It was allowed because the UK's censorship laws were less strict, and the characters were married. She had filmed a kiss for Piccadilly but it was cut.
- Bifauxnen: When she hung around with Marlene Dietrich in the 20s and 30s, the two were known for going out in top hats and tuxedos. Possibly as a nod to this, a sequence in Daughter of Shanghai has Anna May's character disguising herself as a man briefly.
- The Cast Showoff: She sang in many of her films as well, and would have sung in Flower Drum Song had she lived to star in it.
- Character Tics: Across her films, she had a way of angling her eyebrows to give a very striking stare.
- Chronically Killed Actor: A very specific example. Even when she wasn't playing a villain, her characters had a habit of killing themselves; usually with a concealed dagger.
- Contractual Obligation Project: The Daughter of the Dragon was a film she only did so she could also star in Shanghai Express. It would be the last time she played a Dragon Lady on the big screen.
- Creator Backlash:
"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?"
- The Daughter of the Dragon was the last straw for her, and she used her star power to criticise the lack of good parts for Chinese-American actors.
- Supposedly she wasn't too fond of Piccadilly, with reasons ranging from the kiss scene that was cut by the British censors to bad memories of an affair around the same time.
- Deleted Role: Her scenes were deleted from the film Why Girls Love Sailors.
- Executive Meddling: The Hays Code prevented her from playing O-Lan in The Good Earth because it prevented interracial romances on the big screen. This also meant that many of her romances had to be downplayed in films. Java Head was the only film to feature her kissing a white man.
- Fake Nationality:
- The Fashionista: She was often noted for the elaborate costumes she usually wore in her roles. She was voted as the World's Best Dressed Woman in 1934, and was a fashion icon for over a decade.
- Femme Fatalons: Long nails were part of her signature look, and helped in the Dragon Lady roles.
- Germans Love David Hasselhoff: She had a substantial fanbase in the UK, and made many films there to take advantage of the less strict censorship laws. It's probably the reason why her name is Cockney Rhyming Slang for "pong" (smell).
- Hairstyle Inertia: The 'Anna May Wong Cut' referred to her usual style of thick bangs stopping just above her eyebrows, sometimes with tendrils framing her jawline, and the rest of the hair in a bun. It was quite rare to see her forehead, although there were several roles that did (usually period pieces).
- Interchangeable Asian Cultures:
- Subverted with The Toll of the Sea, which was an adaptation of Madame Butterfly, but moved the location from Japan to China.
- Also defied with Dangerous to Know. Initially the director wanted her to use stereotypical Japanese mannerisms, despite playing a Chinese character. Anna May however used her own knowledge of Chinese style and gestures to make the character more authentic.
- Played straight in Piccadilly though, where her character does a Thai-inspired dance, keeps a Japanese dagger on the wall and has the Japanese name 'Shosho'. One could hand wave her character as being Japanese, but newspaper articles explicitly refer to her as Chinese.
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: Her favourite film was the B-movie Daughter of Shanghai - because she got to play an Action Survivor who is surprisingly competent for a heroine in the 1930s.
- Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow:
- She often had to date white men, because actresses in China were viewed as little more than prostitutes, and she was looked down on by Asian men.
- She starred in a few films with this subject matter - Piccadilly, The Toll of the Sea and Java Head (the only film in which she got to kiss her white co-star).
- The film Limehouse Blues has a Gender Flipped plot where it's a wealthy Eurasian crime lord trying to provide for a working class cockney girl - and Anna May's character advises him that it's not likely to work out.
- Missing Episode: Her films Bits of Life, The Fortieth Door, and The Chinese Parrot are considered lost, as is the series The Gallery of Madame Li-Tsong.
- Ms. Fanservice: Her stardom was in the Silent Era and The Pre-Code Era, so she showed quite a bit of skin in her films. Many of her first roles were as Beautiful Slave Girls. In some films - notably The Flame of Love, Piccadilly and Daughter of Shanghai - she has scenes where she dances in sexy costumes. Ironically averted in Shanghai Express - where she's playing a prostitute - as her outfits are fairly modest.
- Multiple Languages, Same Voice Actor: For Road to Dishonour she also dubbed herself in the French and German language versions.
- The Muse: She reportedly inspired many writers. Composer Constant Lambert wrote Eight Poems of Li Po in her honor. "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" was inspired by her too. The lead role in Daughter of Shanghai was eventually rewritten with her in mind.
- Non-Singing Voice: Her singing was dubbed for the 1934 musical Chu Chin Chow.
- Pop Culture Urban Legends: A rumor is that her role was heavily reduced in Across to Singapore because she was upstaging Joan Crawford. This is likely false, as Joan had not yet achieved her stardom (her breakout role Our Dancing Daughters was released the next year).
- Pseudo-Romantic Friendship: The novel Delayed Rays of a Star features her having these with Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl, which did happen in real life. (In the case of her friendship with Dietrich, it began after they starred together in Shanghai Express.) Because of Marlene's reputation, people were sure there was an affair involved, which Anna May frequently denied.
- Star-Making Role: The Toll of the Sea made her the first leading Asian-American actress in Hollywood. Hilariously during production she said "this movie will never reach the screen."
- Took the Bad Film Seriously: The Daughter of the Dragon was regarded as a pulpy B-movie but Anna May's performance was praised.
- Tuckerization: The titular role in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong was written specifically for her; her birth name was Wong Liu Tsong (according to the traditional Chinese name customs, the family name (Wong) usually comes first).
- Typecasting: As a Dragon Lady for most of her career. Sometimes as a Yamato Nadeshiko too.
- Vocal Evolution: As she got her start in silent films, she had a California accent. When she first appeared on the stage in London, she was mocked for it. As a result, she got vocal training at Cambridge to develop a more RP sounding accent.
- What Could Have Been:
- She founded her own production company in the 30s but it was dissolved due to disagreements with her business partner. She was hoping to adapt movies based on Chinese myths.
- She was offered the role of Lotus in The Good Earth but refused."If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you're asking me with Chinese blood to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."
- MGM refused to cast her in The Son-Daughter, claiming she was "too Chinese", and Helen Hayes played the role in Yellowface.
- She wanted to play the Asian blackmailer in The Letter but it went to Gale Sondergaard (the reason for turning her down was that she was "too young" at 35). She later got to play the role in a 1956 stage adaptation, also directed by William Wyler.