The other day, while mindlessly swiping through stories on Instagram, I came across this post shared on Katie Chang’s story. 

I thought of the following quote:

“When I die, my epitaph should be: I died a thousand deaths. That was the story of my film career. Most of the time I played in mystery and intrigue stories. They didn’t know what to do with me at the end, so they killed me off.” was fascinating. I never knew about Anna May Wong or had even heard of her, so I wanted to research her story and tell it as best as I could here.

Anna May Wong was an American actress, considered to be the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star and the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition. She was born in Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents. Her career began in the silent film but the transition to sound film successfully. She did vaudeville, theater, radio, and television, but she always had to fight for her place in the entertainment industry.

Her life changed when her friend told her that Alla Nazimova (a soviet actress) was looking for 300 extras for The Red Lantern. The first step she took towards building her career in cinema. She managed to be an extra continually and left school early, knowing she was young enough to go back to school and pursue another career if she failed, so she gave herself ten years to become a successful actress. It didn’t take her long to find an acting job as more than an extra. Her first credited appearance was along with Lon Chaney. Then she got a role in The Thief of Bagdad along with Douglas Fairbanks. The success of the movie made her famous. Still, it also showed her what she was good for according to the industry: the mystifying Asian or the innocent and naïve young lady, both with a sprinkle of opioids and hidden dirty business laundromats.

“I’m Chinese by race and I love Chinese people and things. I love our traditions and even our ancient religions. I think there is poetry in our plural gods of the North Wind, the West Wind and the like. They are beautiful like the American Indian gods. My only regret is the limitation upon my work, as I can only play oriental roles, or sometimes Indian parts.” 

Anna May Wong

The prohibition of interracial romances affected not only Wong’s professional life but also her personal life. She couldn’t get a leading role next to a white man, not even if she put on the makeup to seem white. Produces preferred yellowface and save themselves the time and effort to find Asian actors and actresses to play their parts. Behind closed doors, she an affair with Tod Browning, the director of Freaks, which caused controversy because not only was it an interracial pair, but he was also 25 years her senior, and he was married.

Photo: Daughter of the Dragon (1931) with Sessue Hayakawa

Nonetheless, the same exoticism that kept her in a box opened doors for her too. In 1926, she and Norma Talmadge were responsible for the first shovelful of dirt where Grauman’s Chinese Theatre would be built. Charles Chaplin also attended the ceremony. Sadly, while her colleagues’ handprints were immortalized, hers were not.

“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

Tired of being othered and not given opportunities because of her Asianness, she left for Europe, where she became a sensation. Walter Benjamin wrote about her, photographers fought to get her picture, she was very photogenic, and her image was modern. Mayfair Mannequin Society even chose her as the world’s best-dressed woman.

She went back to Hollywood, under contract with Paramount. She got the lead role in Daughter of the Dragon, where she still played the mystifying Asian, and despite her being the protagonist, she only got $6,000. In contrast, her white colleague, someone who was on screen for about 20 minutes, got double the amount. After a series of disappointments, she decided to go to China to learn more about her culture, but she wasn’t well-received. Both the government and the press thought her roles in American cinema were embarrassing for the Chinese people with the stereotypical representation. To which she said, “When someone tries to establish themselves in a profession, you can’t choose the roles, you have to take what is offered.”

Anna May Wong, 1932

Anna May Wong later started doing B movies where she wasn’t playing her typical roles, but the movies’ budgets were so low, nobody gave them the time of day. 

After World War II, she got fewer and fewer jobs, which she considered a step backward in her career despite making history as the first-ever U.S. television show starring an Asian American series lead in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. 

In the last years of her life, she suffered from depression and took to alcohol. Her professional disappointments went with her painful personal life as her mother died in a hit and run, and her sister died by suicide. At only 56 years old, she passed away from a heart attack. A year prior, she got a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. 

Her story is briefly told in Ryan Murphy’s 2020 Netflix Original Series Hollywood, where she is portrayed by Michelle Krusiec, and in the PBS’s documentary Asian Americans.

“This is such a short life that nothing can matter very much either one way or another. I have learned not to struggle but to flow along with the tide. If I am to be rich and famous, that will be fine. If not, what do riches and fame count in the long run?”

Anna May Wong

Read also:
It’s Time To Address The Fetishization Of Asian Women
Gender Pay Inequity: Not A Thing Of The Past
Stop Sexualizing Women Of Color